'No one can help you with that except your partner'
Melissa Humana-Paredes explains the importance of teamwork in beach volleyball
Melissa Humana-Paredes grew up with a volleyball in her hand. Her father, Hernan Humaña, was a star for Chile's national volleyball team in the 1970s and early '80s, and coached Canada's only Olympic medal-winning volleyball team at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
Now, at 26, Humana-Paredes is one half of one of the top-ranked women's beach volleyball duos in the world. In 2017, she was voted Most Improved Player on the FIVB pro beach volleyball tour, and the tour's best setter in 2018.
In her episode of Inside an Athlete's Head, Humana-Paredes talks about how she tries to honour the sacrifices made by her parents — who came to Canada as refugees from Chile — every time she steps on the court.
Pressure is a constant for a professional athlete. What do you off the court to deal with that pressure?
There are a lot of resources: sports psychologists, teammates, coaches. But, when I'm off the court, I kind of like to remove myself from it. I have a very volleyball-centric family, but when we get together, we don't talk about volleyball. I find other interests. When you're just surrounded by the sport, it can be overwhelming. For me, I really enjoy live music and concerts. Just going and experiencing someone else's talent, and living through that, and letting that take over.
Do you remember the first time you really felt pressure as an athlete?
I think the first time I really felt pressure was the  Under 21 World Championship in Halifax. The year before that, my partner and I ended up getting the silver medal, just out of nowhere. We hadn't been [considered] a threat for a podium finish, and that year we just played so freely and finished with a silver medal. The following year, I had a new partner, and on paper we were better. But that was the first time I experienced what it meant to play with external pressure and raised expectations. I had medaled the year before, I had a new partner, we were supposed to be better, we were at home, and people expected another medal. That was the first time I noticed how external expectations can get to you. We ended up finishing fifth in that tournament.
In the indoor game, when you start young, they put you in a position that works to your strengths, 'You're a setter, you're a blocker.' In beach volleyball, you have to be good at everything.- Melissa Humana-Paredes
Who is the person in your life you turn to when you feel like you need advice or find yourself struggling on the court?
My dad is the first person that I think of, not only because he's my dad, but because he was an Olympic volleyball coach. He knows the game. He was my very first coach. He's seen me grow, he knows my strengths, my weaknesses, where I'm at. He kind of knows everything, and he has my best interests at heart. He's not gonna feed my ego and pat me on the back. He's gonna be able to give me critical feedback when I ask for it, or even when I don't ask for it.
Would it be correct to assume you started playing volleyball on a court and then moved to the beach?
You are incorrect, actually! I started playing on the beach, which is not common. And that has to do with my dad. When he came to Canada, he did coach indoor volleyball, but then he coached Mark Heese and John Child, the beach volleyball team that won a medal in 1996, so as a child, I was always on the beach.
I started with beach volleyball first, and that wasn't a normal path. But it made me a better indoor player. It forced me to be a more well-rounded player who could play in many different positions. In the indoor game, when you start young, they put you in a position that works to your strengths, 'You're a setter, you're a blocker.' In beach volleyball, you have to be good at everything.
What are the differences, beyond the obvious, between beach volleyball and traditional volleyball?
We aren't allowed substitutions, we aren't allowed coaches [on the sidelines], so you're out there on your own, just two of you, fending for yourselves against a team that has scouted you and is exploiting your weaknesses. You're out there, vulnerable, having to deal with external elements — sand, sun, wind — trying to beat a team that knows your weaknesses, and you have to figure it out, and no one can help you with that except your partner. The mental side of that is extremely taxing. The partnership is the most important part of the beach volleyball game. At this level, everyone has the talent, everyone has the skills, but to be able to manage your partner who is your teammate, your coach, your confidant, your support, in those moments, is super important.
How do those partnerships get made? Are they made for you? Do you pick your partner? Is it like speed dating?
It really depends on the country. There are countries and federations where you don't have a choice. They just go 'OK, you, play with her' and that's the end of it. It works for some, it doesn't work for others. Some federations allow the athletes to choose. In Canada, you choose who you want to play with, but we don't have a super deep pool. You don't have a lot of people to pick from in the way Brazilians would or Americans would. You kind of know who you want to play with, and who would complement you, and who you get along with. I was very lucky with my partnership with Sarah. She asked me to play with her, and I, obviously, knew everything about her. And she had watched me enough, I guess, to see me being a good fit for her. I idolized her, so it was a no-brainer to say yes.
What's the state of beach volleyball right now?
In the world or in Canada?
Let's say both.
The sport, in Canada, has exploded, at least within the volleyball community. On the women's side, we have the top two teams in the world. It is a shock to everyone when they find out that the number one and number two teams* in the world are from Canada a 'winter country...' And it's a surprise to Canadians to find out that we're an incredible beach volleyball country. Aside from that medal in 1996 and that generation, there's just been sort of a hiatus of volleyball in Canada: not being able to qualify for the Olympics, qualifying, but not being able to produce results.
Globally, the sport of beach volleyball is not, unfortunately. There's very little financial support to keep the sport alive and to help run tournaments and help grow the sport. Every year, we see tournaments being cancelled. It's really sad to see as a lover of the sport, an athlete in the sport. It's my job, it's my livelihood, it's my passion, it's my love. And it blows all of our minds because it's such a beautiful sport. It's so incredibly exciting, and one of the most watched sports in the Olympics. It's so marketable. It's also one of the few sports that pays men and women equally. Because it's one of the few sports that supports men and women equally, we need to question why it's not getting more support.
What does the sport need to thrive on a global level?
It needs exposure. It needs to be on TV. People need to be able to see it, not just every four years when it's on the Olympics. And that will help garner the promotion and attention that it deserves. Once that exposure comes, it's hard not to love this sport.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
* As of publication, the two Canadian women's teams had dropped to third and seventh.
Season 2 of Inside an Athletes Head now streaming on CBC Gem.