Toronto – At roughly the size of Toronto Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas, Gavin Schmitt could easily be mistaken for a basketball player.
But walking through the lobby of a downtown Toronto hotel on Wednesday morning, a passerby recognized the towering star of Canada’s men’s volleyball team.
He wished Schmitt good luck in the Rio Olympics.
Schmitt and his teammates clinched their Olympic berth last weekend, and now are set to star in a spotlight Canadian volleyball hasn’t enjoyed in 24 years.
The Canadian team has been on the rise since it rejoined the prestigious World League in 2012, but hasn’t played in an Olympics since 1992. Schmitt is thrilled about what it might mean for his sport.
“We’ve seen an increase in popularity, and the growth in the sport since we got back in World League and they started televising it. And people are able to connect with athletes now on social media,” Schmitt said.
“I remember coming through university and there was no way to connect with the national team athletes and know who was on the team and what they were doing, and I think all of these avenues have helped it grow.
“And then you put Olympics on top of that, and it’s going to amplify things tenfold because more people than watch World League will watch the Olympics, and will see Canada in it for the first time in 24 years.”
The Canadians beat China in their last-chance qualifying tournament Saturday, and then, back at their hotel, had to wait and watch online as Poland knocked off Australia to finally secure a spot for Canada.
“We were too nervous to sit in the gym,” Schmitt said. “We found out we’d qualified when we heard other people screaming, because our (online) stream was behind.”
The hours since have been a whirlwind of appearances and interviews for Schmitt, who wasn’t entirely sure he’d be able to play in the qualifying tournament in Japan. In January, he underwent surgery for a stress fracture in his shin that involved cutting through his knee and then hammering a rod down through his shin bone and anchoring it with two screws.
“It’s not really nice,” Schmitt said of the gruesome procedure.
While recovery can take as long as six months, Schmitt was back on the court in almost half that time.
“It was a very stressful time. We kind of assumed we would qualify back in January at our first-chance qualifier, and that didn’t go so well,” Schmitt said. “I thought I was going to have seven months to take care of this injury, but had to rush it, and I wasn’t sure that I was going to make it back, but very fortunate that things turned out the way they did.”
Rio will be just the fourth Olympic appearance for Canada since 1964. The team’s best-ever Olympic showing was fourth place in 1984.
Men’s volleyball was the fifth Canadian team to qualify for Rio, following women’s soccer, women’s basketball, women’s rugby and men’s field hockey. Canada had five teams at the 2008 Games in Beijing, but they included men’s baseball and women’s softball, which are no longer Olympic sports.
The most teams Canada has ever entered is nine in Montreal in 1976, but as the host nation it was guaranteed entry in every sport. Canada had eight teams in Los Angeles in 1984, but that was partly due to opening up of spots amid the Soviet-led boycott.
Canada’s women’s volleyball team last played in the Olympics in 1996, and long-time star Sarah Pavan switched to beach volleyball in an effort to qualify for Rio. The beach teams have yet to be named.
A joke press release was circulated on April Fool’s Day, announcing that Schmitt was leaving the indoor game to play beach volleyball this summer.
“It caught wind,” Schmitt said, laughing. “A lot of people were asking if I was switching to beach.”
A national team member since 2007, this was Schmitt’s third attempt to qualify for the Olympics, and the Saskatoon native said Rio will be the highlight of his career.
“It’s something pretty rare for Canadian volleyball players, and Canadian athletes, to get to go,” said Schmitt, who’s also enjoyed a successful nine-year career playing professionally overseas. “Hopefully we’ll maybe start qualifying every four years now, but is that a reality? I’m not sure. So it’s absolutely huge.
“And to come and be here late in my career and be able to go, it’s probably the biggest thing that’ll ever happen in my career.”
By Lori Ewing
The Canadian Press