Alexa Gray and the Canadian women’s team must win a three-day tournament opening Friday in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to make it to the Olympics, in a Jan. 8, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canada’s volleyball Tokyo 2020 dreams on the line in last-chance tournaments

Canadian volleyball player Alexa Gray feels extra motivation in an upcoming Olympic qualification tournament.

Her sister Jordan plays for the U.S. women’s rugby sevens team bound for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games. Their father is American and their deceased mother was Canadian.

Gray would far rather join her sibling in Tokyo as a participant than a spectator.

The 25-year-old Calgarian and the Canadian women’s team must win a three-day tournament opening Friday in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to punch their tickets to Tokyo.

“This year is especially big for me because my sister is also going to the Olympics,” Gray told The Canadian Press.

“There’s a little bit more riding on this and I really want it bad. I think it would be just the cherry on top if we could both make it to the same Olympics.”

Olympic dreams are on the line for both the men’s and women’s volleyball teams in last-chance qualifying tournaments this week.

Canada’s men, ranked seventh in the world, are the host team at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum.

They face No. 21 Mexico on Friday, No. 18 Cuba on Saturday and No. 24 Puerto Rico on Sunday.

The men qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics after an absence from the Summer Games of almost a quarter-century. The 12th-seeded Canadians bowed out to Russia in the quarterfinals.

Canada’s women placed ninth in 1996 in their last Olympic appearance.

Calgary’s Graham Vigrass is among nine players on the men’s squad looking to become two-time Olympians.

But the middle blocker says he and his teammates can’t get ahead of themselves.

Think too much about Tokyo this weekend and they could trip on their last opportunity to get there.

“It’s much more important to focus on qualifying first,” Vigrass said. “That’s the only thing on my mind.”

The men qualified for Rio via a last-chance tournament in Japan.

“It’s hard to compare if our team is better than we were four years ago,” Vigrass said. “I think we maybe have more experience playing big games like that, games with some high pressure.

“I think that’s in our favour this time.”

Canada’s women, ranked 18th in the world, face an uphill battle against No. 13 Puerto Rico, the No. 10 host Dominicans and No. 21 Mexico.

“It’s difficult obviously, but we definitely have a chance,” said Tom Black, an American who took over as head coach of the Canadian team less than a year ago.

“The Dominican is the clear favourite, but we pushed them to a five-set match over the summer.”

Canada was once under-represented in traditional team sports at Summer Games, but five teams qualifying for Rio matched the previous high of a non-boycotted Games — excluding the 1976 Olympics in Montreal when the country sent nine teams as a host.

Canada is poised for record-setting representation in Tokyo.

Five teams already have booked Olympic berths — men’s and women’s rugby sevens, women’s softball, men’s field hockey and women’s water polo.

Men’s and women’s volleyball, basketball and soccer teams could join them.

Sport Canada told Own The Podium in 2010 to set aside $6 million annually specifically for summer-team sports — both Olympic and Paralympic — to improve the country’s performance in them.

OTP is the body that provides technical expertise to sport federations and makes funding recommendations based on medal potential.

While the team-sport envelope of money is paying dividends, there’s also now more competition for the dollars.

OTP has directed $3.3 million to the men’s volleyball squad since 2016, but the women’s volleyball team received none.

“At this point, the women’s indoor program, there’s still progress to be made in some of those areas for them to be at the same level as some other sports that have been assessed,” OTP chief executive officer Anne Merklinger explained.

“There’s a very long list of Olympic and Paralympic team sports that are trying to be considered for a funding recommendation.

“It’s not the intent that this six million dollars would be spread across every summer Olympic and Paralympic team sport.

“It’s very much a ranking process based on those sports that are showing evidence of medal potential, or (Olympic) qualification at a minimum of eight years.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2020.

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