Taylor Pischke remains a mystery and her truth as an athlete remains buried in the sand -- only to be uncovered with more time on the beach.
Pischke and her partner Melissa Humana-Paredes are ranked 47th in the world in beach volleyball and have climbed to this height as part-time players. Only when they devote themselves fully to the beach game will their ability and horizon be accurately judged.
For the Winnipeg-born and University of Manitoba Bisons indoor volleyball team member Pischke, this could result in a very difficult decision when fall arrives.
"I plan on going back and playing one more year with Bisons, but everything can change. I'm still seeing how beach ball is for the rest of the summer," said Pischke, who was recently in Winnipeg for a three-day stay before jetting to California to take part in a tournament this week in Long Beach. "Playing on the world tour will give us a good idea of where we're at in terms of having a good chance of qualifying for the Olympics. So I'm still just playing it by ear on the last couple of months of the beach season here."
Pischke and Humana-Parades won a qualifying game in Long Beach to make the main draw and they won their last match of the round robin to earn a spot among the final 24 teams in the playdowns. The duo were Canada's only team to advance to the playdowns at the $1 million dollar Long Beach event with the toughest field in beach volleyball.
For the defending national champion Bisons, having Pischke considering a full-time move to beach volleyball has to be disconcerting. But Team Canada's beach volleyball coach Steve Anderson says it's the only way Pischke and Humana-Parades can achieve success in the sand.
"Taylor has been in Manitoba playing indoor and plays primarily as a blocker. Great athlete, can play either position, blocker or defender, has a really good volleyball IQ and you can see her dad was a good influence," said Anderson. "She's a volleyball kid, she's been around people who know about volleyball all her life. You can see it in her game. You have no idea where her real ability is because she's just finishing up university. Unfortunately she hasn't had a proper off-season to prepare for beach.
"Melissa is in the same position playing at York University. If they elect to take the indoor season off and commit to beach, the 2015 season will be the first time her and Melissa have an opportunity to have an off-season and hit the gym hard, let their bodies recover."
Pischke grew up in a house where volleyball was ever-present. Her father Garth coached and played for the national team while mother Cindy was a standout university player.
"My dad played for Canada at the Olympics and Mom played for the junior national team for indoor volleyball and she won three CIS championships with the University of Saskatchewan," said Pischke, whose brother Dane also played at U of M. "My parents are a big influence. We used to play beach as far back as I can remember. I have a brother as well who plays and we have a perfect beach team, two on two. So I have been playing since I was little. My parents still play very well, I'm super impressed. We played at the cottage yesterday and I am still impressed on how well they're doing. They're still competitive so it's always really fun to play."
Pischke's beach game is typical of most converted indoor players in that it's well-rounded but she has yet to develop a game tailored distinctly for the sand.
"I need to develop more shots," she explains.
When Pischke is asked where she plans to be in the summer of 2016 the answer comes out quickly.
"Hopefully at the Rio Olympics. Everything we do is leading up to that, so we're definitely on the path to that and that is our ultimate goal," she said. "I am 21 years old. I think I'm just hitting my stride. Most players on the tour are around 27 or 28 so we're pretty young to be on the tour so I think we have a couple more years until we finally peak so it's exciting for us that we're still so young and getting to experience so much.
"Right now we are ranked third in Canada, so we would need to pass one of the two teams ahead of us, but it looks like in the next couple of weeks we could potentially pass the No. 2-ranked team. We are only 20 points behind them. So I don't know, I think we have a really good chance. We will know more next year because that is the Olympic qualifying year and we are going to need some big results for that but I'm excited and am really looking to work hard for that. It has always been my goal."
Anderson says he has Pischke and Humana-Parades pegged to represent Canada in Tokyo in 2020 but wouldn't be surprised if they speed things up and get to Rio.
"The real story of Taylor and Melissa won't be known until next spring," he said. "They've already shown their national standards. They have accumulated results with not-so-full preparation. It encourages them to no do beach full-time because they have gotten away with it. I want the kids to get an education and let them know from an early age that if they want to be beach focused, they also have to get an education. Not everyone turns out to be an Olympian.
"So they've been on a good path. Now we're going to find out more about them. Actually I wouldn't be surprised if they made it to Rio. I think that her and Melissa are a great team, a quality team."
The beach game gives a player more control over the outcome with just two players rather than the six on the court indoors. Pischke has excelled in both games and two years she spent half the summer on the indoor national team before switching to the beach nats.
"It's kind of strange being from Winnipeg and playing beach and people do approach me saying that 'it's kind of funny'. In Toronto there are a lot more people playing beach because there are a lot of indoor facilities, and in Winnipeg we're not that fortunate yet to be able to play in the winter," said Pischke. "You can see on the national team that I am the only person from Winnipeg and that most of the people are from Toronto."
The financial side of Pischke's dream is daunting. She receives $7,200 a year from the federal government but to spend a full season on the beach tour costs in the neighbourhood of $40,000.
"We get carding money, which is a bit of funding but is nowhere near what we need to fund our travels because we are going all over the world. We do have personal sponsors but we do end up having to pay quite a bit out of our own pocket. There is also prize money, which helps as well when you do well, which we have been. So far we have to look for more sponsors and everything to help us get to the tournaments," said Pischke. "So it's mainly my partner and I finding sponsors that are interested, so it's mostly us doing the work there. It's stressful sometimes because we obviously want to go to as many tournaments as we can, so getting more sponsors definitely helps."