From World League floor mopper in 2007 to helping Canada reach the Olympic Games, TJ Sanders’ volleyball career has seen many major milestones since he joined the senior team in 2013.
A few memories stand out for the setter from London, Ontario, including qualifying for the Rio Olympics after the team’s 24-year absence. “We took the long, difficult route, but after an embarrassing defeat to Cuba, we turned it around and put Volleyball Canada back into the Olympics after a long hiatus,” says Sanders. The team finished fifth in Rio.
Other significant moments for Sanders include winning the World League bronze medal in 2017, and again qualifying for the Olympics while he was coming back from a major injury that sidelined the setter in 2018.
“The bronze medal solidified us as one of the top teams in the world. We were no longer just hoping to compete against top teams, but to win every match we played and medal at every competition we went to,” he says. “The final memory would be the journey back from my injury to be able to qualify and compete at the Tokyo Olympics.”
Sanders was also part of Canada’s best-ever seventh place finish at the FIVB World Championships in 2014 and helped Canada to a bronze medal at the Pan American Games in Toronto in 2015 as well as a gold medal at the NORCECA Continental Championship.
Sanders began his pro career in 2014 and has played in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland, and Turkey. Highlights from his career overseas include being Swiss Champions in 2015 with PV Lugano, finishing second in the Turkish Championship with Arkas Spor Izmir in 2017, and winning the Polish Cup with Trefl Gdańsk in 2018.
There are many people who have had an impact on his career over the years. “I would like to thank all the coaches I had before my career with Team Canada started. Without them, I would not have had the opportunity or the passion to pursue this game,” he explains.
“I would like to thank Dan Lewis who, during a World League match in 2007 invited me (a 14-year-old kid) to warm up with him, sparking a passion for the game that would last the entirety of my career. I would like to thank (then Team Canada head coach) Glenn Hoag for taking a risk and giving this young, short kid a shot. I thank Stephane Antiga (also former head coach) for investing in me and guiding me to the highest level in the world.”
Sanders also recognizes the hard work of the staff behind the scenes, including those who helped him come back from injury before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“Thank you to all the staff of Volleyball Canada that work tirelessly to give us the opportunity to compete and focus solely on performing. Thank you to all my teammates over the years who I was lucky enough to battle alongside with. There are many people who impacted my career and life that I don’t have space to mention here, but know that I appreciate and acknowledge your time, energy, and heart put into helping me live my dream, you know who you are!”
On the personal side, he credits his sister Sam for introducing him to the sport and is grateful for the unwavering support of his parents, Greg and Cyndy, and his partner Kyjsa Brkich, who has been “a voice of reason” especially during his comeback from injury.
Sanders’ volleyball journey is far from over, he currently lives and works in Puvirnituq, Nunavik, and is part of a team that runs a psychosocial sports-based intervention program in 11 communities throughout Nunavik. This includes conducting volleyball camps, events, and tournaments both in the North and the South. “As my career comes to an end, my goal is to mesh high performance with everything else that is incredible about this game and the people in it.”
His advice to up-and-coming athletes: “Do not underestimate the importance of a strong, healthy mindset. That starts by asking a lot of questions and doesn’t end when you leave the court. Also, work on your ability to be present. It will not only help you improve your game and elevate your progress, but it also makes the experience even better. Turn your disadvantages into advantages. I had many, many advantages, but I was also able to make a career while being a short kid who didn’t jump very well. Find your solution.”
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