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On The Beach: the leading ladies

7th July 2017

On The Beach: the leading ladies

With the beach volleyball season in full swing, it's an ideal time to find out more about England's leading beach volleyballers. In the first of our new On The Beach series, we caught up with our #1 ladies' team, Vicky Palmer and Jess Grimson, to get an insight into the challenges they face.

Qualifying for the Commonwealth Games would be a career highlight for most athletes but for England’s leading beach volleyballers, Jess Grimson and Vicky Palmer, you sense it would be doubly sweet.

Self-funded and both holding down full-time jobs (Jess as a sports therapist and Vicky as a Police Community Support Officer), the pair are determined to prove their doubters wrong. Variously told they’re too small, playing with the wrong partner or simply not good enough, the combative duo hope to rise above it all and represent their country at the Games next April on Australia’s Gold Coast.

“It would just make all the sacrifices worthwhile,” explains Vicky. “The long days, the training, the travelling, the near bankruptcy! We’ve had a few negative comments thrown our way in the past but they just drive us on even more.”

At the time of our interview (in June), the Bournemouth-based pair were fourth in the race for automatic qualifying, behind Canada, Vanuatu and Scotland. With Australia already in as hosts, four more Commonwealth nations will qualify on the basis of their world rankings, leaving Jess and Vicky to keep a nervous eye on the likes of New Zealand behind them.

The pair’s lack of funding means that they can only ever plan for the short-term. Which is why, when asked how far they think they could go at the Commonwealths, it’s clear it’s not a discussion they’ve yet had. Their entire focus is simply on qualifying.

The tactics of qualification

For an amateur pair, the race for qualification becomes an exercise in strategic planning, as much as about performance. Finite resources need to be invested prudently; the money for travelling but also the goodwill of their hugely supportive employers in giving them more time off. That’s why, at the time of our interview, they’re preparing for a two week stint in China which will allow them to cram in two World Tour 2-star events, rack up valuable ranking points and indulge in an intensive training block without any competing distractions.

“Our daily routine is exhausting,” says Jess. “More time to rest would be great but it’s just not an option. Even on the days when we’re not training, we’re not resting because we’re both on our feet for 10-12 hours with our jobs. We can’t let it compromise our focus though. We can’t let it stop us putting in all the effort required for either our jobs or our volleyball.”

“We wouldn’t have it any other way though,” says Vicky. “We don’t want to do this half-heartedly. But that’s why something like our China trip is so valuable because for once we can have some downtime away from the court.”

Having realised they shared a similar level of passion and commitment, the pair have been playing together for five years now. Three consecutive national championship titles suggest it was a sensible move. More recently though, they’ve moved into NEVZA events and now on to the World Tour in an effort to really put themselves on the map.

The day it all clicked

It was a 3rd round Olympic qualifying event in Greece in May 2015 which convinced them that they belonged at this higher level. “We beat a top Belarussian pair at that event, despite no-one really expecting us to,” recalls Vicky. “We then had to play a final ‘golden game’ in which we saved four or five set points in the first set before winning the second. Everything just clicked that day.”

“The doubters had said we wouldn’t even get past the 1st qualifying round in Bournemouth”, added Jess. “But we did – and the 2nd round in Edinburgh and then the 3rd round in Thessaloniki. That run to the 4th round also made us realise that there were a lot of people who did believe in us.”

If beating the Belarussian pair was a performance highlight, a World Tour 1st round defeat in Sydney earlier this year was a low point. “We just didn’t perform”, says Jess. “In fact, we were rubbish. We lost to an Australian pair who were strong but who I think that, on any given day, we would normally expect to beat. Performance is everything - and it just didn’t happen for us that day. It was a horrible feeling, not helped by the realisation that we had just invested three thousand pounds to fly halfway round the world, only to lose in the first round.”

Routes to the top

The two players have taken very different routes to get to where they are now. Vicky was playing at the age of 13, inspired by her mum and her PE teacher who played together in a local league. Describing herself as more stubborn than talented, she nevertheless persevered, progressing through the national junior ranks and into the senior GB indoor squad. After two years playing professionally in Belgium, she just missed out on the final squad for London 2012. After the Olympics, she decided to return home to focus all her efforts on forging a successful beach partnership with Jess.

Initially, Jess was a more reluctant volleyballer. A hugely talented footballer, she eventually had to choose between the two sports. In choosing beach volleyball, she followed the well-trodden path to Bath University, from where she would also travel down to Wessex twice a week to play indoors. As soon as she graduated, Jess moved to Bournemouth to focus her efforts on the burgeoning partnership with Vicky.

For a while, both still made the occasional appearance at Wessex, partly because of friendship ties and partly to retain a bit of sharpness in the winter. That’s tailed away though now, due to the demands on their time and the risk of injury. Jess in particular is somewhat injury-prone. “I’m just built wrong,” she laughs. “It doesn’t matter though; I’ll just keep playing till my body properly packs up!”

“Same here”, adds Vicky. “I’ll keep playing until we just can’t do it any more. But this is why we can’t really have long term plans. We’re never quite certain what’s going to happen in terms of fitness or funding. Age isn’t a problem though. Beach volleyballers tend to peak later than indoor players, probably around 30. I’m now 31 and Jess is only 26. When you see Kerri Walsh-Jennings still going at 38, with three kids and three gold medals, we’ve still got time!”

Ask them about the favourite aspects of their sporting lifestyle and they both mention the places they feel fortunate to have been to. The obvious ones, like Canada and the US, are mentioned in the same breath as Slovakia and Nigeria. It comes at a cost however. Neither of them travels particularly well (Jess is also scared of heights and flying) and are not exactly huge fans of living out of suitcases.

Motivation

Their shared Commonwealth Games dream drives them on though. If and when they do get there, they’re well aware of another sizable obstacle which could be in their way. At 6’6”, the Canadian player Sarah Pavan is a massive presence on court and claimed 5th at the Rio Olympics, albeit with a different partner to her current one.

“Canada will definitely pose a huge threat at the Games,” says Jess. “However, we took a set off them five years ago in an exhibition event when we had only just started playing together. Perhaps she (Pavan) didn’t know how to play against players so much shorter than her! I’m definitely holding on to that memory should we play her again!”

Although they clearly don’t like to plan too far ahead, you wouldn’t bet against Team Palmer/Grimson getting the chance to do exactly that come next April.

Photo courtesy of Steve Smith.

On The Beach: the leading ladies