Training under the sun

Nunavut's boys and girls high performance volleyball teams prepare for Arctic Winter Games in St. Maarten

James McCarthy | St. Maarten
January 8, 2016

Nunavut's boys and girls high performance volleyball teams get in some practice on an outdoor court during its training program in St. Maarten earlier this month. - photo courtesy of Volleyball Nunavut

Nunavut’s boys and girls high performance volleyball teams get in some practice on an outdoor court during its training program in St. Maarten earlier this month. – photo courtesy of Volleyball Nunavut

There are several places where you could ring in the New Year and not have too much fun.

Chances are spending it on the Caribbean island nation of St. Maarten isn’t one of those places.

That’s where Nunavut’s boys and girls high performance volleyball teams were beginning on Jan. 1 as the players and coaches have been holding its training program in preparation for the 2016 Arctic Winter Games in Greenland.

Any team preparing to go to the AWG always has a camp of some sort to get everyone on the same page team-wise and skill-wise but it’s a safe bet no volleyball team from Nunavut has ever graced St. Maarten.

When Nunavut’s volleyball teams prepared for the 2014 AWG, they travelled to Kelowna, B.C. but how did this trip all come about? Romeyn Stevenson of Iqaluit, who will be coaching the girls entry in Greenland, said, believe it or not, Volleyball Nunavut had contacts on the island.

“There were contacts which made this the best place to be for volleyball,” he said. “We’ve been playing international matches as well while we’ve been here.”

Half of the team – those coming from the eastern portion of the territory – arrived on Jan. 1 after spending New Year’s Eve in Ottawa in a hotel beside the airport but those coming in from the western portion were actually able to ring in the New Year in St. Maarten itself.

“I guess for us coming in from the east, it was OK to be in Ottawa because we knew what was on the other end of it,” said Stevenson with a chuckle. Those matches have been against the St. Maarten national junior teams and because the island is split into two different countries – a French side and a Dutch side – they managed to play both versions of those junior teams.

“That provided us with an opportunity for some competitiveness that we probably wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere,” said Stevenson. “We’ve also had some coaching available to us here that’s been really good for our teams.”

When it comes to comparability to Nunavut’s teams, Stevenson said the level of play of the national junior teams there is a little higher based on the chance to play more high-level games than Nunavut does on a regular basis.

But in terms of skill, it’s pretty close.

“I think the longer we have together, the better we’ll become and the better we’ll do,” he said. “The population is about the same as Nunavut but it’s a smaller land mass so they have more chances to get together than we do and it showed when we played them.”

Lest you think this was nothing more than a hot holiday junket, you would be partly right. The teams had been able to take in some of the more touristy functions, such as sight-seeing and snorkeling and even stopping to see a real live iguana, something not normally seen in Nunavut outdoors, but Stevenson said this was a volleyball-first deal and the players were put through their paces right from the start.

“From day one, we had three-a-day practices and that went down to two over time,” he said. “The girls have plenty of sore muscles but that’s what we wanted. We wanted them to know that they were going to work.”

When it comes to the girls side, it’s one that is loaded with plenty of experience with several of them having competed at the 2014 AWG, the 2014 North American Indigenous Games or both and that will come in handy in Greenland.

Stevenson said they all know each other and that will be huge when the Games begin.

“They’ve really bonded together as a group,” he said. “They play together, they hang out together, they eat together and they’re having fun together. They all want to be together and they’ll all be friends for a lifetime because of this.”

For the boys, John Legate of Iqaluit will once again lead the team into the Games and just like the girls, it was a case of work first, fun second with the same amount of practising.

“We’ve been getting up around 6 a.m.-ish and hitting the courts,” he said. “We’ve been working on a lot of defensive strategy, things that don’t involve a lot of jumping. Our executive director, Scott Schutz, lined up games for us so we can work on the offensive side of things.”

It may sound obvious but the big difference was the climate but not for the reason you may think. It’s warmer, yes, but when it comes to warming up, Legate said it’s a lot different warming up in St. Maarten than Iqaluit.

“In Iqaluit, you have to do a lot of running and work just to get everything working but in St. Maarten, all it takes is two minutes and you’re working up a sweat, especially in the non-air conditioned gymnasiums of the Caribbean,” he said.

The boys won bronze at the last AWG in Alaska but unlike the girls, the boys team doesn’t have the same sort of experience among its ranks. There are two players returning from the North American Indigenous Games team which won silver in 2014 but it will be a young team heading to Greenland.

Legate said it wouldn’t be completely fair to call it a rebuilding process because that would lend itself to mean the team won’t be competitive.

“They’re young but they’re talented,” he said. “Romeyn’s group has big-time competition experience but living in Nunavut, it’s one of the factors that goes into planning. You don’t get to play a lot of matches in Nunavut and that’s always a hurdle. When the players are coming from Gjoa Haven, Pond Inlet, Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit, they don’t get to play together often and we’re working on getting these kids on the same page.”

Everything wrapped up for the group on on Jan. 9 and most of them returned to Nunavut on Jan. 11.