By Mark Colley
François St-Denis thought they would lose. The Louis-Riel high school girls’ volleyball team was down a handful of points in the final set of the 2011 provincial quarterfinals against what St-Denis believed to be the best team in Ontario. St-Denis had seen plenty of volleyball in his decades-long career — enough to know when a team was finished.
He called a timeout. That’s when 17-year-old Vicky Savard took over.
“I know you girls have worked too hard and we really need to get this together,” St-Denis recalls her saying. “I’ll get a few blocks here and set me as many balls as you can. Let’s get this done.”
That’s exactly what happened. Louis-Riel won the set 16-14 and went on to win the OFSAA championship for the second year in a row.
“Seventeen years old, ready to put her money where her mouth is and get it done,” St-Denis said. “I’ve been teaching for 25 years. It doesn’t work like that usually.”
Savard, now 29, recently made the Canadian senior women’s volleyball team for the first time after a six-year professional career in Europe. Her winding career and unusually late national team debut is a testament to her perseverance — both on the court, like at 2011 OFSAAs, and off it.
Savard has played all around the world. She attended the Université de Montréal, then played pro in Austria, Finland, Spain, Greece and France. But until last summer, the right-side hitter had only a handful of brushes with Team Canada — as a member of the developmental team in the early 2010s and at the 2015 FISU World Student Games.
“They didn’t need me, I didn’t need them, so that was it,” Savard said. “I just figured like, I’m gonna go play pro from September to April or May, and then when I’m done with the season, I’m gonna go home with my family.”
That changed in July 2021. Savard was recruited by a friend to play an exhibition match against Team Quebec in Quebec City, competing alongside national team members Shaïnah Joseph and Kim Robitaille. One of the coaches filmed some of the rallies and put it on Instagram.
National team head coach Shannon Winzer saw the video. “Who’s this girl in the green t-shirt?” Savard recalls her asking.
Winzer and Savard FaceTimed soon after. Winzer invited Savard to Vancouver, where the national team was practicing for three weeks before the women’s NORCECA Volleyball Championship in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“In a week, I just turned my life around,” Savard said, recalling a team meeting where they discussed what it takes to be an Olympian. “A week ago, I’m with my nephews at the park, minding my own business … I kind of felt like an imposter at first. Like, who the hell do I think I am, pretending like I’m gonna go to the Olympics?”
Savard went with the team to Guadalajara, then Winzer invited her back for the summer of 2022. It was then that the team finished 10th at the women’s world championship, the best finish in Canada’s history.
The previous best was 11th, last achieved in 1982. Savard didn’t just make her national team debut at the age of 29 — she also made it during the most successful campaign for Canada in four decades.
“You can’t time it better than that. It’s amazing,” St-Denis said. “Hollywood movie almost, right?”
The journey is something out of a movie, too. What kept Savard going for years in the professional landscape when others may have retired was the desire to keep improving. She said she will retire when she stops taking steps forward.
One of the biggest steps she took came after her third professional season. She had just wrapped up a successful season in Logroño, Spain, where her team won all three cups, but she was asking herself, “Am I really happy with what I am or what I’m doing?”
She went back to Louis-Riel to visit Jean-Robert Léger of Base Conditioning. While Savard was unsure of what she wanted to do, Leger convinced her to commit to a training plan for one summer.
“That was the moment where I thought, alright, if I want this, then I’m gonna have to change some things,” Savard said. “[Léger] kept me accountable … He really took me by the hand and I think he understood what I was trying to commit to.”
Savard’s commitment to her personal fitness meant giving up certain things, like going out for drinks with friends. But it also meant she kept improving and put her in a position to make the national team.
“Most people unfortunately after one or two attempts, if they’re cut, they don’t come back,” St-Denis said. “It speaks to her character and how she didn’t lose belief in herself.”
Now that she’s made the team, Savard’s attention has turned to qualifying for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. What was once a meeting she felt she didn’t deserve to be a part of at national team training in the summer of 2021 is now a realistic ambition.
But for Savard, the success of the national team isn’t out of the ordinary. She broke on to the national stage at the exact moment Canada found success and to her, it’s exactly what the team deserves.
“It feels almost natural,” Savard said. “I see how hard we’re working and I see all the worth in the team and I see all the amazing players we have on the team and to me, it’s like, of course we’d finish top-10 at the world championship. This is exactly what we can do.”
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