YORKTON - One of Canada’s premier beach volleyball players is walking away from the sand court, at least as a competitive player.
Heather Bansley, who twice has represented Canada at the Olympics has retired and is entering the coaching ranks. The 34-year-old from Waterdown, Ont., is joining the Canadian coaching staff of Volleyball Canada's NextGen program.
Bansley said the decision was one she has been mulling over for some time.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about . . . It took me a long time to get there,” she said. “It was an easy decision. I’ve been playing professionally for gosh – 12 years.”
In that time the sport of beach volleyball has certainly grown in terms of interest.
“I’m not surprised. It’s always been one of the fan favourite sports. It’s very spectator friendly, and it’s a blast to play,” said Bansley. “The nice thing is to see our sport get the recognition it deserves.”
That said in Canada the sport doesn’t have the profile it does in places such as Europe and Brazil, and Bansley said that is a result of lack on exposure in the country.
“We don’t have a domestic tour,” she said, adding being able to play at a high level closer to home to reduce costs is huge in developing a broader base in a sport.
So does Bansley see a domestic tour on the horizon in Canada?
“I wish it could happen. I wish it could happen in the next five years . . . But, I don’t know. It really comes down to money.”
Bansley’s retirement will leave a hole in the Canadian program for women’s volleyball considering the success she has enjoyed.
Most recently Bansley and partner Brandie Wilkerson made it to the quarter-finals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics before losing to Latvia's Anastasija Kravcenoka and Tina Graudina.
It was after the Games Bansley began to seriously think about retirement.
“It’s sort of the nature of amateur sport,” she said, explaining the Olympics are always the big goal, and they come along every four years, so athletes have to decide if they are willing to commit to another four years of training for the next event.
“I had to weigh where I was at,” said Bansley.
The tandem of Bansley and Wilkerson had been together for several years, with some notable successes, in particular in 2018, when they earned three gold medals on the FIVB World Tour and for a time were ranked No. 1 in the world.
“Brandie and I accomplished a lot together,” she said.
For example, the duo won their first international gold on Canada Day in 2018, which also happens to be Wilkerson’s birthday, which made it a rather special win on multiple levels, said Bansley.
But, the duo had decided to break up, and that too played a role in Bansley’s thinking.
“Brandie and I had decided we would no longer be playing together in the fall, so that was part of my decision,” she said.
Bansley said she could have sought out a new partner – Wilkerson has since joined forces with Sophie Bukovec – but she said she wasn’t sure starting over was the right move. With only three years to the next Olympics there was a question whether a new team with a younger partner could be ready.
Previous to her time with Wilkerson, Bansley had teamed with Sarah Pavan in 2015, where they earned Canada’s first ever FIVB Major Series medal for women in Porec, Croatia, finishing second. Bansley and Pavan also posted Canada’s then-best ever women’s result at the world championships with their fifth-place finish.
After closing the 2015 season with a fourth-place finish at the FIVB World Tour Finals, Bansley was named the 2015 FIVB World Tour Best Defensive Player.
At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio the team advanced to the quarter-finals, where they lost out to eventual gold medallists Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany.
So what does Bansley look back on as her career highlights?
“There’s so many,” she said, adding the biggest “was representing Canada at two Olympics games. It was really special I had the opportunity to do that.”
The Olympics included the thrill of walking into the stadium for the opening ceremonies, and then going on to win their first match.
Now Bansley will turn her efforts to coaching.
“I’m excited to still be involved in the volleyball community and to be able to give back to the sport that have gave me so much,” she said, adding she hopes she can continue to “inspire a lot of young women and men and . . . show them what they can do . . .
“I want to help our developing athletes get better.”