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Photos of a four-year-old Melissa Humana-Paredes holding an Olympic medal are early clues what direction her life would take.
Her father, Hernan Humana, coached Canadians John Child and Mark Heese to bronze in Atlanta in 1996 when beach volleyball made its Olympic debut, and coached the duo again in 2000 in Sydney, Australia.
Melissa knew from an early age what the pursuit of athletic excellence demanded.
“I remember my dad was gone a lot travelling on the world tour, and trying to qualify for the Olympics, and then he was gone for the Olympics,” she said. “He gave my brother and I a map and put pushpins in all the different countries that he was going to be in.
“Every week he would travel to a new country, we would attach a string from each push pin so we could follow along on his journey to the Olympics.
“That’s when it really hit me what travelling and chasing this Olympic dream meant.”
The 28-year-old from Toronto hopes to close the circle with an Olympic medal, and perhaps of a more precious metal than the one she wore around her neck as a child.
Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan of Kitchener, Ont., the reigning women’s world beach volleyball champions, play their first match at the Tokyo Olympics on July 24 against Katja Stam and Raisa Schoon of the Netherlands.
“I didn’t know how much all those experiences were going to impact her and influence her,” Hernan Humana said. “It has been quite dramatic.”
Hernan, who also coached York University’s women’s volleyball team for a decade, was his daughter’s first coach and oversaw her indoor and beach teams until she was 17.
“My dad will still always be my coach,” Humana-Paredes said. “He knows what it takes to get to the Olympics. He’s always been around and been super-helpful.”
Hernan played for the Chilean men’s indoor volleyball team and Melissa’s mother Myriam was a dancer.
Despite that lineage, Melissa didn’t stand out in terms of physical gifts to play beach volleyball, her father said.
But she showed both sport intelligence and passion for volleyball at an early age.
“She was not tall; she was not physically strong. In fact, if anything, she was skinny and short,” Hernan recalled.
“She did some things that were unusual. Mechanically some things I spent hours and hours teaching other kids to do, I would toss a ball to her, and she would do it right away.
“If there was one cue, maybe that was the cue to tell me there was something special about her.”
Melissa said her father didn’t pressure her or her brother Felipe, who also played on the world beach tour, into volleyball.
But the siblings spent a lot of time around beach courts shagging balls for Child and Heese, and liked what Hernan was accomplishing there.
“I was involved in a lot of sports, but beach volleyball was my calling,” Melissa said. “I knew that at a very young age. I was always around the beach at his practices and seeing how he worked. It was very intriguing to me.
“Because I grew up as my dad’s daughter, I was exposed to this Olympic journey. It was part of my upbringing and my childhood. Olympics was just part of our family discussions.
“I also knew the sacrifices that had to be made, the sacrifices my dad made.”
Hernan emigrated to Canada in 1980. He joined his family who had fled brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet five years earlier.
“I stayed behind playing with the national team and trying to help to restore democracy,” Hernan said. “It sounds very idealistic and unrealistic as well at the time, but that’s what I did.”
Hernan wrote a book about his experiences titled “Playing Under the Gun.”
“I was a national-team player representing that country and it was not easy,” he said.
“As (Melissa) has learned from the stories from her mom and from me, she has said ‘wow, my parents sacrificed so much so I can have these opportunities, I have to use them.’ Not so much as a weight on her shoulders, but as a lifting opportunity.
“She’s such a thoughtful little one in that sense. She hasn’t forgotten who has been instrumental in helping her get where she is.”
Sacrifice, in pursuit of Olympic glory, is worth it, says his daughter.
“I don’t take it lightly, representing Canada and wearing the Maple Leaf,” she said.