Chaim Schalk spends a lot of time playing in the sand.
His sandbox is a bit bigger than the average kid, sometimes even located in the heart of New York City.
The Red Deer native and professional beach volleyball player has played a few times on the Association of Volleyball Professionals beach tour this season, including an appearance in the Big Apple.
In early June, Schalk and 42-year-old Richard Santos were a last-minute entry to an AVP tournament. With only an hour of practice they quickly knocked out top-seeded Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena in the first round and made it all the way to the semifinals.
“They’re doing the right thing, it’s growing a lot,” Schalk said of the AVP. “We played in New York last week and the stadium was pretty much full the whole time. That’s in New York where there’s no beaches and that’s really cool.”
The 31-year-old is now in Porec, Croatia back together with Canadian Olympic teammate Ben Saxton. The duo will play several events in Europe this summer, building towards the Federation of International Volleyball Beach World Championships.
Although the pair didn’t accomplish what they wanted at the Rio Olympics after failing to advance out of their pool, Schalk said that just produced a hunger that drives him to get better.
“I’ve had a little taste – it definitely makes me want to go back and do better the next time,” he said.
That wasn’t always the dream for the former Red Deer College indoor volleyball star, as growing up he thought his Olympic dream would always come on the court.
“It became more of a reality when I went through high school and I was becoming a really good indoor player. I loved indoor volleyball and I thought I was going represent Canada indoors and played college in Red Deer,” he said.
“Keith Hansen gave me a lot of confidence. He thought looking at me, with my skill set, he said I think you can be the best setter in Canada and there’s nothing that can stop you from doing that.”
The first time the beach bug hit Schalk was when he was around 10 and he was watching the duo of John Child and Mark Heese win bronze at the Atlanta Olympics.
“I remember watching beach volleyball in ‘96 when I was 10 years old, that’s when John Child and Mark Heese won bronze. I thought that was amazing, I wanted to do that,” he recalled.
After he completed his university eligibility for volleyball, his focused turned to the beach. He said it was there where he found another dynamic in the game that had him hooked. While the basic skills in indoor and beach are essentially the same, the factors that effect the game from day-to-day make it a completely different mindset.
“If you have one small weakness in beach volleyball, with having only two guys on the court and having to touch the ball every single rally, you need to be dialed in other wise you’re going to be exploited,” he said.
“That’s the big reason why it is a tough mental game. People are going to figure you out and everyone knows each other. That’s what’s so great about it is you have to be able to battle. That’s why I love it.”
While he’s still got plenty of passion for the game, his biggest struggle in the sport today is the drop off in popularity following the Olympics. Not only in fanfare, but the sponsorship on the FVIB tour means less prize money and in general just less support. He said in contrast the AVP has been flourishing in North America, it’s simply not the same overseas.
“You’ve got to invest in your own product too if you want it to get bigger. They keep pulling back instead of pushing forward. A lot of the athletes are frustrated,” he said.
“For our livelihood and for the sport to grow, you can’t just have years like this where all of a sudden it goes backwards. Hopefully something will stick a little bit and that it’s not just every four years it becomes huge again.”