When the 2016 Olympic Games begin in Rio this August, former Red Deer College Kings Volleyball players will be part of the world’s most celebrated sporting event.
The Canadian men’s volleyball team clinched their spot for the Olympics earlier this month, with former Kings players, Gavin Schmitt and Dallas Soonias, being integral pieces in the team’s success.
“Gavin is one of the strongest players on the national team, and he was at RDC during the 2006-07 season – he actually hit the last ball to win the national title during our eight-in-a-row run,” said Keith Hansen, former Kings Volleyball Head Coach. “Dallas is from Red Deer and played for the Kings for two seasons. He has been a huge part of building the national team, helping them to achieve the success they have.”
Soonias, who has played professionally for 10 years and has been on the national team for 13 years, is excited for what this means for his team, but he is currently injured and unsure if he will be able to join them in Rio.
“I had knee surgery two-and-a-half years ago, and then surgery on my other knee two months ago,” he says. “I’m currently training daily to get to the level needed to compete. One of my biggest motivators is that I realize this is bigger than me personally. Several years ago, I started to receive messages that I was a role model for Aboriginal youth – at first I didn’t consider myself in that way, but as I got older, I realized that I have to be a positive role model. That’s really why I’m still working so hard to be able to go to Rio.”
Soonias and Schmitt didn’t play together at RDC, but they have been on the national team together since 2007.
For Schmitt, representing Canada at the Olympics is an incredible achievement that the team has been working toward for many years.
“When you look at championship tournaments, the World Championships is a bigger event with 24 teams competing, but the Olympics is the most prestigious event in the world,” he said. “A national team does all of its building and planning based on a four-year cycle to try and get to the Olympics, so this is a massive achievement for our team.”
And it’s an achievement that is extra-special for the indoor men’s volleyball team, which last participated in the Olympics in 1992.
“This is such an exciting time for us – for the current players and coaches, and for all of those who were such an important part of us getting here,” said Schmitt. “It’s also an important time for volleyball in Canada, and that makes me very excited for our sport.”
From indoor to beach, Canada will be well-represented at the Olympics, as former Kings player, Chaim Schalk, and his teammate, Ben Saxton, will also be at the Games this summer.
“Chaim is from Red Deer, and he played through all of the club programs before coming to RDC,” Hansen said. “He was a setter on the Kings team, but he was also an all-around great player.”
Schalk grew up playing beach volleyball in his backyard at his family’s acreage near Red Deer, and he decided to officially pursue this side of the game in 2009, making the national team that year. He partnered with Ben Saxton from Calgary in 2013, and the teammates moved to California to train when not competing on the world tour.
“Representing Canada at the Olympics is a dream come true for me,” Schalk said. “Ben and I have proven that we can medal at the toughest tournaments, so that is our focus. There’s still a ton of preparation that needs to happen before August, but our team is ready for the challenge.”
Soonias, Schmitt and Schalk all agree that their time at RDC helped to shape their lives and their athletic careers. “My time at Red Deer College really stands out for me, because we were such a team,” says Soonias. “I’ve played all over the world since then, and I’ve never played with another group that was so completely focused on the team outcome – everybody had something to contribute, but it was always for the betterment of the team.”
This theme of excellence is part of what student-athletes learn at RDC, and Athletic Director Diane St-Denis explains how this relates to the variety of paths students may take after graduation.
“Students have the opportunity to learn so many athletic, academic and life skills here,” she said. “But the opportunities at RDC span beyond their time here, as they may choose to pursue excellence in any path they take, and pursuing and achieving an Olympic dream is certainly a wonderful example of this.”