When I see Gavin Schmitt for the first time in real life, he looks startlingly human. He’s standing on the sidelines, chatting eye-to-eye with two men: Daniel Cornelius Jansen VanDoorn, who boasts both the name and blond smugness of Austrian royalty, and Steven Marshall, replete with a stubbly beard and a half-sleeve tattoo. The three pass around a bottle of hair product. In their palms, the bottle seems hotel-sample small. A volunteer wearing a City of Saskatoon sweater vest appears, mopping the floor beside them. She looks like a poorly placed vase, something you’d trip over if you weren’t watching.
Amongst each other, these men are ordinary. But put in the context of our average world, it becomes clear how truly massive they are, and how they stand with the swaggering presence of those who sport national flags on their jackets out of contractual obligation rather than politics or patriotism.
Schmitt is Canadian. He was born in Grande Prairie, Alberta, and studied at the University of Saskatchewan. Like most millennials, he’s under-paid and over-pierced. On Twitter, he ends almost every post in an exclamation point, emoji or ellipsis.
A third of the world thinks Schmitt is a demigod. Another third thinks he is a full god. But the last third—the third that we live in—thinks he’s just an oddly tall man.
Gavin Schmitt is a volleyball player, one of the greatest alive.
The World League tournament of the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) does not influence Olympic qualification. And when the tournament tours through Canada, it never draws sell-out crowds. But that doesn’t stop the organization from having wildly ambitious ticket prices, with “Platinum Tier” seats going for $150 per game. Not wanting to waste any more of my wife’s paycheque than usual, I requested my first press pass. I’d assumed the pass would be difficult to obtain, since the 2016 Rio Olympics were just two months away. But it turns out that a spell-checked email will get you a long way, and I was told my name would be on the list.
My friend Paddy O’Reilly and I arrived late to the SaskTel Centre because we’d driven first to Saskatoon’s other SaskTel Centre (officially, the SaskTel Sports Centre), which is located in a completely different end of town. I’d commuted in from Calgary earlier, and Paddy, who lives in Saskatoon, insisted we didn’t need the GPS.
As we approached press check-in, a kid too young to sell cigarettes to looked up from his phone and asked what we wanted. I replied we had two press passes, and he pointed to a spreadsheet. “Find your name. Find your pass,” he said, eyes back on his phone, nodding towards a tumbleweed of lanyards and laminated badges.
I scanned the list and found my name. Then I took a look-see for who hadn’t checked in yet. And just like that, Paddy O’Reilly became Don Rice of Saskatoon’s StarPhoenix.
A security guard, underwhelmed by policing the blood-lust world of international indoor volleyball, approached us and asked if we were actually reporters.
“Yes,” I said, breezing past him, “and we’re here to see Gavin.”
In his essay about tennis, David Foster Wallace asks us to imagine what it must be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. It’s even harder to imagine what it must be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something and still have to wait in line at Costco as you buy the flat of homogenized milk that will sustain your 6'10", 230-pound frame—roughly the same dimensions as the double-door refrigerator needed to store that much dairy.
Since volleyball is a team sport, there isn’t a definite ranking of individual players. But it only takes one YouTube search to see why the authoritative volleywood.net (“A Volleyball Blog for the Best Volleyball Fans”) consistently ranks Schmitt as one of the planet’s top twelve male players. Schmitt currently plays in the Polish national class, PlusLiga, arguably the world’s premiere league. He’s also played in Greece, France, Korea, Russia and Brazil. In Canada, however, his sport isn’t televised outside of the Olympics and the Pan Am Games. Even the deluxe version of ESPN doesn’t offer coverage.
To watch Schmitt’s Polish team, I’m forced to retreat into the deep corners of the Russian web. I disable my Ad-Blocker in order to log onto websites that flood my screen with weight-loss remedies, offshore gambling, and—needless to say—sex. Oh, the sex. Estonian brides, Ukrainian brides, Latvian brides and young Asian women with foot fetishes. But I only have eyes for Schmitt as he rises high above the net like a man unattached to our mortal world.
International games, such as those comprising the World League tournament, are streamed live on YouTube. In the chat box beside the feed, I’m often the only one typing in English—most other posts being polylingual hybrids that end with the easily translatable assertion that Iran or France or Argentina is the better team.
