On The Beach: future prospects
13th September 2017
For the final instalment of our On The Beach series, we end where we began – in the company of England’s #1 women’s beach pair, Jess Grimson and Vicky Palmer, as they discuss the state of their sport and their possible successors.
Ask Jess and Vicky what their one wish for the future of their sport would be and it doesn’t take them long to decide. A fully-funded elite programme to give the up-and-coming players something to aim for and aspire to is the answer; an answer which echoes how the #1 men’s pair of Chris Gregory and Jake Sheaf responded to the same question.
Both players acknowledge the reality of the situation though. The prospect of a fully funded, residential programme, built around a national centre of excellence, simply isn’t a feasible option currently. Yet both are quick to point out the benefit they gained from being in and around a women’s beach programme at Bath University in the pre-Olympics years.
“There were a number of established players in the programme at the time,” recalls Vicky. “The likes of Denise Austin, Mo Glover, Lucy Boulton, Zara Dampney and Shauna Mullin; excellent players who I was able to train alongside, compete with and learn from.”
“Being a few years younger, I wasn’t really competing at their level but benefited just from being around them,” adds Jess. “Out of all of them, Lucy stood out for me as I really aspired to be like her.”
Fast forward several years and that sort of inspirational training environment no longer exists and the depth of talent seems far thinner in the women’s game than it ever was. “That does worry me,” says Vicky. “Traditionally, the women’s game was far stronger than the men’s in this country but that now seems to have reversed. There are several men in the 17-20 age range who could now carry on after Chris and Jake for quite a while – but there are fewer behind us. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of talented players out there but I think that the lack of a programme which could both assist and inspire them makes them think twice about persisting with the sport. The prospect of having to be self-funding – as we are – puts people off, I believe.”
“That’s not to say we’re not moving in the right direction,” says Jess. “There are options to play at university, both at Bournemouth and Northumbria. Plus, the fact it’s now a recognised collegiate sport in the US has opened up further opportunities over there.”
Talk of the US college system brings the conversation around to Anaya Evans, one of the country’s brightest future stars, according to Jess and Vicky. She’ll be heading out to the US shortly, enticed by the chance to combine beach volleyball and her further education.
“It’s a shame that she has to go abroad to improve her prospects in this way but there simply aren’t many other options available,” explains Vicky. “She’ll now be able to develop the skills she needs to compete internationally. And, as someone who played abroad myself (for a couple of seasons in Europe), I can promise you that it doesn’t ever stop you wanting to play for your country.”
“I admire her for having the courage to go and do it,” says Jess. “I had the chance to take up a US scholarship to play football when I was 15 but just couldn’t bring myself to leave home. Going to the States demonstrates to me how serious she is about progressing in beach volleyball. When you’re young, it can be quite easy to be led astray or distracted but doing this suggests she’s got the mindset required to succeed in the sport.”
Talk of who’s next on the English talent conveyor belt sees discussion turn to Ellie Austin, recently returned from a fifth place finish at the Commonwealth Youth Games. “She lives and breathes the sport,” says Vicky, “and clearly has a great future ahead of her. She’s still so young so it’s hard to predict quite how far she can go. It’s simply a question now of how much she wants it.”
“Her progress so far is no surprise though”, adds Jess. “When I first started training with Vicky, we were coached by Denise, Ellie’s mum, out in LA for a while. Even as a small child, Ellie was always there, knocking a ball around. When you’re exposed to a sport at such an early age as much as she was, there’s always the risk that you might just bail out on it; that it quickly loses its appeal. But she hasn’t; she’s persevered and now she’s reaping the rewards.”
Thinking about their nearest domestic challengers, Vicky and Jess see Anaya and her partner Yasmin Kaashoek (who partnered Ellie at the Commonwealths) as the #2 pair currently if the pairing can remain intact for longer than has been the case previously. For various reasons, junior pairings can be chopped and changed quite often, which can prove problematic.
“You’ve got to be able to invest the time in each other,” reasons Jess. “It really is like a proper relationship! You can’t just force people together. There’s so much space to cover on court; you’ve got to be on the same wavelength. Thankfully, we are. I just know what Vicky’s going to do – and vice versa. We have invested a lot of time and effort into this partnership. That’s why we’ve been undefeated on home soil for three years. It’s no coincidence.”
“I think it also helps that we’re both really stubborn,” says Vicky. “We’ve both been through some really tough times and emerged on the other side. Some people might shy away at the first signs of conflict or disagreement but not us. Our resilience has always won through.”