By Sam Loveys
Ottawa’s Shainah Joseph returned to the national women’s volleyball team this summer, and helped spark Canada to heights they’d never seen before.
Joseph and Team Canada finished off a solid 6-6 campaign against the world’s best with a big five-set victory over The Netherlands on Canada Day to earn their best-ever finish in Nations League competition (10th), but Sept. 16 is still the big date they’ve got circled on their calendar.
That’s when the Canadian women start their week-long Olympic qualification tournament in China, in search of their first Olympic berth since 1996.
“The Nations League was a baseline for us, showing what we had to work and focus on to improve for the Olympic qualifiers,” signals Joseph, noting the team will have two more chances to prepare for the big show with the Pan American Cup Aug. 4-14 in Puerto Rico and the NORCECA continental championships Aug. 27-Sept. 4 at home in Quebec City.
“We can look at what we did on the world scale and can work on ourselves and build-up even more at those tournaments,” adds Joseph.
The 28-year-old Ottawa Maverick Volleyball Club product took last summer off from national team duty. After 10 straight years of playing university, professional and international volleyball non-stop, it was time for a break.
“For my body it felt really nice, and it allowed me to get back some motivation,” explains Joseph, who prides herself on bringing lots of energy to her team, but felt that supply was depleted.
“What really makes me different is my energy. I’m super energetic and I bring that energy to the people around me. It allows me to play freely and enjoy playing while competing at a high level,” she adds. “It felt really nice to come back and the team and coaches were like, ‘You’re that piece that was missing in the gym, you’re that person that we were missing.’
“It’s nice to feel recognized and appreciated that people miss what I brought to the court.”
In Joseph’s absence, Team Canada broke through for its first-ever top-10 finish at the World Championships last year to bolster hopes for a return to the Olympics for the first time since the Atlanta Games.
Canada’s resurgence on the global stage continued on during their Nations League action, which took place in three segments between May 30-July 1.
The Canadians’ two biggest wins in Nations League were five-set barnburners, when they took down world #5 Serbia (18-25, 28-26, 25-23, 18-25, 15-12) and #4 Brazil (28-30, 25-22, 25-23, 21-25, 17-15).
Joseph scored her most points in a match during the campaign (seven) against Serbia, but taking down Brazil – where they say volleyball is the country’s #1 sport (because soccer is like a religion) – was especially unforgettable, she highlights.
“In the game against Brazil, we were very strong and aggressive behind the service line. When Canada is serving really well, we can do a lot of damage to a lot of teams. We were fighting for every single point and we never gave them the chance to come back from our insatiable pressure,” Joseph reflects.
“We kind of just built off every game that we played throughout the tournament. The last week we won three out of four, which shows how much we improved the little things over the tournament.”
Like most of her Team Canada mates, Joseph played professionally earlier this year, for French club Marcq-en-Baroeul.
“A lot of our players had really good seasons playing overseas,” indicates the Franco-Cité high school grad. “So when we came together playing with the national team, it’s like playing with your family again. We’re a very tight-knit team, so we’re able to use the full combinations in order to play really well.”
The Canadians took on four of the seven teams they’ll face in their upcoming Olympic qualifier during Nations League. They fell 3-0 to #6 China (14-25, 18-25, 27-29), and 3-2 to #9 Dominican Republic (25-22, 13-25, 17-25, 25-23, 10-15), while they topped #10 Netherlands (25-27, 25-16, 18-25, 25-23, 15-9) and Serbia.
Czech Republic (#18), Mexico (#19) and Ukraine (#20) are the other countries in Canada’s group. The two finalists from the eight-team group will secure their tickets to Paris 2024.
The five highest-ranked teams on June 17 after the conclusion of the 2024 Nations League preliminary round that do not earn positions from the qualifying tournament will be selected to complete the 12-team Olympic field. Each continent must be represented though, and host France has received an automatic entry.
With the 12th rank at the moment, the Canadians could end up on the outside of the world rankings qualification pathway, so their full attention will be on the Sept. 16-24 event in China.
Team Canada will travel to South Korea a week before that, with a few exhibition games planned against other top opponents. Joseph notes that the different culture and training conditions in Asia can often be challenging for Canada.
“The biggest difference is the practice facilities. When we were in Hong Kong and Bangkok, it’s really hot out there; they did not have A/C in our gyms. We were training in some really high heat and humidity, which obviously is very tough on the body,” recounts Joseph.
“On a more positive note, we have a lot less distractions in Asia. We can really focus because it’s just the team, there aren’t any distractions like when living at home in Canada. You get to build team chemistry. All you do is play volleyball and go back to the hotel. We prioritize our treatment and recovery time.”
While gaining an Olympic berth is Joseph’s primary focus at present, she has another exciting opportunity around the corner. The former University of Florida Gators star will play for Orlando in a new women’s pro league.
Set to begin play in February 2024, the Pro Volleyball Federation is billed as “the first women’s professional volleyball league in North America that provides world-class players the opportunity to make a living wage without having to go overseas to pursue their professional careers.”
“They’ve asked me to become a franchise athlete for their Orlando team. As the franchise player I’d essentially be the face of the team, which is perfect given my history in Florida,” says Joseph, who frequently visits Florida to keep up with friends and teammates. “It’s all about balance. While next summer may be one of my last on the national volleyball team, I do not plan on stopping playing volleyball anytime in the future.”
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