But there’s no pinging chat box courtside in the press gallery, only the restless squeak of rubber and the whir of the crane camera rising from behind a copper watering can filled with fake flowers.
After I’ve watched Jansen-Vandoorn touch up Schmitt’s trademark fauxhawk, Paddy and I tally the crowd. Somewhere between one and two hundred people speckle a stadium built for fifteen thousand. Today’s game features Canada against Korea. As the starting line-ups are announced, I am the only one to slip out an echoing curse when it’s reported that Schmitt will not be playing. He’s been battling stress fractures in both shins for years, and there are photos to prove it: his bruised and bandaged legs, the tibia splinted with surgical steel.
Paddy asks me why it’s so important that I see Schmitt play. I reel off the stats: the varsity championships; the national championships; the four podium finishes at the Pan Am Games; the individual awards for Best Spiker, Best Server, Best Scorer. I could go on. But if I’m being honest, I would say that I need to see Schmitt for the same reason I go whale-watching whenever I’m on the coast: glimpsing something great buttresses the belief that, since we share a world with it, there must be some greatness in us as well.
There is a consolation prize. On the court is John Gordon Perrin, arguably the team’s second-best player and unarguably the team’s most handsome. Perrin plays wing spiker, meaning he hits hard from the left side of the court. Off the game’s first serve, the setter passes him an arcing ball. Perrin crouches low, puts his arms straight behind him with palms facing up, and takes three long strides. For a slow-motion moment, he looks like a shitty charades player who’s drawn “Ostrich.” On his fourth step he leaps into the air; his right arm bends towards his heels and his body curls backwards into a circle. The audience inhales. Both coaches simultaneously raise an absent-minded hand to their mouths. The volleyball slows its spin and hovers, mid-air, to watch the blue-eyed beauty who rises up to meet it.
Then the catapult string breaks, and Perrin’s form unfurls with mad speed. The ball hurtles through the upright palms of Korea’s blockers and ricochets off the ground with the sound of a slamming door. The blockers return to the earth staring at their empty hands, shell-shocked from having touched pure power.
After each exposé of ball-shrivelling force, Perrin slowly straightens, scuffs his shoes and peers coquettishly through long eyelashes. If his shorts had pockets, he’d shove his hands into them and mutter, “Aw, shucks.”
I turn to Paddy, who has missed the entire hit because he’s writing a poem in his notebook. Like most, he regards volleyball as “that thing we did for a couple weeks in gym.” At this level, seeing the ball whistle through the air in blistering rallies only to be abruptly stopped as a referee holds out his arm at various fascistic angles must be especially confusing.
I only realize the rules aren’t sophomorically simple when I try to explain them to Paddy. “Well,” I begin, “you have two sides of six. Each side divides in half with three forming the front row and three the back. You rotate on the serve but, once contact’s been made, you can switch with the other two in your row, as long as the front stays front and the back stays back. The front can hit from the back or front, but the back can’t hit from the front, just the back. A hit is a touch, but a touch doesn’t have a to be a hit. You have three touches (or three hits, but that never happens), to get the ball over. The opposing team’s block isn’t a touch if the ball stays on their side but is a touch if it comes back.”
A match is best of five sets: the first four go to twenty-five points (you have to win by two), and the fifth set, if needed, goes to a cuticle-chewing fifteen.
Paddy starts flipping through the program.
“Despite the two sides of six,” I continue, “there are four positions, with two sets of the same position, and two singles of the others. Positions are wing, opposite spiker (that’s Gavin), middle and setter. Even though each position is named for what the player does at the front, they still spend half of the game in the back. As such, you have to be good at both front and back. This changes with a libero. The libero is subbed in, is defensive and therefore,” I put my hand on my friend’s arm, “has to stay in the back.”
He drags his finger down the column of the Dutch team. “I think the player with the weirdest name,” he says, “is Just Dronkers.”
In the chill of silence that follows, he closes the program and clears his throat. “I see,” he says. “And when the ball lands on the line, does that count as in?”
“Yes,” I reply. “The line is always in.”
By now, it should be evident that I played volleyball. I still play, but only in rec leagues whose teams are named after sexual puns—Ball Busters, Bumping Uglies, Just the Tips.
