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This article was published 16/2/2018 (949 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It's a special moment anytime an athlete qualifies for the Olympic Games. But for volleyball players Wanda Guenette and Michelle Sawatzky-Koop, you might be able to argue that qualifying for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics as members of Team Canada's women's volleyball team was extra special because they did it at home in front of all their friends and family.
In order for Guenette, who was born and raised in Winnipeg, and Sawatzky-Koop, a Steinbach native, and their teammates to qualify for the '96 Olympics, they needed to win the Continental Cup Olympic Qualifying Tournament — a four-team event featuring the top North American countries that had yet to earn a spot in Atlanta. The event was held in Winnipeg, with national teams from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Costa Rico making the trip up for the tournament.
"First of all, we needed enough teams to come here to have the tournament," said Guenette, who was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 2014. "If we didn't have at least four teams, it wouldn't be legit."
It almost wasn't legit, as Mexico dropped out at the last minute. Costa Rica had to accept an invitation on short notice to save the event. But in the final, it came down to Canada and Dominican Republic. The winner was headed to Atlanta and the loser had to try again in four years.
"We didn't underestimate them," said Guenette, who won a national championship at the University of Winnipeg in 1983. "At that point, they were a less-skilled version of Cuba."
Guenette and Sawatzky-Koop made sure all their friends and family didn't leave disappointed, dominating the DR in straight sets to punch their ticket to the Olympics.
Sawatzky-Koop doesn't remember much from that match apart from the final point. It was a bad pass, so as the starting setter, she had to run from the net to the back corner of the court to set a ball all the way across the court to Janis Kelly. Kelly, also from Winnipeg, made no mistake and drilled the ball straight down to cap off the straight-set victory.
"I set a million of those in the gym at six in the morning with a mean old coach and nobody cared. But today, it mattered. Those million sets mattered today. That's really what went through my head at that moment," said Sawatzky-Koop, who is now the emcee at the annual Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner.
Balloons came down from the rafters as the Canadians celebrated their new status as Olympians. It was the first time since 1984 that the Canadian women qualified for volleyball, something the national team hasn't done since. The team had Winnipeg's fingerprints all over it, as it trained in here and was coached by another Mike Burchuk, another Winnipegger.
"We became the city of Winnipeg's team. We were based out of Winnipeg and it's a small enough city that a women's national team mattered. It really mattered in Winnipeg and we felt that," said Sawatzky-Koop, who was a two-time national champion and CIS Player of the Year at the University of Manitoba.
They didn't get the result they wanted at the Olympics, finishing the tournament 1-4 and in 10th place. However, the squad managed to make history, defeating Peru in a five-set thriller; the first time Canadian women had won a match at the Olympics.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh my word, we're in the history books,'" said Sawatzky-Koop. "I feel so proud of that team."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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