There are no beach volleyball courts in Iqaluit on the Arctic shores of Frobisher Bay, and the coach lives in Saskatchewan, but the players aren’t complaining about any of that.
The women’s team of Shawna Kyak and Talia Grant and the men’s team of Ian McDonald and Aiden Anawak are the first from Nunavut to ever compete in beach volleyball at the Canada Summer Games, which began Saturday in Ontario’s Niagara Region.
“We have the opportunity to represent Nunavut — it’s such an honor,” Kyak said. “It’s indescribable how proud I am,” added Grant.
They know they’ll be considered underdogs on the sand courts when the beach volleyball competition gets underway Monday. But they also know they’ve done everything they possibly can to prepare, and they’re feeling pretty good about it all. Well, for the most part.
“Talia is as sunburned as I’ve ever seen anyone in my life,” coach Rob Tomyn said. The team spent the last few weeks training in Kelowna, BC, where it was 30C hotter than it was at home.
Certainly everything else they’ve done on their journey to Niagara — from raising the nets on the indoor court in the school gym in Iqaluit to playing two-on-six volleyball games to simulate the extra effort and intensity of the beach game — has left them excited to compete. They’ve spent more than three weeks this summer in training camps in Halifax and Kelowna, getting used to playing in the sand and, even more so, the heat.
When they first started talking about playing beach volleyball, the players, who all live in Iqaluit, recalled “a lot of surprised faces” in the community.
“Wow, really?” Kyak said she often heard. “Where are you going to practice?”
It was a natural question. There is a beach a few kilometers outside Iqaluit and the intrepid players did try to train there back in 2019 when this enterprise first started. But it’s “not playable — filled with nails, wood and glass,” said Kyak, 21, who’s also the setter on the women’s indoor volleyball team.
Icy temperatures and wind coming off the Arctic waters also didn’t exactly make for the music-pumping, fun vibe of a typical beach volleyball scene. “I mean, it’s good to practice in the wind, but it was cold,” said Grant, 23, who is in her last year of a nursing degree at Nunavut Arctic College.
But raised eyebrows quickly turned to pride and excitement when people learned how much effort these athletes have been putting into this and the opportunities they’re getting out of it, their coach said.
When Team Nunavut posted a picture from a pre-Canada Games tournament in Kamloops, BC two weeks ago, it quickly got more than 50 shares on social media, Grant said. That’s big traction in a territory so sparsely populated that every single person could easily attend the same Blue Jays home game.
It was the beach volleyball game itself, not the lure of southern sand courts, that first drew McDonald to the men’s team.
“I’m a ball hog, and I know you get a lot of touches in the beach,” he said.
Anawak was also attracted to the constant action: “There’s more connection between you and your partner, and it’s a much more physical game. There’s way more to learn, which is awesome.”
Both players are 22, take environmental technology at Nunavut Arctic College and in the summer, when they’re not playing sports, they can be found hunting for seals.
“We’ve been looking at the temperatures at home. It’s like five degrees and we’re playing in 35-degree weather,” Anawak said. “We’re really pushing our bodies and training our minds to be able to play in this heat and stuff.”
Anawak laughed when asked if they sometimes feel a bit like a summer version of the Jamaican bobsled story. “I was just thinking about that earlier today,” he said.
“That doesn’t make me coach John Candy, does it?” said Tomyn, referring to “Cool Runnings,” the 1993 movie (very) loosely based on the Jamaican bobsled team’s debut at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
Both teams play Monday openers against Prince Edward Island, followed by the Yukon for the women and Saskatchewan for the men.
“I’m not feeling like we’re coming in behind the eight-ball against these teams at all in terms of amount of hours of training,” Tomyn said. “We’re not here to make any excuses … we’re prepared.”
Whatever the results, McDonald hopes people take something away from their games: “Just to think that anything is possible, because who would have ever thought Nunavut would play beach volleyball? Like ever?”
“But obviously I’m competitive, so if we get a few wins in that’d be great,” he added.
“They’re trailblazers,” said Team Nunavut’s chief de mission, Jeff Seeteenak, “and they’ve already won just by making it here.”
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