Mike Burchuk wasn't a coach who made exceptions.
He's old school, tough — admittedly too tough at times — and demanding. Ask one of his former players and they'll likely tell you game days felt like a walk in the park compared to practice.
But after seeing Janis Kelly for the first time at a Canadian women's volleyball national team tryout in Winnipeg in May of 1992, Burchuk had to throw his personal rulebook out the window.
Kelly, a star power hitter for the University of Winnipeg, had made the team, but there was a problem: she was going to Quebec that summer to study French.
"You could imagine my reaction to that," Burchuk told the Free Press. Burchuk coached the Wesmen to six straight national titles from 1983-88 before taking over the Canadian team from 1989-96.
"Anybody that knows me knows that's not going to work with me. You need to attend the practices. If you want to play on the team, you want to get good, you have to attend all of the practices. Not some of the practices. But my instinct told me that we couldn't lose this player from the program."
So, an agreement was made. Kelly would go study French, but she would join the team for stretches over the course of the summer. It was an unusual arrangement and went against everything Burchuk stood for, but Kelly was a difference-maker with her attacking ability and jump serve despite only being 5'9. If the team was going to qualify for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Kelly was going to be a part of the picture.
"There were three things that made her a world-class hitter and jump server," Burchuk explained. "One, she had a great arm swing. Two, she had exceptional topspin. And three, her overall strength was off the charts. Many people that I've coached over the years had one of those or two of those qualities, but rarely did a player have all three."
It turns out the deal was a win-win for both parties. Kelly, who would also lead the Wesmen to a national title in 1993, became a focal point on the Canadian attack. In a Canada Cup match at the U of W against Cuba in 1995, Kelly set a national team record with 50 kills. One year later at the Continental Cup Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which was also in Winnipeg, Kelly had the match-winning kill in the final against the Dominican Republic which punched Canada's ticket to Atlanta.
As for learning French, that also worked out quite well.
"Being bilingual in the RCMP right now is wonderful," said Kelly, who can also speak Italian, Spanish and Turkish.
"All of Canada has opened up because I can speak French, too."
But more on Kelly's RCMP career later.
It was obvious to others that Kelly was a generational talent, but not so much to her. She came from humble beginnings, growing up in Winnipeg's North End as one of seven children to her Jamaican-born parents. She got her first taste of volleyball in middle school at Cecil Rhodes, but they could never get enough kids to field a team. Luckily, Kelly was able to make up for lost time at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute where she led the school to back-to-back city titles in 1987-88. At the time, Kelly didn't know anything about sports scholarships so she enrolled at the U of W and took out a student loan to pay for tuition. That, of course, ended up not being necessary as the Wesmen gave her a scholarship.
"When I think about my whole volleyball life and career and stuff, it's interesting because everything just came after everything else," Kelly said in a phone interview.
"I was very, I'll call it, ignorant. I had no idea where sport could take me. I had no idea what level I could reach. I had no idea. So, it was really neat when you think about it. I started out playing just because it was fun... I think it just kind of went step by step. It wasn't something where I said 'I'm going to play in the Olympics one day.' If nothing else, it just says life is like that. You need to give your all. You need to take things step by step and give what you need to give at that time and other doors will open. That's kind of what happened to me."
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In honour of Black History Month, Taylor Allen has started a weekly series that looks back on incredible accomplishments made by Black athletes in Manitoba.
Canada finished the Olympics in a tie for ninth place, but Kelly helped the red and white make history. Kelly had 27 kills against Peru in what was Canada's first win at the Olympics in women's volleyball. The Canadian women's team hasn't qualified for the Olympics since. In addition to 11 years with the national team, which included the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, Kelly also played professionally in Turkey, France, and Italy. She was inducted into the Volleyball Canada Hall of Fame in 2019.
It was an improbable run for someone who was shorter than most of her competition and started so late in the game, but her work ethic and competitive streak were more than enough to make up for that. Burchuk recalls a time where they were running a junior high boy volleyball camp together and the kids were being disrespectful towards Kelly because she was a female player. The camp had concluded and it was time to take down the net, but Kelly wouldn't leave until she could show those boys what she was made of.
"She says 'I'm not leaving until I hit some balls at them.' So, I say OK and call the guys in. I say 'Hey, we're gonna have a contest. Anybody that digs a ball that Janis spikes gets a buck. A buck per dig.' So you can imagine Grade 8 and 9 boys. They're losing it and rubbing their hands," Burchuk said.
"So, you had to see this little display. Normally at a camp like that, the net is sagging a bit. So I'm tossing the balls, maybe 25 or 30 in a row, and Janis is hitting the balls off these guys' shoulders, knees, heads, all parts of their anatomy. We finish after about three or four minutes and they're going 'Whoah, this person can play.'"
Indeed she could.
A big reason for that was even after a gruelling Burchuk-led practice, Kelly would stay late and take some extra reps. It's that same determination that's helped Kelly find success post-volleyball as she's spent the past 11 years with the RCMP. Her first five years on the job were in Nova Scotia on general duty, followed by a three-year run as one of the 32 riders and horses part of the RCMP's Musical Ride. An obvious highlight was performing at Queen Elizabeth II's 90th birthday celebration, but a ride that had extra meaning to Kelly was the opening ceremony of the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. It was her two worlds coming together.
"Having played and then representing again in a different fashion, it was very exciting," said Kelly, who won bronze at the Pan Am Games in 1995 in Argentina.
"I kind of noticed at that point that I was very emotional. It was a very emotional and proud moment."
She added: "I really do believe that volleyball, or sport in general, is a great place to start in teaching you a little bit about life and things you can apply to life. I'm passionate about volleyball...like I am about the most things I do. Like I am about the work I do now. You have to live for a purpose. It's not always going to be easy, but you can't give up. It's not really an option."
Kelly, who turns 50 next month and is now stationed in Lac du Bonnet, has already accomplished so much in both of her careers, but she's not one to remain stagnant. It's a lesson she learned from Burchuk many years ago that's always stuck with her.
"One of the things I remember the most about Mike Burchuk is what he'd say to us after a big win. He'd say 'What have you done lately?'"
That's an easy question for Kelly to answer today as she's in the process of applying into forensics, a specialization she's had her eyes set on for quite some time.
"I'm going to go and give it my all," she said.
"If I can make it, great. And if I can't make it, it's not because I didn't do everything I needed to do. That's all I can do and when you know you've done that, the matches that you lose when you know you played the game of your life, you're not disappointed, you're satisfied. You're not satisfied having lost if you lose, but you're satisfied with knowing you couldn't have done another thing."
Giving her all has worked extremely well for Kelly in the past. This time likely won't be any different.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.