Melissa Humana-Paredes-Brandie Wilkerson-Montreal Elite16
Melissa Humana-Paredes and Brandie Wilkerson celebrate with the fans at the Montreal Elite16/Volleyball World photo

CHICAGO — That Canadian Olympians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Brandie Wilkerson have become familiar faces on the AVP, America’s professional beach volleyball series. It been a win-win situation for both.

The AVP gets one of the world’s best women’s teams gracing its tournaments, raising the overall level of competition, and giving folks in Canada a compelling reason to follow a cash-strapped tour that desperately needs more fans.

Accordingly, there should be a good turnout for the annual AVP Gold Series Chicago Open on Oak Street Beach when the tournament begins Friday on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Melissa and Brandie, as they are known on the FIVB’s awkwardly named Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour, benefit from having more events available to them with easier travel, but ones that still afford world-class opposition. They can pick and choose a schedule that can help maximize their potential earnings while reducing their expenses. The AVP’s Gold Series and the FIVB’s top-tier Elite16 pay the same prize money per event: $150,000.

This makes for a symbiotic relationship between the AVP and the crack Canadian team, particularly when the lightning-quick Humana-Paredes and the uber-athletic Wilkerson arguably are among the most popular women with American beach volleyball fans.

Brandie, 31, has both USA and Canadian citizenship. Her dad is former Tulsa basketball standout Herb Johnson, who was picked by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the third round of the 1985 NBA Draft but played his professional ball overseas. Wilkerson debuted on the AVP in 2017 and has played with American partners such as Nicole Branagh, Brooke Sweat, Kelly Cheng, Sara Hughes and Zana Muno before picking up Humana-Paredes for the 2022 Chicago event. They finished second, dropping a tense three-setter in the finals to fast-rising Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss.

Melissa, 30, played her first AVP tournament in 2018. She enjoyed great success defending behind the dominating block of 6-foot-5 Sarah Pavan, a fellow Canadian. They put their names on the pier by winning the storied Manhattan Beach Open in 2019, beating future Olympic gold medalists April Ross and Alix Klineman in a memorable three-set slugfest (16-14 in the third). That same year, Melissa and Sarah finished first in the FIVB World Championships in Hamburg, Germany, nipping Ross and Klineman in the gold-medal match 23-21, 23-21. The Canadian duo was the top seed in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, but were stunned in the round of eight and wound up fifth.

Wilkerson also has been a significant player on the world stage. She, too, was a fifth-place finisher in Tokyo, teaming with the veteran Heather Bansley. Brandie and Sophie Bukovec (a key player on USC’s beach NCAA champions in 2016) were the silver medalists in the 2022 World Championships in Rome, losing in the title tussle to Brazil’s Duda and Ana Patricia.

Together in 2023, Melissa’s waterbug court coverage and Brandie’s kangaroo hops have produced dynamic results on the AVP and the world tour.

Melissa Humana-Paredes-Brandie Wilkerson-Jurmala Challenge-Olympic beach volleyball rankings
Brandie Wilkerson and Melissa Humana-Paredes celebrate their gold medal at the Jurmala Challenge/Volleyball World photo

In the U.S., they have a first (the season opener on Miami Beach), two seconds, and a fifth in four events. On the FIVB circuit, they have picked up gold medals in a second-tier Challenger in Latvia and in a top-level Elite16 on home sand in Montreal. In qualifying for the Olympics on the world tour, Melissa and Brandie are sixth in total points, but third in average points per tournament. The top 17 in points over a team’s best 12 events — the qualifying period ends on June 9, 2024 — earn automatic berths in the 2024 Paris Olympics, so the Canadians are in great shape.

Meanwhile, the task at hand for Melissa and Brandie is this weekend’s AVP Chicago Gold Series. They are seeded third in a loaded 16-team main draw that benefits from elite American teams returning home after our top two in the Olympic standings — No. 1 seed Kloth-Nuss and second-seeded Cheng-Hughes — skipped the MBO to play in Germany. Stacked at No. 4 are Manhattan Beach champions Betsi Flint and Julia Scoles.

The Canadians relish the challenge. And since the AVP landed the popular streaming platform TSN+, fans in their home country can watch them on stadium court.

“The AVP is the highest level of beach volleyball we can get aside from the FIVB,” Melissa noted. “This is the kind of test we’re looking for.

