In 2016, Brandie Wilkerson saw everything there was to see, up close and in person. She saw the ceremonies. The athletes, both beach volleyball and otherwise. She practiced on stadium court with the women. She practiced against the men.
As a Canadian alternate for the 2016 Rio Games with Melissa Humana-Paredes, she did just about everything all of the other beach players were there to do, save for compete and one other element of being a participant of the Olympic Games.
She didn’t go to the athletes village.
“A part of me didn’t want to stay in the village, because I wanted to earn it,” Wilkerson said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “So I was like ‘I’m going to get there myself one day.’”
Get there herself? Wasn’t this the 24-year-old who had only picked up beach volleyball less than five years ago? The one who was almost as likely to play rugby in college as she was volleyball? Anybody who hadn’t yet heard of Wilkerson may have been able to take that comment and shelve it into the legions of other players who make similar proclamations but don’t follow up. Yet this was not an athlete who belongs in a class of anyone else.
Brandie Wilkerson is a class of her own.
This was the daughter of Herb and Stephanie Wilkerson, the former an NBA draft pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers and, the latter a runner for Switzerland. A five-sport athlete in high school, winner of four volleyball championships and one in rugby.
What would be one more sport for her?
Actually, it was, shockingly, to Wilkerson, a bit difficult, though that only raised the appeal. For so long, sports had come so easy. Here was one that presented a worthy challenge.
“Playing beach, it was ‘Whoa, there’s a lot more going on here,’” Wilkerson said. “I was attracted to that challenge, and with any competitive athlete, you just want to prove to yourself that you can do it.”
She hit the NORCECAs first, 19 in all from 2013-2016, adding 15 FIVBs, making seven main draws.
And then the breakthrough.
The team for whom her and Humana-Paredes had been the alternates in Rio, Sarah Pavan and Heather Bansley, split. Pavan grabbed Humana-Paredes. Bansley, who had been named the best defender in the world, scooped Wilkerson.
Gone were the qualifiers and in was an entire season of top-10 finishes, including a fifth at the Vienna Major. Her prize money tripled, her world ranking improving 90 spots, to 20th.
“I just kept raising the bar and I looked up and it’s ‘Oh, I’m doing this full-time right now.’ I was pretty surprised two years ago, when I was stable, I never thought I would be here, and that’s kind of my whole theme with beach volleyball is that I never pictured myself here,” Wilkerson said. “I just knew I wanted to challenge myself and accomplish a goal and it was little goal, little goal, little goal, and the next thing you know, your goal is the Olympics, and it’s like ‘When did we get here?’”
By the end of 2018, her and Bansley would be ranked No. 1 in the world. They’d win tournaments in Itapema, San Jose, Las Vegas, Chetumal. Wilkerson would be named the best blocker in the world.
Suddenly a goal of reaching the Olympics that could have seemed like a stretch at first now looks more like an inevitability.
“I feel extremely blessed,” she said. “I’ve had times where I was debating switching countries because it’s so difficult to be successful in Canada and I had so many other interests I could make a living doing. I wanted to impact the environment, and I can’t do that just playing sports. But I feel like if I have an opportunity to be young and physical and have those chances so many people don’t, I’d be silly to give it up and grow old doing the other things.”
There’s only one way into the Athletes’ Village, after all, and it isn’t by doing other things. But still, there is work to be done, an entire season to be played before Tokyo 2020.
“I haven’t proven myself consistently, which I think is really the epitome of being the best,” she said. “I think I can get there, and that’s my goal. Watching these people dominate and seeing that it can be done, it’s like ‘Well I want to do that.’”