Jamie Broder of Victoria and Kristina Valjas of Toronto have written their names large in the sand of the FIVB World Tour, which is the NHL of beach volleyball.
The Canadian pair spiked and dug their way to a major career breakout achievement Sunday by winning the China Open in Fuzhou, the first qualifier for the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.
It is the first medal Canada has won in the history of the women’s FIVB.
“For it to be the first medal for Canada, and for that first to be a gold, makes it huge for us. It’s overwhelming and feels surreal,” said Broder, by phone, after arriving in Toronto on Monday.
“We went in with a really positive mindset. China is not the easiest place to play. We continued to believe in each other and pushed through. We couldn’t have asked for a better start to Olympic qualifying. It’s going to be such a tight race to qualify for Rio.”
Broder, a standout in both volleyball and track hurdles at Claremont Secondary, and Valjas went 7-0 through the tournament. The highlight was the 28-26, 14-21, 15-13 semifinal victory over the U.S. team comprised of three-time Athens, Beijing, London Olympic gold-medallist Kerri Walsh and 2012 London Olympic silver-medallist April Ross.
“That was pretty incredible. Those are two athletes we have looked up to and followed in our careers,” said Broder, who went from Claremont to star with the Vancouver Island University Mariners before winning two CIS titles with the UBC Thunderbirds.
Broder and Valjas defeated Chantal Laboureur and Julia Sude of Germany 21-17, 23-21 in the final.
Broder and Valjas have been pounding the sand the last few years, with a fifth-place last fall in the FIVB Parana Open in Argentina and four FIVB top-10 finishes in 2013, including three in a row to close out that year.
“Those are all the experiences we have built on to reach this [breakthrough],” said Broder.
Broder is part of a golden era of Island volleyball that includes Canadian captain Fred Winters out of Claremont and national-team setter Josh Howatson from Oak Bay, Shanice Marcelle from Spectrum and Maverick Hatch from G.P. Vanier all in the Olympic hunt for Rio on either the hardwood or sand. Olympian Martin Reader from Comox represented Canada on the sand at London 2012.
“That’s quite a good crop from the Island,” said Broder.
“It’s because of the coaches and past athletes from the Island volleyball community who give back.”