HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — It was inevitable. Anyone who had seen Melissa Humana-Paredes and Brandie Wilkerson play beach volleyball, who had taken stock of their personalities — bright, effervescent, unmistakably joyful — and did the math, of their ages and talents and overall dispositions, knew, or at least thought they knew, that they were Canada’s inevitable partnership, one of the best defenders in the world paired with one of its best blockers.
Only one question remained: When?
This past season would have seemed the perfect time. Wilkerson, after a fifth-place finish in the Tokyo Olympics with Heather Bansley, was without a partner.
Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, who had risen to No. 1 in the world, who had won a World Championship, won a Commonwealth Games — won everything save for the Olympics themselves — were fading, at least by the preposterous standards they had set for themselves after not just rewriting, but authoring entirely, the Canadian record book.
They didn’t win a gold medal in 2021, though they would make three finals — including the season-ending World Tour Finals — and claim a bronze in Gstaad, the most popular stop on Tour, with its adoring fans, mountainous backdrop, and gigantic cowbells. It wasn’t a bad year by any normal standard of success. It was, in fact, an undeniably successful one. It was still fair to wonder, however, with Wilkerson searching for a defender, and trouble in the proverbial paradise of Humana-Paredes and Pavan, if a switch was in order.
Was it time?
Wilkerson turned to Sophie Bukovec, a supremely athletic blocker-turned-defender who, as it turned out, became an excellent option in a country lacking many excellent options. Up the ranks they went, stunning a good many when they won a silver medal at the World Championships in Rome. Bukovec was, as Wilkerson said at the World Championships, a “superstar,” and there is no arguing that. But when Humana-Paredes and Pavan announced their split at the end of August, just a few weeks after winning their second straight Commonwealth Games gold medal, and Wilkerson and Humana-Paredes suddenly appeared on the entry list for AVP Chicago, it made for tantalizing fodder for the beach volleyball masses: Could this be a preview of what’s to come?
At the time, they hadn’t agreed to anything more than a pressure-free weekend at one of the AVP’s coolest stops. It was, simply, two good friends, former college teammates who had known each other for more than a decade, alas playing together, something they had literally never done before in a professional capacity on the beach, aside from an indelible experience at the Rio Olympics, in which they served as alternates.
“At that point I was kind of in no-man’s land. Sarah and I had split, and I really wanted to play in Chicago and play in a couple more AVPs,” Humana-Paredes said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “It was close to home and it worked out that I could play with Brandie, which was great. It was a great time, we finished second, which still stings a little bit — overall it was good — and after that tournament I was in no man’s land and I thought ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what I’m going to do’ and it was just nice for us to play in a tournament, an AVP, where it’s just such a great environment where you can try these things and you’re playing with a great ball, it was just fun.
“I’ve just known Brandie for so long and she’s been a good friend so it was just nice at that time in the season for me to be in a familiar place and I just wanted to play and have fun and I feel like we accomplished that.”
They played in seven matches and won five, their only losses being in the second round to Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, and in the finals, again to Nuss and Kloth. Success on the court was objectively had, as was fun, to the point that Humana-Paredes’ parents observed that “we’re used to you being the loud one but now we can’t tell.”
It’s an entirely new dynamic for the two. Wilkerson has played the majority of her career with Bansley, an all-world defender who mostly lets her game speak for herself. Humana-Paredes defended for Pavan, an all-world blocker who competes with a more stoic demeanor. But Wilkerson and Humana-Paredes? They’re lively, loud, a vocal pair who is occasionally goofy in the most endearing of ways, such as when Wilkerson described their first week of practice as “super-duper.”
“We know each other but it’s been really fun to get to know each other as athletes, and athletes at this point in our careers, having whatever level of success and experience versus when I was starting or when Mel was starting, knowing each other and playing indoor, having a big team, and now it’s just me and Mel, and it’s like ‘OK! We’re doing this!’ ” Wilkerson said.
“The environment with the coaches and with Mel, I think everyone has a sense of clarity and what they want, what they expect from themselves and I think that helps with creating that safe environment where you can fail, you can ask questions, you can try new things, but also be encouraged that you’re on the right track and that we’re here to do big things. It’s exciting every day. I feel like Mel is different than any partner I’ve ever had, as she would be — different person, different energy, all of these things, and I feel like I get these little surprises every day like ‘Oh my God that’s so f****** cool! That’s insane! Yes! Same side of the court this time!’ ”
What makes the timing of this move to one another so perfect isn’t just the fact that their skill-sets are an ideal mesh, which they are. Both have been voted as the best in the world at what they do. Both have experienced a World Championship final. Both have competed in an Olympic Games, knowing not only exactly what it takes to get there but also the devastating impact when those Games don’t go as planned. Both, at 30 years old, have the emotional maturity to empathize and support one another, whatever that may look like.
“The amount of time Brandie and I have spent on the court either with each other or against each other for the last more than a decade has been a lot, so we’ve seen each other kind of evolve and grow and go through this process back when we were literally rookies in University (York in Toronto),” Humana-Paredes said.
“Being teammates there and we had the incredible experience to be in Rio as alternates and we got to experience that together, which was incredible and then we would meet each other across the court, where you also learn a lot about someone as competitors and rivals and to now be on the same side at this point in our career and our personal lives, we’ve reached this point of maturity and self-awareness. I always felt like we were going to play together at some point in our career, I didn’t know when, and so this just feels right.”
“I know Young Mel, I know University Mel, but what does this version look like? What stories about you or me do we hold on to have evolved or are the same or whatever?” Wilkerson added. “We nailed the timing. It’s been great. It’s been a long play, but it’s been great. We’re killing it.”