The beach volleyball tournament at Nanjing 2014 is big. There are 36 teams over six pools, yet Canada hasn’t had trouble standing out, even before the first serve.
Vancouver’s twin McNamara sisters, Megan and Nicole, arrive as U19 World Championship bronze medallists. Just turned 17, they were senior women’s national champs at 16. Andrew Richards and Jake MacNeil qualified for Nanjing before the girls, and could fill centre court with their hilarious antics. Richards from London, ON and MacNeil from Georgetown, ON, both 18, embody young confidence and invade a room with a joking nature born of beach volleyball’s cool culture.
Get to know: Canada’s beach volleyball Youth Olympians
“We like to be on the down low, we like to be dark horses in this race, we’re really looking to come in and shock some people and get some more interviews,” says MacNeil, half-fictitiously, stifling a grin. He’s referring to the nickname he and Richards have created for themselves, “Team Dark Horse”, hoping to motivate their performance.
In this case, the nickname is only partially a joke. Megan and Nicole McNamara have attracted a lot of media attention in Nanjing. They are a medal threat and as twins, play the game with a curious understanding of each other. And Nanjing is exactly where they want to be, “We never really thought it was an option for us to be here because it’s so prestigious. When we started playing beach volleyball and we heard about the Youth Olympics we knew it was something we wanted to be a part of,” said Nicole this week.
Slightly smaller at 5’9”, they have developed many critical beach skills in addition to a playing-style to suit. As a split-blocking team, they share net responsibilities, and according to coach Mischa Harris, their ball control is excellent.
“They’ve worked really hard over the last couple of years to become quite physical. They’re not at a huge disadvantage, they’re a nice size because they’ve played the style of smaller ball control players for a long time. They have very good passing, very good setting, they’re excellent servers,” says Harris.
It is also an advantage to have played together for so long. “They play with each other like no two other players play together. Their knowledge of the game is so incredible, they just know how to win,” says Harris.
The McNamara sisters are in Pool A with Italy, Latvia, Ecuador, Kazakhstan and Namibia. The Italians and Latvians will be the most tricky, and Canada must emerge top-4 to qualify for the round of 24.
The men also have two teams out of the six to worry more about. They will play a Ukrainian team fresh off silver at U19 Worlds, in addition to the always tough Argentinians. Sierra Leone, Sao Tome and Principe, (a Central African island of under 200-thousand), and Thailand are the rest of Pool D.
“We’re really excited about taking on some of the big name teams we’re looking to show we can play with those guys right off the bat and make an impact,” says MacNeil.
Richards follows up, “Every team here is amazing you’re not going to get any matches off. I think we’re in a good spot.” He also echoes the underdog sentiments of his partner with equal self-confidence, “As long as we win that last point of the tournament who cares what happened before that, right?”