I recently got the chance to talk to Canada’s top men’s beach volleyball team, and 8th ranked in the world, Chaim Schalk and Ben Saxton. The boys are coming off their best result as a team, a silver medal in the FIVB Yokohama Grand Slam. They are currently preparing for the next Grand Slam of the season in Long Beach, California. The tournament starts up on August 18th, and Schalk and Saxton look to build on their recent success, move up the rankings and secure their spot in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Last Word with Chaim Schalk and Ben Saxton
Ben Kerr: You finished second in your most recent tournament in Yokohama. What was the secret behind the success?
Ben Saxton: There’s not really a secret to the success. We just made the right plays at the right times, and didn’t give up very many. We just play solid consistent ball and closed the important games. We’re constantly training ourselves to become a podium threat, this was just the first time we’ve gotten there.
Chaim Schalk: Consistency. We have been playing at a high level all year throughout pool play and the difference for us in Yokohama was our focus and consistency through every playoff match. We know that we are capable of medals at any event so this was a huge stepping stone for us.
BK: With Yokohama being right before the mid-season break, how do you keep the momentum going into Long Beach, starting on the 18th?
CS: I think it is nice to have a little break right after a career high finish. In Japan we used every bit of energy we had left in the tank to get a Silver medal, so giving our bodies a chance to recover after that is very important. In order to continue our success in Long Beach we need to go into that tournament with the same mentality and take it one match at a time.
BS: The break is actually a bit of a blessing after a good result. Often when a new team reaches a podium, they seem to follow up with something less than ideal the next week, for whatever reason. This gives us a chance to recoup mentally and physically, so that we can start the Long Beach Grand Slam in the same state of mind as we went into Yokohama.
BK: You head into the second half of the season ranked eighth in the world. How much do you focus on that ranking, and what do you think is a realistic goal to be at by the end of the season?
BS: It’s really difficult not to pay attention to the rankings, especially in an Olympic qualifying year. Every few days I tell myself to ignore the rankings, only to find myself checking the numbers again almost immediately. I think it’s on almost everyone’s mind, but I don’t really want it to be my focus. If we just continue to play well then the rankings will go in our favor. This season we’re hoping to qualify for the World Tour Finals event in Ft. Lauderdale in October. Only the top 8 teams plus 2 wildcards will get into that, and right now, we’re on pace.
CS: We want to continue to progress up the rankings until we are #1 in the World. We set a goal at the start of the season to qualify for the World Tour Finals in St. Petersburg, Florida. We need to be sitting in the top 8 to guarantee that spot so if we can continue to get single digit results we will have a great shot at competing there. I personally don’t tend to look at the rankings all that much. I know that if we are taking care of business and taking it one match at a time we will continually progress up the rankings. BK: Is there any particular stop on the tour that is a personal favorite? What stop are you most looking forward to in the second half of the year? Why?
BS: Of the recurring tournaments, Klagenfurt is probably my favorite. It’s just organized so well for everyone to have a good time. The location on the lake is pretty amazing, the players get well taken care, and the fans always have an amazing experience. It’s too bad we didn’t get the opportunity to play that one this year because they hosted the European Championships, but it should be back as a stop on the FIVB tour next summer.
I’m looking forward to both the remaining Grand Slams this season. Long Beach is nice because it’s the closest event we get to home, so it’s a chance for my family to come out and watch without breaking the bank. Poland will also be interesting because it’s a new venue, and it’s always interesting to see how now events are going to pan out. Poland has a history of running a popular even in Stare Jablonki, so hopefully they can put something similar together in Olzstyn.
CS: This year the tournament held in Porec, Croatia was been my favourite. Croatia is so beautiful and Red Bull/Swatch did a fantastic job hosting their first Major Series event. For the second half of the season I am definitely excited about Long Beach. We train in California every off season so this event will feel more like home for us with family and friends joining us for the week.
BK: Who are your biggest personal rivals on the tour? Is there any team you like to beat more than the others?
CS: We have good rivalries with the American teams. We train with them every off season so its natural to get excited when we run into them on the tour. Gibb/Patterson are our main training partners and we always seem to have crazy battles with them when playing each other on the World Tour. They got the best of us last time we played them so I am definitely looking forward to seeing them again.
BS: Oddly enough, our biggest rivals are probably the other Canadian team of Josh Binstock and Sam Schachter. It doesn’t carry outside of tournaments, but we like being the best Canadian team, and ultimately I think it’s really good for the sport in Canada to have more than one competitive team. Our world rank and theirs have jumped back and forth a lot this season, we seem to almost alternate which team does better on a given weekend. If they do better than us one week, then we try to make sure we do better the next week, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they think similarly. We all want to be the best, and having the two teams pushing each other to be is getting us both there.
BK: Many people hear the words “Pro Athlete” and think its a life of luxury and a way to get rich. With your sport though there are a lot of expenses that the public doesn’t see. Can you maybe expand on some of the financial issues involved in being on tour, and how your sponsors help you through things.
BS: Not everyone has the same expenses on tour, but for a country like Canada, where Beach Volleyball isn’t that high profile (yet), there are a ton of costs and very little help from our Sport Federation. Our travel costs, individual coaching costs, food, equipment, etc. is all out of pocket. And since there are no high profile events in Canada, we never play in front of a local crowd, which makes getting sponsors difficult as well, because we have no exposure to many companies’s target customers. As a team, Chaim and I have a few product sponsors – Oakley for sunglasses, Saxx underwear, Infinit for performance supplements, and Lululemon outfits all of team Canada Beach Volleyball. Those sponsors go a long way as far as product goes, they do a great job of supplying us with the things we need to play at our best. Financially, though, we basically really on our winnings. When I was getting started, a good tournament meant that I could now afford to go to the next one without breaking the bank of mom and dad. It’s a little easier now that we’re competing better against the World’s best, but there’s still that mindset that every win is another flight that we can afford.
CS: Beach Volleyball in Canada is severely underfunded which makes the life of a full time traveller on the World Tour that much more difficult. Up until this point in my career I have paid for every flight and all accommodation to these events. We rely heavily on prize money to carry us through the year but that is still very difficult. It is also very difficult to get financial support from sponsors because we have no Beach Tour in Canada to get people excited about it. This environment creates great challenges for us but it is good for us because it only pushes us to get to the next level. We are always looking for more help, but we are also very thankful for the sponsors that have helped us get this far: Lulu Lemon, Oakley, SAXX Underwear, and Infinit Nutrition.
I’d like to thank Chaim Schalk and Ben Saxton for taking the time for doing this interview. You can follow the boys on twitter at @saxtonschalk@chaimschalk and @BenSaxton13. Also they have graciously agreed to be our guests on the first edition of AT THE NET, the brand new Beach Volleyball Podcast from Last Word on Sports. Expect to see the debut edition right here at LWOS on Friday Morning. Dave Gove and I will be going through a new set of questions for the boys, so check it out. Photo Courtesy: FIVB.com