“You have multiple top teams in the world here. So to be able to get this kind of competition in to prepare you for the Olympics, to prepare you for the FIVB tournaments and just prepare you to compete and raise your level, they’re crucial.

“We really enjoy playing AVPs for so many different reasons and one of them is because the level is super-high. We are excited to play here. There are no really easy matches. The level of beach volleyball on the AVP is the highest it’s been in a while.”

Brandie echoed her partner’s enthusiasm: “I’m also an American, so it’s great to play on the American tour to explore that side of my family and my heritage, and just represent myself.

“We’re not Team Canada, we’re Brandie and Melissa. We can have a good time. We can just play and be free and wear cool outfits and just have fun. But also play world-class teams, which is an amazing combination. I have fantastic sponsors here who are deeply embedded in the AVP Tour and the AVP is a tour we have played on for years, so it’s super-important to my career and my growth.”

“The fanbase is incredible,” Wilkerson added. “You really build relationships with loyal beach volleyball fans. There are people here who are just discovering the sport. The more the game grows, the better it is for everyone.”

What might make beach volleyball even better for Melissa and Brandie is more financial support from the Canadian federation. They have been tremendous ambassadors for the sport and rank as legitimate podium threats in Paris, yet Canada’s volleyball governing body doesn’t even pony up for the team’s international air fare. That would seem a bare-minimum requirement for players who must travel the globe to qualify for the Olympics.

Brandie tackled the subject head-on, saying, “Financial support is essential. But, honestly, with our federation, it’s a work-in-progress. It’s not perfect at all.”

She noted that “We got a monthly stipend, we get our coaches covered.”

“For four tournaments,” Melissa interjected.

“Yes, four tournaments,” Brandie said. “We get a budget for some hotel expenses. We don’t get our flights paid for. We buy our own flights. You can’t really compare the support we receive from the Canadian federation to what the U.S. players get from USA Volleyball.”

Then Melissa weighed in: “We are out on the world tour competing against the best in the world, winning tournaments and representing our country. We are one of the best teams in the world, and our hope is that our success might lead to more interest in beach volleyball in Canada and more interest from potential sponsors. The Canadian federation then would be in a better position to provide us more support, at least along the lines of what the American players receive.”

That the AVP covers lodging for players in the main draws of Pro and Gold Series stops is another incentive for Melissa and Brandie to bring their talents to our domestic tour.

Over the last year, Melissa and Brandie have waged some memorable battles with Kloth and Nuss, who took the AVP by storm when they came out of LSU in 2021 and have continued to improve. Just in the last five weeks, Kloth-Nuss topped the Canadians in the final of the AVP Atlanta Gold Series stop. But the LSU products are just part of an influx of pro-ready players from across the ranks of fast-growing NCAA beach volleyball.

“The talent level on the AVP is just getting higher with the advances made in the NCAA game,” Melissa said. “You are seeing these college athletes coming onto the AVP and WINNING TOURNAMENTS. Right away. And then coming on the world tour right away and getting medals, so, yeah, the depth is there. It’s very deep on the AVP Tour and that only makes the growth of the sport better. It only makes the growth of our team, every team, better, so it’s just good to play against good teams.”

After this weekend, the Canadian duo will play in the Paris Elite16 September 27-October 1 before the FIVB World Championships in Tlaxcala, Mexico, October 6-15.

“The worlds have been our highlight this year, huge in terms of money and points,” Melissa said. “From when we started scheduling back in January, that was the one we wanted to be as prepared for as possible. We are on that path. We just keep getting better, we’re on the right track, and things are coming together at the right time. The worlds are always a challenge. We both have had great experiences there so we know what it takes to battle all the way for the whole week.”

An X-factor at the worlds could be Klineman, who was granted a wild-card entry into the 48-team draw with MBO finalist Hailey Harward. Could Klineman’s return from an injury- and pregnancy-related hiatus have an effect on the race for the United States’ two Olympic berths, or is she jumping in too late?

“We are all waiting to see,” Melissa said. “Good for Alix. She is an amazing beach volleyball player. It will be cool to see her return.

“We’ve seen lots of women come back from having a baby, and coming back stronger. I’m excited to play against her again. It was fun competing against her when she was with April (Ross). They were a force together so I’m sure she will be leading the way with whomever she picks up.”

Click here for the Chicago AVP entry list.

Brandie Wilkerson/Rick Atwood photo


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