Sarah Pavan is, well, not what one would expect. The 6-foot-5 Canadian, who still plays professionally indoors in China, has taken an unlikely path to get to where she is today in professional beach volleyball.
In pool play Thursday at FIVB Moscow, the 30-year-old Canadian beach Olympian won two matches with her first-year partner, Melissa Humana-Paredes. They beat Dutch pair Manon Nummerdor-Flier and Marleen Van Iersel 21-14, 19-21, 15-12 and then Nina Betschart and Tanja Huberli of Switzerland 21-8, 21-12.
A self-professed nerd, Pavan earned a 4.0 GPA while at Nebraska, where she was a four-time AVCA All-American and won the prestigious Broderick Cup as the top female college athlete.
“I am a big nerd,” she admitted. “I love learning, so I take a lot of online classes in my spare time just to keep learning. The last course I took was an aromatherapy class, I’m very interested in that. I wanted to learn the science behind it. I like to learn why things happen and why they work.”
“I love to do puzzles. I’m a big grandma, so I love to do puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, I love reading, I love being outside doing anything active, and I’m a huge foodie, so I love discovering new restaurants.
“I love wine, I love to explore food cultures everywhere we go. I’m very curious about different varietals and how they pair with food. I usually have a crossword puzzle book or a logic puzzle book on me at all times.”
It probably won’t surprise you that Pavan, a product of Kitchener, Ontario, studied piano for nine years at the Royal Conservatory of Music.
“When I was young, I was obsessed with sports and competition and I played everything. I just loved being active. But my parents thought it was important for me to develop some other interests as well, so I started taking piano when I was in elementary school and I stuck with it until I graduated from high school. So I studied about nine years.
“We have a piano at our house but I don’t play it enough any more. My husband (Adam Schulz) always begs me to play. I definitely need to play more. It is very relaxing. It was definitely a big part of my life growing up.
“I studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music, so there was a very distinct curriculum. I played everything, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, you name it. Those exams were always very stressful, with the examiners hovering over your shoulder.”
Handling stress, at least in athletics, is ingrained in her family.
Her mother, Cindy, played on the Canadian national volleyball team from 1978-79 and father Paul was her club and high school coach.
“I’ve been involved in the sport my whole life. My parents met playing volleyball, my mom was on our national team, I was in the gym since birth, pretty much. They finally let me play for real when I was 10, when I joined my first club team,” Pavan said.
“My dad was my club coach and my high school coach until I left for college. He helped develop my technical foundation. He’s very much like me. He’s a perfectionist. I wasn’t allowed to get away with anything or any shortcuts, I was forced to develop my skills at a very high level when I was young. We were in the gym together almost every single day between high school, club, and extra practices, too.”
Pavan thought coming to America was best for her long-term volleyball aspirations.
“I knew that I wanted to pursue the sport past college. My goal was always to play professionally. I felt that I would be a better player if I went to school in the States, I think the American college system is very strong, and treat it more as a business than the Canadians do.
“There’s a much greater level of professionalism involved and I like that. I wanted to develop not only my volleyball skills, but also my skills to become a professional later, and I knew that I would have a better chance of doing that if I went to the States.”
Nebraska was an easy choice, she said, because of Lincoln’s similarities to Kitchener, where she had spent her entire life to that point.
“People always ask me why I went to Nebraska. I loved it. It’s a small, Midwestern school as opposed to the flashy California schools,” Pavan said.
“I had a very distinct list in my head of what I was looking for in a university. They fit perfectly and had everything I wanted. I still look back on those four years very fondly. I had the time of my life there, I made some great friends, and I had a great volleyball experience. I got a great education, so I’m so glad I decided to go there.
“Lincoln and Kitchener are very similar. They’re both the same size, population-wise, my town has two universities in it as well, one being the University of Waterloo, which is pretty famous world-wide for its engineering school, so it definitely had the same feel. Even though I’m going to a different country, it still had the same vibe from Lincoln as I had from Kitchener, and I think that was very comforting, especially going so far from home.”
After her career at Nebraska, where Pavan was a teammate of future USA Olympians Jordan Larson and Kayla Banwarth, she won the 2007 Broderick Cup. Just six volleyball players have won the award: Patty Berg (1980), Deitre Collins (1983), Misty May (1999), Ogonna Nnamani (2005) and Megan Hodge (2010).
