The Hague, The Netherlands, June 14, 2017 - Sarah Pavan is one of the tallest and busiest players in the game. The 6-foot-5 Canadian spends fall and winter playing indoor volleyball professionally, then switches to the international beach volleyball tours in the summer.
She’s also proven to be a quick study. After a superlative indoor career at the University of Nebraska, Pavan only picked up beach volleyball at age 26 because she wanted to make an Olympic team.
“It was kind of a desperation move,” she said. (The Canadian women’s indoor team hasn’t qualified for the Games since 1996.)
Three years later, Pavan made her Olympic debut in Rio and placed fifth with Heather Bansley. Since then, Pavan is making a mark on the FIVB World Tour with her new partner, Melissa Humana-Paredes. The duo placed second at the 4-star event in Rio in May, and ninth in Moscow in early June.
Sarah Pavan (left) and Melissa Humana-Paredes after netting silver in Rio in mid-May at the FIVB World Tour event.
Last weekend, at the American domestic stop in New York City on the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) circuit, the 30-year-old Hermosa Beach, California, transplant explained how, why, and what’s next.
QUESTION - You and Melissa are proving to be a force. What’s going on there?
SARAH PAVAN - We both have very high expectations of ourselves and of our team. This is just the baseline for us. We know we can only get better and it makes me so excited. I love stepping on the court with somebody who is going to give everything they have for our team to be successful. It’s interesting to see how we get to that point coming from two completely different personalities.
QUESTION - Describe her personality.
SP - Melissa is honestly the sweetest person. She’s friends with everybody. And she doesn’t dwell on things that don’t go right, whereas I overthink and can focus on anything to the point of exhaustion. She’s very good at: see the goal, identify the problem, move on. I need to incorporate that more into my life.
QUESTION - What part of your beach game are you working on now?
SP - I’m a perfectionist – which is dangerous in sports. I always think every skill can be a little sharper. I’m also learning how to take on a new role. In my last partnership, I was the new one. I didn’t have any experience. With Melissa, she’s been playing the sport a lot longer than me, but as far as life experience, and experience being a professional – I’m able to bring more of that to the table. It’s nice – and challenging – to see that role evolve.
QUESTION - How do you finesse the transitions between the indoor game and the beach?
SP - I definitely wouldn’t say it’s seamless. Indoors, I’m an opposite so my job is scoring points, hitting, and blocking. On the beach, I have to incorporate passing and setting back into my life. At first, it was tough going back and forth. But it’s gotten easier. The transition phases are much shorter now.
QUESTION - Since you’re away all fall and winter, how much time do you train with Melissa?
SP - We get off to a later start than most teams, but she knows that my indoor career is not going to last forever. We know we just have to be patient and things will get better tournament by tournament. After the stop in The Hague, we’re going to play the remainder of the 4- and 5-stars and the world championships, and we’ll have to see if we qualify for the World Tour final.
QUESTION - In the 20 years you’ve been playing volleyball, any setbacks?
SP - In March 2016, I snapped my [second right] toe in half during an FIVB beach tournament in Rio. I was feeling so great up to that point. I was so excited for the point that our team was at. Then, to have to sit for nine weeks – in the Olympic year – I mean, it’s not as serious as an ACL tear. But for somebody who’s never been injured? I couldn’t ride a bike because of the pressure. I couldn’t swim because it was so detached that it would flop around. I didn’t know how to deal with it because I never had to before.
QUESTION - How did it happen?
SP - At the beginning of the second set (in the quarterfinals), we were losing like 5-1, to Canada, Kristina May and Jamie Broder. Heather passed a ball sideways. I went to pursue it and she didn’t move. I ran right into her. I thought my teeth fell out because I hit my face so hard. I didn’t know it, but my toe snapped in half as I fell. On the side switch, I looked down and my toe was sideways, laying over my other toes. I snapped it into place and kept playing. I thought it just dislocated and it’ll be fine tomorrow. It wasn’t fine tomorrow. We won the match but we had to pull out of the tournament, and that was tough. The super-competitive part of me was like, ‘We have a chance to medal! I want to keep going!’ And couldn’t.
QUESTION - How did you cope?
SP - My husband, Adam Schulz, was a saint. He was an indoor volleyball player in Canada at McMaster University. Now he’s the technological director for the AVP Academy, a grassroots programme to get kids into the professional beach volleyball frame of mind before they get to college.
QUESTION - How’s the toe now?
SP - It doesn’t move at all. Zero range of motion. But it’s a toe. It’s nothing. People have way bigger problems than that.
QUESTION - Does it affect your play?
SP - More in the transition between beach and indoor. It’s awful for about a week, then it adapts.
QUESTION - Proudest moment of your career?
SP - Representing my country in the Olympics – but it’s one of those things. You have this goal your whole life, you accomplish it, and then all of a sudden it’s not good enough. My goal forever was just to go to the Olympics and I thought that I would be happy with that. When we finished fifth, I was like: That wasn’t good enough! I wanted to be on the podium.
Sarah Pavan (left) of Canada versus Laura Ludwig of Germany in the Rio 2016 Olympic quarter-final match.
QUESTION - You lost to the German team that won the gold medal, right?
SP - Yeah, but we had beaten them pretty much every time we had ever played them before that. So that also stunk. Goals are funny things. You reach them and instead of taking time to appreciate what you’ve accomplished, it’s like: Well, onto the next one. But if I’m honest with myself, that was the highlight of my athletic career.