It was the culmination of years of hard work and practice for Red Deer’s Chaim Schalk, as the 30-year-old beach volleyball player had the opportunity to compete in his first Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last week.
“The trip was pretty awesome. It was a pretty amazing experience. Everything involved was really cool and we felt so much support from everyone back home and everyone that was there with us. Just competing on that stage was really, really cool,” said Schalk during a phone interview from Long Beach, California, where he is busy preparing for his next major tournament.
“We worked super hard to do it and (teammate) Ben (Saxton) and I teamed up four years ago and we made it clear that we wanted to go and continue to progress. Obviously the end goal was to make it and to give ourselves a chance to be a medal contending team at the Olympics. And we did all of that.”
Schalk and Saxton fought their way through to the quarterfinals of the men’s beach volleyball tournament before being eliminated in straight sets by the duo of Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen from the Netherlands last week.
Despite coming up short of the medal rounds, Schalk said the team is taking it in stride.
“Things didn’t go quite as well as we would have hoped for, but we know it’s hard. We’ve battled in these tournaments of the same calibre, it’s just that this wasn’t our time.”
Right from the get go of the tournament, the duo were faced with some of the toughest competition they’ve ever seen.
“We were put in, in any beach volleyball tournament, probably the hardest pool that has ever been put together. That’s because we had Brazil as the top seed, we had Latvia, who was injured for part of last year so they were ranked lower than what they should have been,” said Schalk, who along with Saxton went into the tournament ranked seventh in the world.
Topping off the four-team pool was Cuba, who don’t play on the World Tour, but according to Schalk are a strong team.
“Going into the tournament we knew it was going to be a grind just to get out of the pool.”
Still, the pair put up some really good fights, coming within two points of toppling the Latvians in their first game of the tournament before upsetting the Brazilians in three sets in their second.
“Beating Brazil in Brazil was something that I’ll never forget. That was pretty amazing with that huge crowd and all of the support that we received after, it was really amazing,” Schalk said.
The pair ended up going 1-2 in the pool round, finishing third in their pool. That meant they would have to play a ‘Lucky Loser’ game in order to qualify for the quarter finals.
They were up to the task, as they ousted Poland in straight sets to advance into the elimination matches.
“It was a pretty tough draw to go against Poland and then to qualify for the Netherlands, who are a little bit younger physical team who won the World Championships and if they get hot, they can really take any team down.”
Unfortunately for Schalk and Saxton, the Dutch team were on their game and were able to oust the Canadians in straight sets.
“In that sense, we know it’s tough because we know that game got away from us a little bit. That’s a team that we’ve beaten three times and we hadn’t lost to them before,” Schalk said, explaining that on the World Tour, you tend to know where you stand against certain teams. Upsets aren’t necessarily that common of an occurrence.
“If you’re top 20 in the world you’ve probably beaten almost every team. This was one team that hadn’t beaten us yet and everything kind of came together for them, this one time, to beat us. It’s kind of frustrating because we had them figured out a little bit. It was just one of those games where nothing was really going how we needed it to go.”
Despite the frustrating way in which their Games ended, Schalk said the team is happy with how they did overall.
“Overall we battled really hard and felt really good about it, obviously, as a whole.”
For the Red Deer College alumnus, the team’s work ethic on the road to Rio is what he is most proud of.
“We wanted to medal, so it was a little disappointing. For the Olympics, that alone, the journey getting there was really special for us, I think. I’m really proud of that.”
Now the duo are preparing for the final Grand Slam tour event of the season, which goes this week in Long Beach, before they get to make their way back to Canadian soil to play in the World Tour finals, which take place in Toronto this year.
“That’s really exciting for us because I’ve never played a big tournament in Canada. Canada, in general, never has World Tour events, so this will be really big for exposure,” Schalk said of the final tournament of the season, which only allows the top 12 teams in the world to compete for the ultimate prize on the tour.
The FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour finals go on Sept. 13th-18th in Toronto.
Also competing in the Olympics from Red Deer was Gavin Schmitt, who played on the Canadian men’s indoor volleyball team. The group made a strong push to the quarterfinals before being eliminated by the Russians in straight sets.