Veterans Fabiana Claudino, Sheilla Castro boost Brazil as it aims for Tokyo

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Sheilla and Fabiana at the Rio 2016 Olympics/FIVB photo

Guilherme Torres, who has worked worked with the Brazilian Volleyball Federation, the Rio 2016 Olympic Organizing Committee, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) and the Beach Major Series, covers Brazilian volleyball for VolleyballMag.com. This story focuses on an interesting aspect of the Brazilian women’s national team.

Brazil finished fourth at the recently ended FIVB Women’s Volleyball World Cup, but the somewhat frustrating result was by no means the major storyline involving the team during the past weeks in Japan.

Veteran stars middle-blocker Fabiana Claudino and opposite Sheilla Castro, absent from the national team since the quarterfinals loss to China at the Rio 2016 Olympics,  returned to the squad for the international tournament and amped up the internal competition for roster spots leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics next summer.

“I always thought they still had a lot to give to the team,” Brazil’s head coach Jose Roberto Guimaraes said. “They’ve always been extremely committed and it’s great to have them back with all the experience they earned through the years. They are references to the entire team due to their attitude, to all they’ve accomplished and also to what they still want to accomplish.”

Guimaraes played a pivotal role in the process that brought both the 34-year-old Fabiana and the 36-year-old Sheilla back to the national team. The coach, who will leave his position after the Tokyo Games, remained in touch with both of them for the last three years trying to convince his stars to change their minds about what he considered to be a premature international retirement decision.

His persistence and the proximity to next year’s Olympics finally touched the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympic champions, who decided to accept his calls and return together to the roster at the end of June.

Fabiana spikes during the World Cup/FIVB photo

“He remained in touch with us all these years and kept telling that we still had what it took to be in the team,” Fabiana explained. “I really needed a break after 16 years with the national team and I thought I had already done all I could for the team, so I wasn’t thinking about coming back. But Sheilla reached out to me earlier this year saying that we should try to help the team and we decided to do it together.”

The middle-blocker, actually, seems to not have lost one drop of her prestige with the coach despite of the long absence. Fabiana was immediately restored as the team’s captain and played in ten of the team’s 11 matches in Japan, starting in eight of them. She was the team’s second-best blocker, made it into the top-ten of the entire tournament in the category and averaged 7.8 points per match.

Her performances were not exactly surprising as she has been playing at a high level in the Brazilian Superliga for Praia Clube and recently signed with Japanese champions Hisamitsu Springs, where she’ll replace American star Foluke Akinradewo.

Fabiana’s addition should strengthen what is already a deep group of middle-blockers for Brazil as Ana Carolina Silva, Ana Beatriz Correa and Mara Leao all showed consistent improvement over the last few years. The list could also soon include London 2012 Olympic champions Thaisa Menezes and Adenizia Ferreira, who are both considering returning to the team.

For Sheilla, however, the return is proving to be a lot bumpier. Unlike her teammate and best friend, the opposite hadn’t played a professional match since the Rio Olympic quarterfinal as she decided to take time off the sport to focus on her personal life and start a family, giving birth to the twins Liz and Ninna last November.

Sheilla, who was strongly leaning towards a transition to beach volleyball and decided to resume her career in the courts after she got an offer from her home town team Minas Tênis Clube (where she’ll face the competition of national-team hopeful Bruna Honorio), came off the bench in all 11 Brazilian matches in Japan and played in 37 of the team’s 40 sets in the tournament, averaging 3.3 points per set.

The opposite gave clear signs of being a few steps behind the group from a physical standpoint, something completely understandable for someone who’s been sidelined for almost three years.

“It’s crazy, after the Olympics I thought my journey with the national team was over and that I didn’t really have the desire to be here again, but in the moment that I put the jersey and stepped on the court I had goosebumps just like the first time,” she said. “It feels great to be back, but I’m taking this process step-by-step and I’m here to help in any way I can, especially by being an example and helping the players to have their goals well set.”

Her route for a spot in the Olympic roster, though, could be easier than Fabiana’s in one sense due to the lack of options Guimaraes has at the opposite position. Since the Rio Olympics, Tandara Caixeta established herself at the main option at the spot, but her request to not play in the World Cup could have burned some bridges with the coaching staff.

Players like Monique Pavao and Ana Paula Borgo also had their opportunities, but they didn’t really perform like an Olympic medal-aspiring team would expect. Up-and-coming Lorenne Teixeira, 23, was solid during the World Cup,  being the team’s top scorer, the seventh overall in the tournament and the Cup’s tenth-best attacker, and could be Sheilla’s main rival for the second opposite spot if Tandara returns.

However, for former Brazilian libero Fabi Alvim, who was part of the roster that won gold at both the Beijing 2008 and the London 2012 Olympics, players like Lorenne are the ones who would benefit from the return of the veterans to the squad, especially coming off a season in which as many as seven players declined call ups for the Nations League.

“It feels like this younger generation has a different mentality and that sometimes the national team is not a priority to them,” the defender said in an episode of the podcast Jornada das Estrelas. “And I think they both can help a lot with bringing this winning mindset and their experience of what it takes to win an Olympic gold medal. For these young players, just to have them to look up for, it will be a massive help.”

Other veterans could find their way back to the national team soon, such as Thaisa Menezes, Adenizia, setters Dani Lins and Fabiola Almeida, outside hitter Fernanda Garay and libero Camila Brait, who was also part of the World Cup roster.

Without the veterans, Brazil had some positive results, such as winning the 2017 World Grand Prix and taking the silver medal of this year’s Nations League, but the seventh-place at the 2018 World Championship was a red flag for the South Americans. With all or some of them back, they think they regain Olympic gold in Tokyo.

Previously by Guilherme Torres, his feature on Yoandy Leal. 

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