The breakthrough season for Canadian beach volleyball players Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson started with their first World Tour bronze medal together last spring. More podium appearances were quick to follow.
Their perch right now is from the top. Bansley, from Waterdown, Ont., and Wilkerson, from Toronto, are the No. 1-ranked team in the world and are hitting their stride with the Olympic qualification period fast approaching.
“It’s really given us a lot of confidence that we obviously can compete with the best and that we deserve to be in Tokyo,” Bansley said.
After finishing third at the Itapema Open in May, the Canadians won three titles and five medals in all. They capped their year with recent back-to-back victories at the Las Vegas Open and Chetumal Open.
Bansley, 31, and Wilkerson, 26, have already secured a berth in an early 2019 qualifier for the Tokyo Games and have moved into second spot in the Olympic rankings.
Bansley, who first represented Canada at the 2007 junior world championship, finished fifth at the 2011 Guadalajara Pan Am Games with Elizabeth Maloney. Bansley teamed with Sarah Pavan after Maloney’s retirement in 2013 and they took fourth spot at the 2015 FIVB World Tour Finals and fifth place at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Pavan and Bansley parted ways after the Rio Games. Wilkerson, who started her beach career in 2013, teamed up with Bansley for the new quadrennial while Pavan partnered with Melissa Humana-Paredes.
“When we teamed up, Heather was already an established world-class defender and I was coming into my game with a lot of potential,” Wilkerson said in a recent interview. “So we knew in a very tactical volleyball sense we would be a great fit. But I don’t think we knew each other personally very well so it was also a bonus that we get along very well, have a lot of things in common and really enjoy playing together.”
Wilkerson and Bansley lead the Tour with 5,660 ranking points. Brazil’s Agatha Bednarczuk and Eduarda Santos Lisboa are next with 5,480 while Pavan and Humana-Paredes are tied for third at 5,440.
“We both had a goal to be the top team in the world and I think our goal is to be consistent,” Wilkerson said. “While it was really great to reach that goal this year, there was two years of work behind it since the first day Heather and I got together.
“Now it will be even more work to stay on top.”
The Vegas victory over Pavan and Humana-Paredes came in the first all-Canadian final in FIVB World Tour history. Pavan and Humana-Paredes still have a 4-3 edge in career head-to-head matchups.
All four players have helped Canada make its mark on the women’s beach volleyball scene. After 23 seasons without a single podium appearance on the women’s FIVB World Tour, there have been 23 medals awarded to Canadian teams over the last four years.
“All four of us have been putting in a lot of time behind the scenes,” Wilkerson said. “It’s very nice to see that all of us have found success at the same time and been able to make such an impact at the same time.”
The 2019 season opener is set for Jan. 2-6 in The Hague.