My mother played all through her youth and got me interested in the sport quite young. According to an Ovidius University study, children have a significantly higher chance of participating in a sport their parents did, especially if the socio-economic status between the two generations is comparable. Just as I inherited my mother’s mad-scientist hair and skin so dry that it’s practically reptilian, my adoration of volleyball is bred in the bone.
Though I started playing competitively in junior high and got serious in high school, I wasn’t a particularly gifted player. My specialty was a hit that I termed the Asteroid. When a pass would come my way—regardless if it was for the first, second or third touch—I would immediately launch it skywards, because a volleyball waffles in flight and becomes increasingly unpredictable. Since a ball is deemed out if it touches the roof, I became preternaturally good at shooting a trajectory that peaked mere millimetres from the rafters. The ball would descend over the net in a wiggly flight pattern and, if luck was on my side, the defender would fall short of his mark and hit an errant pass or sometimes even miss the ball altogether and be mercilessly mocked for the rest of the game.
As I progressed, the Asteroid became less effective. Eventually, my coach demanded I practice more. But by that time, I was getting into cigarettes and musical theatre, and there are only so many hours in the day. One Monday, after a weekend rehearsal for a particularly demanding community theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof, I told my coach I was quitting. He asked me to dry-clean my jersey before giving it back.
When I enrolled in university, I tried out for varsity. But my absence had put me too far behind, and I spent the first ten minutes of try-outs being target practice before retreating to the change room.
There is a part of me that wonders what I would look like if Tevye could’ve sung a little quicker about his life of unmet desire, allowing me enough time to hit both a jump serve and a high C. When I follow this daydream long enough, it leads to a strong and solid Richard Kelly Kemick whose heart is a perfect sphere—no matter how hard it is driven into the ground, it will bounce clear out the stadium’s roof.
Before witnessing Perrin glide through the air like an avenging angel, I had secretly believed that I was still only two weeks at the gym away from playing at an Olympic level. And so, as Canada steamrolls the match in straight sets, I feel a certain empathy for the Korean team as they, too, witness their dreams burned to ash in the harsh lights of the stadium.
After the game, I watch Schmitt mingle with reporters. I am paralyzed with dread. He is a man who, on a workday basis, sees straight through the palmate hands of blockers into cubic centimetres of empty space. Surely he would see straight through the flimsiness of my press pass.
Instead, I approach Perrin and ask if I can interview him. “If it’s quick, it’s fine,” he says. I press the record button on my cellphone and stare at him. He stares at me. We stare at each other. He has perfect skin.
It is at this time I realize I have no idea what to say. After a few blinking beats, I do what anyone would: I ask how to improve my own game. “When I’m hitting from the back row,” I say, “I always send it long. Why is that?”
Over the next two and a half minutes, Perrin strings together an ensemble of utterly incongruent advice. He tells me to come from the back of the ball more, yet below it, so that if I approach later, I can hit from the top. “It’s different for everyone,” he says, “you’ll have to float it because you won’t be able to spin it.” It’s like chatting with Confucius.
It occurs to me that Perrin literally cannot fathom a world in which somebody is unable to hit from the back row. It’s like asking someone to explain what shape your lips should form when drinking from a glass.
I ask Paddy to take a picture of Perrin and me, but he hasn’t had a cigarette all afternoon and his hands are shaking furiously. The picture comes out like an impressionist painting.
Qualifying for Olympic indoor volleyball is incredibly difficult. Only twelve teams make it, with one spot automatically going to the host country. The remaining eleven spots are at the far end of a 193-team bottleneck.
Eight tournaments determined Olympic qualification for the 2016 Rio Games. This first was the World Cup, which granted the top two teams a seat. Five following tournaments were based on geography (South American, North American, European, Asian and African), with the top team from each region gaining entry. The North American Qualifier was hosted in Edmonton in January 2016, and Canada watched its hopes slip into the city’s refinery haze as Cuba won the final in straight sets. Two other qualifying tournaments followed: the First World Qualifier and the Second World Qualifier.
Canada participated in the First World Qualifier, played in Tokyo. This tournament doubled as the Asian qualifier, which meant the four vacant Olympic berths would be assigned to the top three overall teams and the top Asian team.
