DELAND, Fla. – You can tell Sunniva Helland-Hansen that she did a good job all you’d like. You can congratulate her on being a first-team all-conference two years in a row. You could warmly remind her of those five Norwegian championships she won as a youth player from Øystese. You can clap the senior Stetson defender on the back for helping to establish a winning culture in Deland, one that led to the biggest upset in NCAA beach volleyball history last May, when the eighth-seeded Hatters shocked top-ranked USC.
You could, in theory, do all of these things. And Helland-Hansen would likely respond the same way to all of them: Nothing, she would tell you, that she accomplished was exceptional. She was simply doing what she was supposed to do.
“Usually when I win, I did my job,” said Helland-Hansen, who has been Stetson’s No. 1 defender with Carly Perales for the past two years. “That’s how it’s supposed to be. If I don’t win, I didn’t do my job, and I need to do something else.”
For better or for worse — when looking at the results, it is mostly for better — Helland-Hansen is her own harshest critic. When she wins, she believes she should have won by more. When she loses her individual match and Stetson wins as a team, it should have been a sweep. When Stetson loses the team match, Helland-Hansen immediately places the blame square on the shoulders of her 5-foot-8 frame.
“That’s a lot of pressure,” Stetson coach Kristina Hernandez said. “And I don’t throw that pressure on her, we still lost at two other seeds. She just wants to be that good.”
She is that good, too. Just don’t run the risk of telling her so.
It’s cool that she played in the Vienna Major last summer, sure, but “I didn’t win any of my games so what does it really matter?” she asked. “Playing those tournaments has made me know that I can compete at a really high level, but it’s just a reminder to me that I need to get better. I don’t want to be in the qualifier, I want to be in the main draw. I don’t want to get fifth place, I want to be in the semifinal, in the final.
“It’s just keeping me hungry. It’s a reminder that the level is good up there, so it needs something extra to get there, so the best I can do is get better here.”
Hernandez laughs a little when speaking about Helland-Hansen’s it’s-never-good-enough mindset. Never in her three-plus years coaching the Norwegian has Hernandez needed to motivate her. Initially, she even had to reign her in a touch.
When Helland-Hansen, a product of TopVolley, the same academy that produced wunderkinds Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, and Hendrik Mol and Mathias Bernstein, arrived at Stetson, Hernandez had the team running sprints. Helland-Hansen, a freshman then, openly wondered why the upper classmen weren’t running faster.
“Everybody was like ‘Oh, OK,’ ” Hernandez said. “But that’s who she is and she’s always been like that.”
To be clear: Helland-Hansen is loved by her teammates, and she is an unequivocal joy to be around.
“Great freaking captain,” said Jae-Lyn Visscher, who played one year for Stetson in 2018.
Helland-Hansen is getting better at celebrating the wins she is piling up in her life. But at the same time, it is with those awfully high standards of hers that Stetson has risen to prominence as an NCAA Championship contender and the unquestioned rulers of the ASUN conference.
When the Hatters were upset by Houston Baptist at Florida State’s season-opening tournament, and the team stopped at a Chipotle on the way home, it wasn’t Hernandez who spoke to the team, but Helland-Hansen.
“She gets it,” Hernandez said. “It’s not something we have to coach her on. It’s her being able to express the disappointment from a team perspective that this shouldn’t have happened, this is not who we are. She’s able to do that and not just focus on her own individual success. She’s so team oriented and one of the best captains we’ve had here and that reflects why we’ve been so successful.”
These high standards weren’t so much taught to Helland-Hansen as they were required of her.
“I’m used to fighting for what I want,” said the only daughter of four children. “If you don’t get it, there’s no ‘Poor me.’ There’s none of that. My mom is very supportive but we just make fun of her because we’re not like that. My brothers always won the national championships at home and I was so used to that, and I was always in that environment. I always wanted that European Championship gold. Not the fifth place, not the fourth place. I want that medal. So I think it’s a mix of a lot, but I’ve always had an internal drive.”
It is that word — internal — that speaks volumes about Helland-Hansen. She isn’t driven so much by results, but by the work that goes into the results. She’s watched her father, Peter, build traditional Norwegian boats out of trees, a craft that requires a tremendous amount of dedication and care but also something that one needs to love in order to be successful. She sees much of the same in her approach to volleyball: a craft that will never be perfected, a perpetual work in progress, where the joy must come internally, from the process.
“Enjoying doing your job is a huge part of it,” she said. “But I’ve always had it myself. It’s always come from within. It’s not something that was taught to me, but throughout my life, I’ve always had people come in and push me in that direction.”
Her direction, for now, includes two more months at Stetson, and then it’s back to Norway, where she still has a legitimate opportunity to qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. There are two tournaments remaining for a continental bid after her and Ingrid Lunde won the first. She knows it’s still a bit of a long shot, but the fact that she has a shot is all she needs. So she’ll put her head down. She’ll do her work. Whatever happens will happen, and she’ll demand more of herself no matter the result.
“It is my goal to be prepared for May but at the same time it is not expected if we qualify for the Olympics,” she said. “But can you think of anything that’s more motivating than the Olympics?”