Red Deer Olympian Chaim Schalk is getting a taste of superstar treatment in Rio.
While street-level adulation might be old hat to Canada’s hockey royalty, it’s been a new —and pleasant — experience for the veteran beach volleyball player and teammate Calgary’s Ben Saxton.
“It’s crazy. Beach volleyball is one of the biggest sports in Brazil, just behind soccer, I think,” said the former Red Deer College King and national champion.
“It’s massive here. There are so many fans and everybody knows what’s going on and people know who we are because they are so into volleyball.”
He and Saxton regularly get stopped by fans for autographs and selfies.
“I’ve been playing beach volleyball for a long time and you never really get that recognition at all,” said the 30-year-old Schalk on the phone from Rio on Wednesday morning.
“It kind of makes you feel like you’re a real pro athlete, which doesn’t normally happen,” he said with a chuckle.
The atmosphere at Tuesday’s game against highly ranked Brazil, which the Canadians won, was “nuts,” he said.
“The fans are kind of crazy here, the Brazilian fans. They get super-involved and they want their teams to win so far.
“We’ll be going to serve and they’ll be booing us, which is totally unheard of in the sport, really,” he said. “It doesn’t really bug us. It’s just kind of fun having all that going on.”
Schalk has been getting plenty of home-grown support as well. Schalk’s parents and three of his four brothers are in Rio and he’s regularly getting well wishes from back home through social media.
“We were at the Canada House yesterday and it was really amazing there. I guess everybody had watched the (Brazil) game and they all knew who we were and they wanted to chat.
“It’s really cool that we’re feeling so much love from everybody.”
“In general, it’s been really amazing. Rio’s been really cool.”
Schalk believes the beach volleyball team’s Olympic exposure could give the sport a lift in Canada.
“It could be a big turning point for the sport in general, I think. It’s been super-popular so far back home and everybody seems to be watching the games.
“It really is an exciting sport. Hopefully, it can gain a lot of traction from this.”
Next up for the Canadian duo is Thursday’s game against a Cuban pair, who have already beaten top-ranked Latvia and Brazil.
“It’s going to be a really great match, I know that because they are playing really well.
“And they are kind of relatively unknown team that teams don’t really know how to play yet.”
The number of Canadian fans in Rio might give their team a little hometown advantage.
Expect a battle with the Cubans, he said.