A lot can change in the span of three and a half years. A lot can also stay the same. So it was for Chaim Schalk when he arrived in Doha last week, competing in his first FIVB tournament since the 2017 World Tour Finals, in Hamburg, Germany.
Nothing major has shifted since his absence, two years of which were due to an FIVB rule that requires a player sit out when transferring federations, the third due to COVID calling off the 2020 season. The faces are still mostly the same, and in the Doha bubble, erected at the Ezdan Hotel, he was able to spend time with his old Canadian partner, Ben Saxton, and the familiar faces of the friendly rivals against whom he played leading into the 2016 Olympic Games.
Then again, basically everything has changed.
Doha marked the first time Schalk has competed on the World Tour for the United States. While he had played in two NORCECAs with Jeremy Casebeer, the travel to the Middle East, with an 11-hour time change and 24 hours of travel, to compete against the best in the world, is a different beast.
“It was tougher to travel than I remember,” Schalk said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Doing those 14 hour flights all the way to Istanbul, it was nasty. It wasn’t too bad, but when you’re used to playing on the World Tour and your body is ready for it, you can get going right away no problem”
Getting going is what Schalk was aiming to do in Doha, launching the second phase of his professional career. Where he currently stands, ranked No. 6 in the United States with Brunner, is a position he hasn’t been since 2013: Building enough points to simply get into events. The last FIVB qualifier he had played in was in Gstaad of 2013, and that was really only because his points from a fifth-place finish at the World Championships in Poland the week before hadn’t been calculated into his seeding.
It’s different, to begin a tournament not only in a qualifier, but a country quota. It’s single-elimination. More than a day’s worth of traveling for a match that could potentially take half an hour. Their first and final match in Doha, against Spain’s Alejandro Huerta and Cesar Menendez, a 21-18, 13-21, 12-15 loss, took 48 minutes. Then it was time to go home, regroup, and prepare for a three-week Cancun bubble with back to back to back tournaments.
“It was fun to get back,” Schalk said. “Obviously didn’t perform as well as we wanted to. I know for sure it’s going to be a grind just getting points and working my way up the system and just committing to it. I know Theo and I have a good thing going on but we’re going to take some hits and you just gotta keep going and you’ll also get some good wins and break out at some point too. It’s all a good process and I’m excited to get going.
“I haven’t played in a qualifier in so long. I felt physically good and the Spain guys we played were a solid team, there’s no doubt. They were absolutely crushing serves. The tough part about single-elim qualifiers, you could run into anyone, get a hot team on a hot day. You gotta find a way to win and scrap it out.”
He knows it’s going to be a process, a grind that could take at least a year until he’s safely out of country quotas and qualifiers. But he’s done this before, multiple times. In 2013, he and Saxton failed to qualify for the main draw in their first three tournaments before they broke through with a fifth in Stare Jablonki.
In 2017, he lost in his first AVP qualifier, in Huntington Beach, and he remained in qualifiers for the next two tournaments. In 2019, he won his first AVP. He’s not afraid of starting over, of building something new. He knows he has potential lightning in a bottle with his partnership with Brunner, long one of the most talented blockers in the country, who simply hasn’t had a stable partner for more than two seasons.
Schalk can alas be that stable partner. They teamed with designs on the Paris Olympics, hiring Scott Davenport, the man currently heading Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes, as their coach. Both of their games are evolving, with Schalk finetuning his arm swing mechanics — a Davenport specialty — and the two becoming a devastatingly effective on-two team.
“It’s all still pretty fresh and learning as we go but we’re moving in the right direction and I’m trying to learn as much as I can right now,” Schalk said.
That’s the phase he’s in: The learning phase, the building phase.
Just getting something going.
“It’s super exciting for me just to do it again,” Schalk said. “It might take a year to get established and to a point where we’re a top team and I fully believe Theo and I could be a top team and win tournaments.”