The lead was gone, momentum completely flipped, and Melissa Humana-Paredes was, in her own words, crapping her pants.
That’s what she said to her partner, Sarah Pavan, after their 14-10 lead in the third set of the World Championship semifinals had disappeared. It was an entirely unenviable situation, one that nobody would ever voluntarily take upon themselves. Nobody asks to miss on four match points of the game’s biggest stage. And yet it was perhaps the most critical moment of the partnership for the team that would finish the 2019 season ranked No. 1 in the world.
“Fourteen-fourteen was a really pivotal moment for Sarah and I because they had gotten three straight aces,” Humana-Paredes said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “They weren’t even rallies. She had gotten an ace down the sideline, ace down the seam, it was ‘Wow.’ There was no time to think about anything, but she was able to see where I was mentally and she was able to relate to me and say ‘I’m a little nervous too. This is not ideal.’
“Vulnerability is a beautiful thing and is such a necessary thing in beach volleyball. We’re out there and our weaknesses are exposed. There’s no one else to come in for you. You gotta figure it out, just you and your partner, so in that moment, when you express that vulnerability to your partner, and she shows up for you, she’s like ‘You know what, me too, but you got this.’
“She turned to me and she said ‘They’re going to serve you. You’re going to pass it, I’m going to set you, and you’re going to side out, because that’s what you can do.’ I was like ‘Wow, she’s really confident in you. Step up to the plate Mel.’ That was a turning point for us to grit up.”
That became the theme of the season for the Canadians: When things were tight, when they were down, they found a way to win. They “gritted up.” In doing so, they only, oh, qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, became the first Canadian team to hold a World Champion title, cemented themselves on the Manhattan Beach Pier. They’d win gold on the road again in Vienna and at home in Edmonton. They finished their season fittingly: On a high, with victory in Hawai’i.
All because, Humana-Paredes said, they found the ability to “grit up.”
“Heading into World Champs, we weren’t feeling our best,” Humana-Paredes said. “We were coming off a couple rough finishes in Warsaw and Ostrava and we weren’t playing super clean ball. Even in the World Champs, even in pool play, they were gnarly, gritty games. We easily could have lost them. Even some games in our playoffs, we easily could have lost them, but we really, really were working hard, and were gritty and were resilient. I think that’s what the 2019 season was: full on grit and heart. It was like that for every tournament. Nothing came easy, and we just worked for it. We’re going into this season with that same mentality.”
They’ll need it, too. This year, like no other, Humana-Paredes and Pavan will be the team everyone is looking to knock down. They’ve been in a similar scenario before, following the brilliant 2017 season that finished with them ranked second in the world. They didn’t respond how they wanted.
“We were still in that period while having these new standards and expectations that everyone else was also having of us and to be honest I don’t think we handled it very well,” Humana-Paredes said of the 2018 season. “It was a bit of a roller coaster. We did win some tournaments. We won the Commonwealth Games, we won Gstaad, we won China, but we also had a couple uncharacteristic finishes. We had a couple 17ths, and it was a huge roller coaster. We sat down at the end of the year and looked at what we accomplished and it was a lot better than it felt.
“We felt like we dropped the ball but when we looked back at our results we weren’t far from the goals we had set for ourselves. When you’re in it, you can be so hard on yourself and you don’t recognize what you’re accomplishing along the way. When you reflect back on the season, maybe we were too hard on ourselves, because look at what we did. So we took that mindset into this last season in 2019 which was probably our best season.”
It may, in fact, be the single most accomplished season in Canadian beach history, as they set new records and firsts for Canadian beach. Over the next four months, Humana-Paredes and Pavan will have the opportunity to continue authoring history. They know the impact that winning an Olympic medal would have on the Canadian beach community. They’ve seen it before, after World Champs, when their inboxes became flooded with girls reaching out, letting them know that they were the reason they were picking up beach.
“We saw how it affected Canada and how they really took notice, and beach volleyball started to grow,” Humana-Paredes said. “We saw how it affected the growing generation in Canada for beach volleyball, which is ultimately what we want to do. We want to inspire the next generation, and the amount of messages we got from parents and kids saying ‘I want to start playing beach volleyball because of this’ who had never been in the sport and now want to take it up, that just makes it so much more valuable.
“It helped put things in perspective when we were feeling so low. When we got results that we were disappointed with and feeling those emotions, seeing what we had done goes beyond a week after week result. We want to leave a legacy in the sport for ourselves and I think that’s what we usually have to come back to when we’re in the thick of it because sometimes we get carried away with the result and the performance and we need to realize that we’re still making an impact and that is ultimately what we want to do.”