Canada lost our first match to Poland; our second to Iran. We beat Australia and Venezuela, but fell short of beating France. Then we beat Japan. Our final match was against China, but at that point I was filled with despair. By my calculation, the rankings were already finalized; our shaky start had done us in. The top three teams would be Poland, Iran and France. Even if Canada won, the best we could finish was fourth. It seemed China would be the top Asian team even if they lost, therefore making the Olympic cut.
Canada winded up beating China in the fifth and final set. In match point, Perrin received the float serve, passed to Sanders who set high to Schmitt. Schmitt charged into the air, like a man pulled towards heaven on an invisible thread, and executed a spike with such holy force that China—scrambling to keep the game alive—held the ball for a faulting second too long.
As the victorious Canadians huddled in centre court, I thought it both beautiful and tragic how touched they were at winning an irrelevant match. Their coach, Glen Hoag—a man even Michelangelo couldn’t make expressive—was pulled into the centre of a group hug and blinked away tears. That ever-present fervour, held by our heroes and the clinically insane.
Three hours later, I found out that Iran was considered an Asian team, meaning they took the regional title—not China. Canada had earned the final seat. For the first time in twenty-four years, we had qualified for the Olympic games.
In addition to Canada, the other Olympic teams were Brazil, Poland, France, Iran, Italy, America, Mexico, Russia, Argentina, Cuba and Egypt. Each team has its own assortment of talent. There’s Poland’s Mateusz Bieniek who, at nearly 6'11", stands eye-to-eye with most bungalows. Cuba’s Javier Jiménez celebrates each point like he’s only six metres of ribbon away from being a rhythmic gymnast. France’s Earvin Ngapeth once punched a train conductor in the face and then wore a fedora to court like an old-timey gangster. And then there’s the Italian team who, quite simply, are the twelve most gorgeous men ever assembled into one gymnasium.
But none of them have Schmitt. He is ours, and ours alone. And on the third and final day of the Saskatoon section of the World League tournament, it is my last chance to speak with him.
Paddy and I enter the stadium’s press door as I explain that Portugal is seeded quite low—we should be home in time for dinner. There is a small circle of volleyball players kicking around a soccer ball. Perrin is one of them. He looks at me and I wave. With both hands. He goes back to the game.
“Don Rice” tells me he spent yesterday researching his career at the StarPhoenix. “I write exclusively about high school athletics,” he says, staring at his shoes. “Not quite the bloodhound I wanted to be, but I suppose we all have to start somewhere.”
I scan the court and notice that Schmitt isn’t dressed for this game either. But sitting a couple rows behind us is Graham Vigrass, Team Canada’s quick-hitting Calgarian. Vigrass and I played against each other in high school, both being middles. I went to a fine arts academy that was routinely trounced in all sports that didn’t involve a soundtrack. Each week we’d discover a new way to disappoint our coach, who in turn began to approach life with the hapless indifference of those who have lost a child. Vigrass’ school, on the other hand, dominated annually. But, while we were named the Rams, Vigrass’ team was the Redmen; I can at least take solace in being on the right side of history.
“Do you mind if I sit with you?” I ask Vigrass, holding up my press pass with enough pride to make you think it’s Macbeth’s severed head.
He shrugs and moves his jacket from the seat beside him. I inform him about our shared past and he seems genuinely charmed. “Do you still play?” he asks.
“No,” I respond. “Well, yes. But not really.”
He nods like he knows what I mean.
Hoping to unearth a scandal, I ask if he’s been benched, but he shakes his head. “Just getting a bit of rest. We rotate through the roster.”
The game against Portugal begins. The rallies are surprisingly long and the modest crowd becomes vocal.
“What do you do outside of volleyball?” I ask over the chants of CAN-A-DA.
“Not much,” he responds, and I have to lean in to hear him—our heads are almost touching. “I spend a lot of time thinking up business ideas.”
He tells me that he’s already a small business owner: he bought a tensor wrap that also holds ice, thought he was paying too much for it, found out the product didn’t have a patent and now has a supplier in China.
“I’ve got a name and everything,” he says as his chin rises with pride. “Just Ice.”
I’m unsure if I should point out that the name Just Ice spells “Justice,” and unless he’s drawing some socio-political connection between frozen water and our legal system, it seems a bit of a mixed metaphor. Then again, I’m no Dragons’ Den.