“It’s humbling,” said Pavan, who averaged 4.83 kills per set while hitting .342 her senior year. “Sometimes I wonder how that happened when I look at the list of people that won it before and even after me. They’re amazing. A lot of them are role models and they’re people I look up to even now.
“When it happened, it was definitely a whirlwind. I wasn’t really sure what was happening, but looking back, I’m incredibly honored to be among those names and although it feels like a lifetime ago, just having those interactions with the organizers every year, I am becoming more and more aware how big of a deal that is. It’s definitely something that I’m proudest of and it seems crazy to me that it happened.”
Pavan, who played for the Canadian national indoors team starting from age 16 until her country failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, has spent the past two seasons playing for Shanghai province in the Chinese professional league.
“In China, I think I confused people because I am everything that they are not,” she said with a laugh. “Blonde, blue-eyed, white, super-tall. You could see shock on people’s faces often. The number of pictures that were taken were off the charts. You could definitely tell that people didn’t know what to make of me sometimes.”
The nerd in Pavan enjoyed learning about the Chinese culture.
“Visiting for a short period of time, you don’t really get an appreciation for the culture there, but after spending several months there consistently, I really enjoyed it,” she said. “It’s very interesting to learn about the different traditions and food cultures in the different provinces, which I got to experience traveling with the team. Even learning about Chinese history from the girls on my team, or specifics from our coaching staff about the places we’re visiting. Being from the West, we don’t have an appreciation for the history and I love learning about Chinese history and why they eat what they do.
“And obviously the volleyball culture is great, as well. They’re Olympic champions. People always ask, ‘How the heck did you live there for so long?’ It wasn’t hard. It was a very interesting place and I loved it and would go back again.”
For that matter, at the end of this beach season the lanky left-hander plans to play indoors again.
“I’m in the process of figuring all that out now. I thought that I was ready to be done with indoors in the next couple of years, but with all that’s going on in the beach now, that might be put off. I’m in negotiations trying to figure out what the plan is for next season.”
After the Rio Olympics, where Pavan and former partner Heather Bansley tied for fifth, they had a contentious, well-documented breakup. Her partnership with Humana-Paredes, who is 5-9 and from Toronto, has worked out well so far, especially two weeks in ago at FIVB Rio. There, as the 11th seed, they lost in the final to Agatha Bednarczuk and Duda Lisboa to come away with $16,000.
“After I got back from indoor, Mel and I have buckled down in the last few months to really get ready for the season,” Pavan said. “We’re really excited to get a silver in our first event. We’re still thinking about how close we came, and that’s a little disappointing, but it’s time to see the positives, and there’s so much we can improve upon.
“We can definitely evolve as a team still, and we’re really excited about the future and to see where our partnership can go. I think Mel (24 years old) is a phenomenal young player, and I’m really excited to be on this journey with her. Hopefully the results will keep coming.
“Rio was a starting point and we wanted to see where we stood with what we’ve been trying so far and we also wanted to see how teams would respond to that. We definitely saw some things come up in the semis and finals that we could make some adjustments offensively and defensively. We definitely have several things in the works that we want to get back and work on when we have some training time again.”
Pavan and Humana-Paredes have their sights set on the FIVB World Championships, July 28-August 6 in Vienna, Austria. Their next tournament is the FIVB three-star in the Hague.
“And then we’ll focus on the four- and five-star events,” she said. “Our big objective of the summer is world championships, so our first goal is to qualify for that. I think we’re in a good position to do so now. Obviously we want to do well there.”
Pavan, who lives and trains in Hermosa Beach, Calif., holds an “extraordinary ability” green card, commonly given to top athletes, will also compete on the AVP tour when it doesn’t conflict with her FIVB schedule.
“I’m going to play with Lane Carico. I’m really excited. After Huntington, there was a lot of movement with all of the American players, and Lane reached out to me, and I thought it was a great opportunity, I’m just getting started, and she’s pretty much a staple on the tour right now, and I feel like we’re going to be a really good match. I think she’s a really good player. It’s going to be fun, I think.”
Of course, one day her professional volleyball career will end.
“I always thought that I was going to go to med school,” Pavan said. “I never thought that my volleyball career would last this long, so I prepared to take the MCAT, and then I just kept playing. I’m 30 years old now, and I feel that medical school isn’t going to happen, but I do love learning, and I do want to go back to school some day,
“I could see myself in naturopathic college, or something like that, but again, I’m not exactly sure when my volleyball career will be over, so I think that decision will be made when the time comes.”