Nunavut’s 1st beach volleyball team hits the sand at the Canada Summer Games

Whenever Ian McDonald tells someone he plays beach volleyball for Nunavut, they tend to reference the Jamaican bobsled team from the 1993 film Cool Runnings.

“Honestly, it’s pretty accurate — except, like, kind of the opposite,” McDonald, 22, told As It Happens guest host Paul Hunter.

“We’re coming from the North, playing in hot [weather]whereas they came from, like, the hot Jamaica and played ice sports.”

McDonald is one of four athletes representing Nunavut in beach volleyball for the first time at the Canada Summer Games in Niagara, Ont., along with his men’s team partner Aiden Anawak, and women’s team members Shawna Kyak and Talia Grant.

“A lot of people at home are extremely surprised because we don’t have any beaches to play on, and nobody ever thought Nunavut would have a beach volleyball team,” he said.

“Everyone’s asking where we train or how we train, because they still think we live in ice and snow during the summer, you know?”

From a gym in Iqaluit, to the hot sands of BC

While Nunavut is certainly not winter and ice all the time, it is significantly cooler than, say, Ontario in August. And while there is a beach outside of Iqaluit, it doesn’t have ideal conditions for the game.

“We tried playing on our beach, but it was a little dangerous because it’s kind of a gathering spot for people who like to have bonfires and whatnot,” McDonald said. “So there’s, like, wood all over the sand, nails all over the sand, and glass.”

That means the team, which formed in 2019, has mostly been practicing inside a gym in Iqaluit.

But in preparation for the Games, they spent their summer traveling and training in the sand — first a week in Halifax, then two-and-a-half weeks in Kelowna, BC

Grant, left, and Kyak, right, are representing Nunavut in women’s beach volleyball at the 2022 Canada Summer Games in Niagara, Ont. (Submitted by Rob Tomyn)

“It was very difficult at first, like running in the sand, not to mention the sun, like the heat,” said Kyak, 21, of the women’s team. “My feet [took] a big toll at first. The sun, it’s not very forgiving.”

But they kept at it, Kyak says, and now she’s feeling quite comfortable on the sand.

She says she hopes to keep playing beach volleyball when the Games are over. She’s also representing her territory at the Summer Games again next week in indoor volleyball.

In fact, the whole team, including assistant coach Jonah Oolayou, is familiar with indoor volleyball, a six-on-six game that’s very popular in the Canadian territories. But the young athletes had to work hard to transition to the closer-contact, two-on-two beach volleyball.

“I think they’re well prepared. They’ve done a lot of prep work prior to the games and, you know, they’re ready to go,” Oolayou said.

“[Nobody’s] ever seen Nunavut at these beach courts at these Canada Games, so there’s a lot of attention around our kids right now.”

‘They’re there to fight’

So far, both teams have had their ups and downs.

The women’s team lost to PEI on Monday before turning it around and defeating Yukon. They started strong against Newfoundland and Labrador on Tuesday, winning their first set, but losing the overall match.

The men’s team lost to PEI and Saskatchewan on Monday, then turned it around for their victory on Tuesday, defeating Yukon. They’re taking on the Northwest Territories on Tuesday night, and Oolayou says they have a good shot of coming out on top among the three territories.

But whatever happens, he’s honored to be representing Nunavut on the national stage.

“Whatever sport that is, we’re proud of our athletes because they’re out there and they’re there to fight,” he said.

McDonald agrees, and he has a message for the folks back home: “Put your mind to it, do your best, and … anything is possible.”

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Ian McDonald produced by Samraweet Yohannes.

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