I ask Vigrass about his life outside of Team Canada, and he says he’s recently accepted a two-year deal in Berlin. He’s already played in France, Tunisia and Turkey. Sitting beside him, I feel like a child. My chin drops to my chest. I realize that my press pass matters far more to me than it does to anyone else here. And then, doing what any child would, I lash out.
“Aren’t you worried that this is the best part of your life?”
He stretches his neck. “Yeah, but if this is the best part of my life, I guess I’m okay with that.”
“Sure,” I reply, “but you’ll still have, like, sixty years of mediocrity to wade through afterwards.”
We watch the next ten points in silence.
Portugal stuns the crowd by taking the first game.
Halfway through the second game, Canada is dominating. The Portuguese team, embarrassed at having had hope, becomes irate. Each unforced error turns their coach into a silent movie star: he clasps his hands and shakes them pleadingly; he slaps himself across his cheek; he frowns his mouth into a mask of Greek tragedy and claws his face.
At one point, after their striker is called on an illegal back-row attack, the team’s captain approaches the referee stand and punches the post’s foam protection. The ref, with the slow-roll showmanship of a street magician, produces a bright red card.
In volleyball, a red card is extremely rare. Aside from its stifling shame, it also grants the opposing team a point. This red card, however, only stokes Portugal’s anger. Soon, the entire team is in open uprising, and the referee starts flashing red so quick it’s like he’s holding up paint swatches against his living room drywall.
Paddy walks over and asks what the hell is happening. “It’s getting Just Dronkers!” he says.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Vigrass responds.
Paddy extends his hand up towards him. “Don Rice,” he says. “StarPhoenix, star reporter.”
There’s a clamouring on the court and we all turn to stare open-mouthed as the Portuguese coach repeatedly hits himself in the face with his own clipboard.
The game finally resumes, and Perrin immediately aces a serve, the ball clipping the baseline. The Portuguese coach sinks to his knees, thrusts his arms out in crucifix formation, and calls to the heavens. My God, the captioned frame would read, why have you forsaken me?
In the Canadian tidal wave of points that follow, I check my phone and see that my volleyball team, Consensual Sets, has emailed to say the sub who’s been filling in while I’ve been away is quite good and they’d like him to play in the playoffs instead of me. This stings.
I don’t just want to be good at volleyball; I have to be. I am a full foot taller than the average Canadian male, a characteristic that refuses to be anything other than defining. Once, at a party with my wife, I overheard two people talking.
Have you met Litia and Richard? one of them asked.
I’m not sure, the other replied. What are they like?
Litia has long brown hair, is wearing a floral blouse, has a gold necklace. She’s a teacher. Really nice person. Richard? He’s tall.
If I’m not good at volleyball, then my height isn’t part of any divine plan, and I’m just one of evolution’s hopeful monsters.
Vigrass, on the other hand, has made his life from knowing what is and is not within his reach. He approaches the world with the hakuna matata lifestyle usually reserved for middle-aged memoir. As we continue to listen to the floor announce each of Portugal’s failures in skin-crawling shrieks, I ask loaded questions and search for a chink in his armour. He doesn’t get spiteful when the coach starts another player ahead of him; he doesn’t get frustrated that basketball players earn so much more; he’s isn’t worried that his long-term girlfriend will leave him for Perrin.
Two sixteen-year-old girls in high school jerseys approach us and drop their programs and Sharpies into Vigrass’s lap. His tambourine-sized hands show remarkable dexterity as he flips to his picture. “Who’s your favourite player?” he asks.
In unison: “Gavin.”
Vigrass mumbles the same thing back in a high-pitched voice.
But then he nudges me and points out that his is one of the three player photos that the girls have drawn a small heart beside. Schmitt’s has been left heart-less. Nodding to my notebook, he says, “Make sure to put that in your story.”
Earlier this spring, during my first match with Consensual Sets, the hardwood husked the skin off my knees and elbows. Sixteen weeks later and for the first time in my life I’m not healing seamlessly. My joints are still pocked with red nickels and dimes of inadequacy.
There is a point in all our lives when we admit we’re not going to become a professional athlete. Perhaps I am admitting this later than most.
