It was a big year for Volleyball Canada’s senior National Teams. With Paris 2024 fast approaching, our teams were fine-tuning their rosters and polishing their skills, preparing to make a final push toward the Olympics. Two Canadian volleyball teams (men’s indoor, women’s Paralympic) secured a spot in Paris, while a couple of other teams (women’s indoor, Brandie/Melissa in beach) put themselves in prime position to qualify. Here are several of the biggest storylines from 2023.
The senior men’s indoor team qualifies for Paris 2024
In late 2022, the senior men’s indoor team hired a new head coach by the name of Tuomas Sammelvuo. He was one of the most highly sought-after coaches on the international market. Originally from Finland, Sammelvuo brought with him a wealth of experience, having recently guided Russia to a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Canada hoped to achieve similar success with Sammelvuo at the helm.
But in their first taste of action in 2023, the team suffered through some growing pains. During the Volleyball Nations League (VNL) – in June and July – the Canadians never quite found their rhythm, finishing with a record of 3-9. Final result: 12th place.
On the bright side, the roster seemed to have some promising young talent. Former Manitoba Bison Luke Herr emerged as the starting setter, showing considerable poise. And former Stanford Cardinal Justin Lui provided some much-needed stability at the libero position. All told, the Canadians had plenty to look forward to, especially with veterans like outside Stephen Maar and opposite Arthur Szwarc taking their games to the next level.
Then came the Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT), a chance for the Canadians to punch their ticket to Paris 2024. The format was simple. If the Canadians finished top-two in their pool, they were off to the Olympics. Bing, bang, boom. But with powerhouses Poland and Argentina in the same pool, Canada would need to pull off a couple of upsets to make it happen.
The Canadians got off to a great start, knocking down the Netherlands and Argentina in the first couple of matches. Then they pushed Poland to the limit in a stunning five-setter, emerging as the surprise contender of the tournament. The Canadians finished the OQT with a record of 5-2, good enough for second in the pool, securing a spot at the upcoming Olympics. Bonjour, Paris.
Right now, Canada sits 12th in the world standings, with plenty of time to prepare for Paris 2024, which runs from July 26 to August 11. A lot of the athletes are playing in top leagues overseas, keeping themselves in top form, everywhere from Italy to Greece.
At the Olympics in Rio and Tokyo, Canada finished tied for fifth, bowing out in the quarterfinals each time. But in Paris, with Sammelvuo leading a roster balanced with youth and experience, the Canadians will look to crash the medal rounds.
Brandie and Melissa rise in the world beach rankings
Brandie Wilkerson and Melissa Humana-Paredes go way back. A decade ago, they played varsity volleyball together at York University. After that, their beach careers took them in different directions. Melissa established herself as one of the best defenders in the world, while Brandie developed into one of the top blockers.
At Tokyo 2021, both lost out in the quarterfinals, playing with different partners. When it came time to finalize the pairings for Paris 2024, it was obvious that Melissa and Brandie—top defender and blocker, long-time friends, each entering their prime—should join forces.
The duo had success early on. They started the 2023 beach season on a heater, putting together a string of top-five finishes, including a gold medal at the Challenge in Jurmala, Latvia. The Torontonians seemed to complement each other perfectly: Melissa, being a scrappy right-handed hitter, and Brandie, a big, strong lefty.
Then came their breakthrough moment. In July, at the Elite 16 in Montreal, Melissa/Brandie showed out. They beat the best teams in the world and clinched gold, all on home soil, in front of thousands of screaming, flag-waving Canadian fans. A pair of stars were born!
In 2023, Melissa/Brandie competed in 10 events, never falling out of the top five. They finished the year ranked fourth in the world standings, which is great news, because the top 17 ranked teams per gender – by the June 2024 cut-off – earn an automatic bid for the Olympics. Of course, it’s still early, but Melissa/Brandie have put themselves in a great position to qualify for Paris 2024— and even make a push for the podium.
The women’s sitting team qualifies for the 2024 Paris Paralympics
For years now, the Canadian women’s sitting volleyball team has been steadily improving, ascending the world rankings. At Rio 2016, their first Paralympic appearance, the team settled for a seventh-place finish, but in Tokyo, they barely missed out on the podium, falling to Brazil in the bronze medal match.
The Canadians came into 2023 on a high, having finished second at the most recent World Championships. Clearly, they could hang with the top teams in the world. Throughout 2023, the team traveled across the globe, playing tournaments in the Netherlands, training down in Brazil, hosting exhibition matches up in Edmonton. It all prepared them for a shot to qualify for the upcoming Games.
In November, the team arrived at the World Cup in Cairo, Egypt, where there was only one women’s Paralympic spot up for grabs. A bunch of other countries – including China, Brazil, the U.S. – had already qualified, meaning Canada had a great opportunity to reserve a spot at the 2024 Paralympics. And they did just that.
By drubbing Germany 3-0 in the semifinals, the Canadians were officially bound for Paris. In the final, the women lost 1-3 to China, but Heidi Peters and Sarah Melenka earned individual honors at the tournament, as the MVP and top setter, respectively.
The Canadians will spend the next little while prepping for the 2024 Paralympics, which take place between August 29 and September 7 at North Paris Arena. The event will feature eight teams from each gender. Right now, the Canadians are ranked third in the world, putting a medal – and the team’s best finish in Paralympic history – well within reach.
The senior women’s indoor team well-positioned to end Olympic drought
It’s been a while since the Canadian women’s indoor team qualified for the Olympics. In fact, the last time they earned a bid was more than 25 years ago, dating back to Atlanta 1996. (Their only other Olympic appearances: Montreal 1976 and Los Angeles 1984.)
So, when Canada entered the 2023 season ranked 14th in the world, they set their sights on one of the 12 available bids for Paris 2024, hoping to end their excruciating Olympic drought. The team had the personnel to make it happen, including head coach Shannon Winzer, a rising star on the international circuit; and team captain Alexa Gray, a dominant force at the net.
From May to June, Canada competed at the Volleyball Nations League. The Canadians finished the tournament with a record of 6-6, worthy of tenth place, putting the world on notice with some impressive performances. In the team’s five-set loss to Poland, Gray went beast mode, recording a jaw-dropping 37 points. Canada also pulled off a stunning five-set victory over Brazil, the reigning Olympic silver medallists. The Canadians were officially a team to watch.
It all came down to the Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) in September, where six Olympic bids were up for grabs. In the end, the Canadians finished with a record of 5-2, not quite enough to secure a spot in Paris. Qualification would have to wait. But during the tournament, Canada earned their biggest win in recent memory, securing a dramatic five-set victory over number-one ranked Turkey, proving they could conquer the global elite.
Canada finished the season ranked 11th in the world. So far, the Dominican Republic, Serbia, Turkey, Brazil, the United States and Poland have qualified for Paris 2024, based on their performances at the OQT. And France, who have an automatic bid. The five remaining slots will be given out to the top teams in the international rankings at the June 2024 deadline, with priority given to countries from continents without a representative.
The Canadians still have some work to do. But with a solid world ranking heading into 2024, and recent victories over Brazil and Turkey, this could be the quad when Canada finds its way to the Olympics.
Story by Mathew Silver
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