Steep learning curve for Canuck volleyball

ALISON KORN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:36 AM ET

In her ninth year on the national women's volleyball squad, team captain Tammy Mahon admits to feeling emotional at the thought of qualifying for the Olympics.

Mahon, 29, is a professional volleyball player from Holland, Man., who has played on pro teams in Sweden, Holland, Romania and Azerbaijan. She left on Thursday with the Canadian team for the 2010 world championships in Japan -- the first worlds appearance for all of the Canadian players.

"I come from a really small town, I loved sports, but the Olympics wasn't something I really grew up knowing a ton about," said Mahon, at 5-foot- 10, one of the shortest on the team. "Over the years, my perspective has changed so much. In Year 9, it's such an emotional thing for me now because I have invested so much of my life and my time in Team Canada volleyball. It has changed from something that I want for me, to something I want for Team Canada volleyball and my country."

Volleyball is a tough sport for a Canadian to excel in. A handful of the best can get pro contracts in Europe, some national team players are still in university and six senior team women train full-time at the national centre in Winnipeg. Contrast that to the Peruvian women's team, which draws crowds of 10,000 to their games and has inspired a soap opera based on their lives.

"We're very unknown in Canada," said 24-year-old Julie Young, from Red Deer, Alta., in her second year on the national team. "We were just down in Peru and Argentina and the amount of people that crowded around their national team was just insane. Their Peruvian team is like our men's hockey team. They're treated as royalty."

The Canadian team will have to improve its world ranking to get any royal treatment. Currently ranked 24th, they got a huge confidence boost this month in winning a match against Cuba, ranked sixth. Mind you, Cuba won the two other matches in the series over the Canadians. But that the Canucks could defeat a top team shows they are "learning how to win," as Mahon put it.

"In nine years we've only beaten Cuba twice," Mahon noted. "You have to learn how to win and our team is in the process of learning how to win right now. It's slow, but it's happening."

The team will need its momentum to continue throughout the next couple of weeks if they want to reach their goal of making the top 16 at the 2010 FIVB women's world championship Oct. 29 to Nov. 14.

Next to the Olympics, the world championship is the most prestigious event in volleyball. It's only held every four years. Canada didn't qualify for the previous worlds, held in 2006, and the last Olympics they competed at were in 1996. With only 12 Olympic berths, it's a huge task to earn one.

Now they find themselves in a tough pool, facing China, Russia, Korea, Dominican Republic and Turkey.

"All teams are ranked ahead of Canada," said women's head coach Arnd (Lupo) Ludwig. "Four pools and this one is by far the toughest. It's going to be very tough to advance to the next round."

Ludwig, a German who moved to coach full-time at the national centre in Winnipeg last year, knows his team is physically very strong.

"We are tall, we jump very high," Ludwig said. "We're very good at blocking. We worked a lot this summer and physically, I think our girls are very well prepared for the world championships."

Winning a few more big games would prepare the Canadians well for the 2011 season, when the Olympic qualifying process begins for London 2012.

alison_korn@hotmail.com


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