Everything gets so complicated when you realize your life won’t be governed by a set of written-down rules but rather by vague and threatening terms like “corporate synergy” and “administrative fees.” And then there’s the ambiguity of parking stalls and telephone wires and the signature box on passport applications: why would you ever want to live in a world where when something touches the line, you don’t know how to call it?
I end up getting my interview with Gavin Schmitt after Canada beats Portugal. I ask about his hometown, his injuries, his scheduling. His answers quickly veer into that clichéd, ethereal space reserved for athletes and politicians. Before my eyes, I watch him begin to forget me. I let loose my high-flying question, hoping he’ll lose it in the lights and its wobbly descent will force him off his mark.
“How often do you think about what your life will be like after volleyball?”
He remains on point. “Every so often,” he says, “but you try to focus on the task at hand which is volleyball right now and Rio right now but obviously those thoughts creep in every so often and so you have to consider them and take them but not dwell on them—”
I wave him off. “So what do you think?”
“I’m not even sure,” he replies, seeing nothing heartbreaking with this answer. “I’ve thought about coaching.” He shrugs. “Various things.”
Somewhere deep in my chest, a bright white ball slowly deflates.
I thank him for his time but he’s already been scrummed by other reporters—real ones, ones who don’t wave around their press pass like it’s an Olympic medal.
As I’m slouching away, Paddy—who overheard the interview—puts his hand on my shoulder: “What did you think would happen?”
My voice snags. “That we’d become friends.”
What did I learn from meeting Gavin Schmitt? Two things. One: there is a decent, yet unconfirmed, chance he wears eyeliner. Two: the most damning reason I’ll never make it pro is my base need to be adored, for now and forever. I’m too selfish to give up my future, or rather, my desire for it. To be a real athlete you need to accept that what’s coming couldn’t possibly compete with what’s here now.
Don’t get me wrong: this is probably the best time of my life, too. No mortgage, no debt, the friends I have now are the best I’ll ever have. I’m still young enough to ignore the chiropractors who insist my terrible posture is “literally bending me into an early grave.” But at least I can believe the birthday card lies that say the best is yet to come. If I couldn’t, how would I get up in the morning?
I am of the belief that if volleyball had been invented a few millennia earlier, the ancient Greeks would’ve considered it the Sport of the Gods. Not simply because of the game’s meteorological clamour—the slams, skids, howls and hisses—but for deeper, divine reasons.
A child conceives of God the same way a child plays volleyball: capable of grabbing onto the globe with both hands, caressing its weathered face and heaving it back onto its ordained orbit. But God doesn’t work like that and volleyball doesn’t either. Nobody is allowed that type of control. Mortal or immortal, we approach our spinning spheres the same: breath bated in prayer, knowing we’ve long since raised the orb from our palms and can now only hope to push it in a direction that suits our purpose. We have faith in that—a self-important and untalented faith, but a faith all the same.
At the Rio Olympics, we upset our way through the preliminaries—beating both America and top-ranked Italy—to face Russia in the quarterfinals.
It was the Roman emperor Theodosius who ended the ancient Olympic games, thinking them pagan. At first, this seemed stupid to me, and I frowned at the collateral damage of Christ. But then, two sets down to the ice-eyed Russians, I find myself pleading with any god who will listen, hoping at least one of them will hear me. We lose in three.
In his tennis essay, Wallace concludes that because of the radical limitations we put upon our athletes, they become grotesque. But I’ve come to disagree. I don’t see these twenty-one track-suited men as the deformed product of desire but rather as the living embodiment of love. It’s just that love is warped at some angles and weird at others, gangly and obtuse, thighs that are far too strong and ankles that are far too weak, and it stares you down from the far side of the net like an animal behind chain-link.
When did I fall in love with the game? Grade ten gym. Our teacher, Mr. Scott, had long stopped trying to teach us the fundamentals and spent the class spinning a basketball on his finger, considering where his life had gone wrong. As a result, our stuttering passes gave the game a Hot Potato feel.
An errant bump floated my way. I launched my Asteroid. My teammate Lindsay jumped up and down as she watched the celestial pass thread itself through the rafters. The ball crossed the net and arced downwards, its angle flirting with the sideline. The opposing team’s captain waved his teammates off to let it fall out, but then, landing delicate as a daydream, the ball kissed the line. Lindsay—eyes wide with hope—turned towards me to see what that meant.