Porec, Croatia, June 20, 2017 - Chaim Schalk would be the first person to admit that his last tournament with Ben Saxton wasn’t their best. The Canadian pair failed to advance out of pool play in Rio in May. “We weren’t quite clicking,” said the 31-year-old Olympian from Red Deer, Alberta.
Just wait until Porec, though. On top of finishing third there last year, and placing fifth in 2015, Schalk will bring to Croatia a slew of new tricks that he learned from teaming up with the master: Ricardo Santos.
In early June, Schalk and 42-year-old Santos (the triple Olympic medallist from Brazil), were a last-minute entry at the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) tournament in New York City and – despite having just an hour of practice and a significant language barrier – quickly knocked out top-seeded Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena in the first round, and made it all the way to the semifinals just days after securing their U.S. residency/citizenship papers (an AVP requirement).
Hugs for Chaim Schalk (facing the camera) and Ricardo Santos during the American domestic event in New York City.
“I’m soaking it all in,” Schalk said after a tense three-setter to qualify for the semis in New York. He then sat down to explain everything from the literal – and literary – origin of his name (pronounced KAIM) to what he’s learned from Ricardo.
QUESTION - Given the way you spell your name, do you get the Hebrew pronunciation (HY-yim), a lot?
CHAIM SCHALK - Yeah, because it’s a Jewish name. It means life. I think it’s great. I have no Jewish background, but my mom’s favorite author was Chaim Potok and she liked the meaning; I guess I had a lot of life.
QUESTION - It was really intriguing to see you and Ricardo out there. How did you get together?
CS -I played against him many times on the World Tour so we knew each other a little bit. We chatted. He said he just got cleared to play. And I just got cleared to play. I’m a dual citizen but I still had to get clearance this year.
QUESTION - Are you a dual citizen by marriage?
CS - My mom’s American so I was born a dual citizen. But I only tried to get the paperwork done before marrying Lane [Carico]. I have two passports now and I’m good to go for everything. It’s quite handy.
Chaim Schalk and Lane Carico will be playing in the Porec Major Main Draws with Canadian Ben Saxton and American Lauren Fendrick, respectively.
QUESTION - So your FIVB partner Ben Saxton is not playing on the AVP because of his Canadian citizenship?
CS - Right, he can’t – unless he has a green card. That’s the way it is. But he’s happy that I’m playing more and getting better.
QUESTION - Are you planning to play with Ricardo on the whole AVP tour?
CS - When it doesn’t conflict with the FIVB 4- and 5-star events. Playing with Ben is still my priority, so Ben and I will play in Porec (June 27-July 2), Gstaad (July 4-9), Poland (July 19-23), the World Championships (in Vienna, July 28-Aug 6), then I’ll jump in with Ricardo for the rest of the AVPs: Manhattan Beach and Chicago.
QUESTION - You and Ben have had good results in Porec, Croatia. What is it about that city?
CS - It’s really hot. Ben and I are Canadian but we do well in the heat for some reason. It’s weird. I don’t know why. In Porec, there are so many fans and we feed off the energy. Sometimes you just have a good feel for the people, the place, the food, and you just feel comfortable. And Porec is a good one for us.
QUESTION - What new insight do you hope to bring to Porec after playing with Ricardo?
CS - Momentum: when to speed up the tempo of play, when to slow it down, when to try to change the momentum. Tactical things he told me: when to serve a certain spot, when to switch to the other side, or the different areas where guys aren’t going to be happy receiving a ball. It’s interesting, because of the language barrier I don’t understand everything he says so we communicate visually and by drawing things. But I’m taking it all in. It’s really fun to learn from someone with Ricardo’s status. It’s helping my game evolve.
QUESTION - Tell me about that first practice with Ricardo in New York.
CS - We landed about the same time on Wednesday afternoon – from Florida and L.A. We hit around for about an hour and played the qualifiers the next day, four games. Ricardo and I both play a simple game, I think, so it doesn’t take a lot of training to be able to play at a high level. Ricardo and Ben are actually kind of similar. They’re both big boys [2 meters, or 6-foot-7] and take the same type of set. I play right side with both. It’s been really simple so far. So far, it’s working.
With the New York City skyline in the background, Ricardo Santos (left) and Chaim Schalk pose for a photograph
QUESTION - Do you remember the first time you ever saw Ricardo play?
CS - I was about 10 years old, playing indoor volleyball, and I remember watching Ricardo and Jose Loiola on TV in Canada. I thought it was super cool. It was part of the reason I got into beach volleyball. Canadians Mark Heese and John Child were playing at a high level at that time, too. But Ricardo was obviously one of the best.
QUESTION You played at age 10?
CS - In grade six I started playing seriously. At home, we had a beach court. I have four brothers and I’m fourth youngest. I wasn’t allowed to play with my older brothers till I got good enough. That was a big thing for them, tough love. So my whole life I’ve been trying to prove myself.
QUESTION - Eventually you became an Olympian, so HA!
CS - Yeah, it worked out.
QUESTION - Have you and Ben committed to stay together for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
CS - Yeah, we know we’re a strong team. We’ve been the best Canadian team for the last four years. I think the longer you go with a guy, the more you learn and the more you’ll be able to play in tough situations. Even though our last tournament wasn’t good at all, we always seem to perform really well at the big ones. Definitely, we’re focusing on doing well in Porec and taking the momentum forward. We want to win a tournament, too. But this year the big focus is to give ourselves a chance at the World Championships. We have all the tools. We honestly think if we can work hard and play our best, we can beat everybody. But we also have things that we need to work on.
QUESTION - Is anyone helping you fine-tune your game?
CS - Yes, we have a new coach, Evie Matthews. He’s bringing new ideas, trying to get us to see the court better, using shots more. We’re a really physical team, so not just relying in hitting, hitting, hitting, hitting – but changing it up a bit just to kind of frustrate the other team and to give yourself options when things aren’t going well.
QUESTION - Is there anything else you learned from Ricardo in your AVP partnership that you can take back to the FIVB tour with Ben?
CS - If I’m feeling tired and I’m getting served and served, Ricardo will give me a couple of small things to do that will help me out. Then, all of a sudden, the momentum changes and you start to feel good about your side-out game and they might start to serve the other guy. That’s one of the gems that I’ve learned from Ricardo. When one guy’s struggling, the other guy needs to help him and tell him what’s going to work.
Enjoying a break are Canadians Ben Saxton (left) and Chaim Schalk