Mari and Paula are “ready for everything” as they start beach careers

At some point during the 2020 FIVB World Tour season Brazilian indoor stars Paula Pequeno and Mari Steinbrecher will start their beach careers literally from the bottom.

The 6-foot-1 Paula, who will turn 38 in January, and the 6-2 Mari, 36, were teammates on the Brazilian national team that won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and returned to top the podium for a second time four years later in London. A new Olympic dream made them decide for a transition to the beach and to, in their own words, “be ready for everything that comes with this move.”

They started training with coach Alexandre Rivetti just a couple of months ago in Sao Paulo.

In preparation, Mari paired with Brazilian soon-to-be Olympian Duda Lisboa on the Brazilian Tour last weekend while Duda’s partner Agatha Bednarczuk was resting. The team finished 17th, but Mari labeled the experienced as “wonderful.” 

Now that she’s back to her training routine with Paula and looking forward to 2020, had this exclusive interview with the Brazilian stars. Considering the progress you both see during the training sessions, is there a timeline set for the team’s debut? 

Paula: It’s still early to know when we’ll be ready to play. We’re still working to secure sponsors and our training routine is not ideal yet. But we’re trying to make the most of each training session so we can keep improving and hopefully we’ll be closer to the level we expect by the end of February. What will the team look like? Who will be the blocker and who will play right and left?

Mari: We’re still working on this. I have been playing more on the right while Paula has been on the left. When we first started training we had the idea of splitting block, but we thought it would be better if we could specialize in our roles, so I’ve been spending more time at the net while Paula is working more on defense. I personally like this formation better, but it could still change depending on how it goes in the next few months. We’re just looking for what works for us. What have been the most difficult adjustments to the beach and what has come the most naturally so far?

Paula: To me it’s been for sure getting in the right physical condition. The demands of volleyball and beach volleyball are completely different, so it will take us a lot of patience and effort to get where we need to be. I feel that the technical part of the transition flows more naturally in every training session. Most players who made this transition before preferred to have longtime beach players as their first partners in an attempt to accelerate their development. You took a different route. Which are the pros and the cons of this choice?

Mari: Honestly, I don’t think we really gave it a lot of thought, we just wanted to be together in this journey and we’ll do everything we can to make it work. It won’t be easy, but I’m confident we can do it.  I think we’re still in the process of figuring out what the pros and cons are, but we’ll have time to adjust and that’s important. 

Mari and Paula were teammates on the Brazilian national team and took gold at the 2008 Olympics/CBV photo Did you get to talk to any former indoor players who also had successful beach careers? Are there any of them you look up to?

Paula: Not many players had great success in both volleyball and beach volleyball and that shows how hard this transition can be. We hadn’t had a chance to talk to any of them yet, but we’re certainly looking forward to it and to absorb all they have to share with us when we have this chance. The team will be based in Sao Paulo, which is where you both live with your families, but the city is not one of the beach volleyball hubs in Brazil. Do you have any plans to make up for it and maybe get to train with higher level players more often? 

Mari: Sao Paulo is not a beach volleyball hub in Brazil, but we’ve managed to get a great training facility here, even better than the ones some of the top players have in Rio de Janeiro and in other places. We have all we need at the same place and we’re very happy where we are. Also, it’s tough to completely change our lives at this point as we still don’t have a sponsor or any guarantees. But several teams stop in Sao Paulo when they need to travel, so we’ll try to have some of them training with us whenever it’s possible. We’re also planning on training in Rio for at least for a few days every month, so being in Sao Paulo certainly won’t a be a problem. When you start playing, you will be one of the tallest teams out there. Do you think that can help considering the lack of beach volleyball experience?

Mari: I think it could be a big difference-maker for us. We see what some of the best beach volleyball players can do despite of not being so tall and they’re amazing, but height is always a factor, as it was in volleyball, and it impacts the game in a very strong way. There are not a lot of tall players out there and that’s something we can benefit from, especially in the beginning. When the team was announced, it was very clear that the main goal was to qualify to the 2024 Olympics. Was the decision to make the move now, when most teams actively engaged with the qualification process to the 2020 Games, made so you can start the next quad not too far behind them?

Paula: Trying to qualify to the 2024 Olympics is not the only reason for which we decided to play beach volleyball. We have short-, medium- and long-term goals. We know that our ultimate goal might look audacious, but we believe it’s important to aim high so you remain focused and demanding throughout the process. 2020 will be an important year for us to get some experience, learn how to play the game and to deal with the setbacks, which we’ll likely have, get some entry points and improve as a team.

Mari played in an event of the Brazilian tour with rising star Duda Lisboa last week/CBV photo The path to compete at the most important World Tour events is not easy, especially for Brazilian teams, and it inevitably includes playing in one- and two-star events, which most of the time don’t even make financial sense for players. Are you ready to face such a different reality from the one you had in volleyball? 

Paula: We’re ready for everything that comes with this move. We’re both very grounded, we have the clear understanding that we’re basically starting a new career and that, as so, we have to go through every step all other players went through at some point. There’s no reason for us to believe it should be any different for us. Mari, last week you had the opportunity to play with Duda Lisboa in an event of the Brazilian Tour. How did the experience go for you?

Mari: It was a wonderful experience. It was the first time I could really feel what it was like to be out there playing and dealing with the pressure and the weather. Ribeirao Preto was a good test because it’s very hot and dry. I thought I was in good shape, but now I feel I still need a little bit more in that regard. I obviously wasn’t as prepared as the other players, but it was important to see what we need to do be at their level. Paula and I are in a better position now in regards to having a training center and we’re also getting new partners who will allow us to commit full-time to beach volleyball and I’m sure that when we get to this point, we’ll progress very, very fast.

Guilherme Torres, who has 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

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