On The Beach: time to meet the guys
28th July 2017
For the next instalment in our On The Beach series, our attention switches to England's #1 men's team, Chris Gregory and Jake Sheaf. With the team firmly focused on next year's Commonwealth Games, we took the time to find out how their preparations are going.
A University café on a wet and windy afternoon in Bournemouth seems like an incongruous place to meet England’s leading male beach volleyballers. It’s some way removed from the perceived glamour of beach volleyball and its unique sporting vibe.
But here they are, Chris Gregory and Jake Sheaf, discussing plans for World Tour events, next year’s Commonwealth Games and even qualification for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
“We’re definitely going to the Commonwealths thinking we can win gold”, says Chris. “Simply qualifying for the Games would represent a career highlight but we know the level we can play at and who we’ll be playing. There’s no reason why we can’t take gold.”
Qualification for the Games won’t be confirmed for a few more months yet but the pair seem well set. The four top ranked Commonwealth countries qualify automatically but only Canada and Australia currently boast higher ranked pairs than England – and the latter will qualify automatically as hosts anyway.
Winning a NEVZA zonal event in Denmark the week before our interview has left the pair in good spirits, coming just six months (and three competitions) since their previous tournament win, also at a NEVZA event, in Gothenburg.
Back on form
That win in Sweden was a big moment for them, explains Chris. “We had a bad year last year. I’d been injured and then we hit a bad streak; getting knocked out in qualifying at four events in June and July alone. It took us as many games to get back out of that rut before the win in Gothenburg came along.”
Talking of decent wins, conversation turns to pivotal moments in the pair’s four year playing history. “I remember beating Switzerland in a Continental Cup game in 2014”, says Jake. “That was big for us as it took us straight to the 3rd Olympic qualifying round. Unlike a World Tour event – where we might have a big win to qualify but we’re then straight into the main draw with the stronger teams – we could actually savour that win. More importantly, that was the win that showed us the importance of proper off-season preparation and of travelling abroad to get that level of competition. It’s a template we’ve tried to follow ever since.”
As the Bournemouth wind howls around the building, the point about travelling to secure the best training and competition comes up repeatedly. With no hint of arrogance, the players point out that there simply aren’t enough players in England competing at their level for them to contemplate remaining full-time in the UK. To maintain or improve their level, they have to keep on travelling.
“The short-term aim is to make the main draw more often at World Tour events; to win more games outside of the qualifying pools,” says Jake. “The medium-term aim is to win at the Commonwealths, followed by Tokyo 2020 as the long-term aim.”
“The problem with the longer term aims,” Chris chips in, “is the uncertainty every year. Uncertainty over personal finances, employment, funding and support. We know what we need to do to get to where we want to be, in terms of travelling and training – but every year we also know we’ll need to find ways of resourcing it ourselves.”
“We’re never going to bitch and moan about this though,” continues Jake. “We decided to go down this route and we’re 100% committed to it. It’s not necessarily just about money because even without money, we’ll find a way; we’ve done it before. The major consideration is about the level we need to play at. We won’t settle for just participating; we want to be competitive. To do that, we need to be exposed to the highest level of competition we can be, and pushed in training as far we can be, on a regular basis.”
The pair’s commitment to the cause – and their recent results – paid off earlier this year when they secured some Sport England funding towards their training programme. It also meant that coach Kirk Pitman could be a more permanent presence at their side.
All change, all change….
It's a far cry from the pair’s early days which included, ironically, losing to Kirk in a final in Weymouth in 2013. The pair played their first international event that year; an exhibition event in Canada which – remarkably – came just three weeks after Chris underwent supraventricular tachycardia heart surgery. They were only able to attend because the organisers paid for their flights.
The following year, the pair found themselves pitching to the CEO and Board of construction giants Balfour Beatty, looking for funding. When the firm stumped up £20k, other sponsors and offers of support followed, providing the pair with the resources they needed.
A globe-trotting Tour lifestyle has followed ever since, although there’s an obvious downside for the giant (2m10) Chris. “Airplanes and leg room,” he grumbles. “It’s not great.”
“And the washing; so much washing!” adds Jake before retaining some sense of perspective. “Yes, I do sometimes forget how lucky we are to go to these places. I need to remember to appreciate them more when we’re there. Training in LA, competing in places like Porec in Croatia; these are wonderful places to go.”
A long journey
As they head into a packed pre-Commonwealth Games schedule, it’s clear the pair have come a long way since they decided to join forces in 2013. Both were part of the beach squad assembled at Bath University before the 2012 Olympics and both had the same goal of competing in a future Games. The two arrived there via very different routes though.
After mum Mandy Sheaf played for England, Jake was always going to be a volleyballer. By the age of 15, he was in the England indoor U17 squad and the full GB beach squad just a year later. In complete contrast, Chris has no junior volleyballing background. Aged 18, he progressed through the Sporting Giants programme, being one of just four athletes – from a field of 300 – to secure a place on the volleyball programme.
It’s been quite a ride since then, punctuated by some notable high points. “A win against the Russians in Sochi; that was a good one,” muses Jake. “2014, I think. First time we got out of a World Tour qualifying group. Centre court, decent crowd – and we beat them on home soil.”
Beating the home town favourites on the main stage; you get the sense that repeating that particular trick at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast is a distinct possibility for this pair.