Sophie Bukovec, Canadian ‘superstar’ is here to surprise


HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — It’s monsooning in Thailand. This isn’t all that unusual. Southern Thailand amasses, on average, 94 inches of rain per year. Not that Sophie Bukovec would, or should, know this. She’s 16 years old, playing in the first — and potentially last — FIVB of her career.

The rain in fact reaches such a volume that, in the middle of her first round qualifier match, against Norway’s Vilde Solvoll and Cindy Treland, the organizers have to move the match to a different court.

“The courts were flooded,” Bukovec recalled on SANDCAST. “It was wild. I couldn’t see [Victoria Altomare, her partner]. That’s how much it was raining.”

They lose, 21-19, 14-21, 10-15. And then they lose again, in the most heartbreaking of fashions, as the organizer, awarding a pair of lucky losers, pulls two teams out of a hat that do not read the names of Bukovec and Altomare. And so there 16-year-old Sophie Bukovec sits, crestfallen and defeated, sopping wet on the southern tip of Thailand, wondering what anyone in that moment might wonder: “Is this what it’s like? Because I don’t know if I can do this. This is wild.’

“So,” she says, 10 years later, “fly to Thailand, lose, and see if you want to do it.”

***

It is not monsooning in Rubavu, Rwanda. But it isn’t exactly pleasant, either. The heat is intense. Bugs otherworldly. The trip to the site for the 2021 two-star FIVB event is expectedly difficult, with a long, bumpy bus ride, and a hotel room that occasionally included an unwelcome but frequent guest: bats.

This is where the second act of Sophie Bukovec’s career must begin.

She hasn’t played an FIVB in more than a year. Her last, a three-star at home in Edmonton, Canada, with Taylor Pischke, concluded with a 17th. Pischke retired shortly after, leaving Bukovec, a 6-foot tweener, idling between undersized blocker and relatively untrained defender, without a partner and without a large pool of players from which to find a new one.

“When I was losing in qualifiers, when I was not doing well, not having a partner, playing with a bunch of people, having to fly to Rwanda because nobody else would play with me, in those moments and having those losses, I thought ‘Am I letting down the federation?’” Bukovec said. “They thought I was going to do X, Y, and Z so are you a disappointment if you don’t?”

To label Bukovec a disappointment at any point in her beach career, even at that point, when she lost both of her pool play matches in Rwanda and finished 17th, would have been an error of enormous magnitude. In 2014, Bukovec became the first Canadian beach player to win an age group event at the Under 21 FIVB World Championship, taking gold with Tia Miric — now at Cal Poly — as the 14 seed.

That gold medal was bigger than anyone knew. The athletic and springy blocker caught the eye of the woman coaching the American pairs, Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes, and Delaney Knudsen and Alexa Strange. Anna Collier, then the coach at the budding dynasty at USC, was there on two missions: Coaching the Americans, and recruiting Miric, a scrappy defender.

“What’s your partner doing?” Collier asked Miric of Bukovec’s college aspirations.

“She’s going to Long Beach,” Miric responded.

“Oh.”

And Bukovec did. For a semester. The fit wasn’t right. But the lines of communication between Bukovec and USC had been opened. When she sought a move, Bukovec’s first call was to Collier.

Did she have a spot for her?

“She then went through the steps to get into the portal and get the ability to transfer and I said ‘OK, you’ve done the work, let’s see what you can do,’” Collier recalled.

What she’d do is form one of the most dynastic programs in all of collegiate sport, joining Hughes, Claes, Nicolette Martin, and Allie Wheeler — a group that, one year later, would add a walk-on from upstate New York named Terese Cannon — to round out arguably the most talented recruiting class in NCAA beach volleyball history. Twice she’d be named All-American. When she was a junior, Collier would promote her to team captain. In 2016, she’d finish 33-9 to help the Trojans bring home the inaugural NCAA Championship. In 2017, she’d do it again, winning a critical 21-18, 16-21, 15-13 match over Pepperdine’s Corinne Quiggle and Brittany Howard in the NCAA Championship to help seal USC’s second straight NCAA title and third consecutive national championship.

“In my opinion, NCAA volleyball wouldn’t be where it is today without that group,” Collier said of that star-studded recruiting class. And Canadian beach volleyball may not be where it is without Bukovec opening up what has become a reliably talented NCAA recruiting pipeline, one that has since produced the likes of Nicole and Megan McNamara (UCLA), Alex Poletto (USC), Molly McBain (Florida State), and Lea Monkhouse (Hawai’i and UCLA), among others.

And yet, successful as Bukovec was at USC as a blocker, Collier knew that wasn’t where her ceiling was highest. Even when Bukovec was partnered with Strange, with whom she blocked full-time, Collier still ensured she took reps in defense.

“I was like ‘This is going to be you someday, Sophie. This isn’t about SC. This is about your next step. Let’s do some work for laying the future,’” Collier said. She was half a decade ahead of her time. It wouldn’t be until the fall of 2021 that someone in as influential a position as Collier agreed that Sophie Bukovec wasn’t a blocker, but a defender with all the potential of becoming world class at it.

That November, Bukovec had just returned from a four-star event in Itapema, Brazil, losing in the first round of the qualifier, when she received the text that has since altered the course of her career.

“Can you fly to Louisiana and play with me?” the text read.

Its sender: Brandie Wilkerson.

Sophie Bukovec was part of what USC coach Anna Collier calls the ‘Fab Five’ of NCAA Beach Volleyball.

***

It is hot and dry in Tlaxcala, Mexico. Sophie Bukovec stands outside her hotel for the season-opening Challenger event, posing for a photo with Wilkerson. They take a picture, commemorating their first event together, one that ended prematurely, with a 15-21, 19-21 loss in the final round of the qualifier.

“I said ‘Sorry girl back to losing in qualifiers. My bad. After coming fifth at the Olympics, I was like sorry dude,’ ” Bukovec recalled. “She was amazing about it.”

Wilkerson was undeterred. Losing is part of sports, a necessary, if not unwelcome, element of beginning a new team. The Canadian Federation? This was partly what it expected when Bukovec informed the staff that she was making the transition from blocker to defender.

“At induction camp with Volleyball Canada, I mentioned that I wanted to become a defender and they said ‘Absolutely not. We have no blockers. That is not an option. You cannot be a defender,’ ” Bukovec said. “They didn’t know I was talking to Brandie and other people when I was looking for partnerships, but they were very adamant: ‘You are not going to be a defender.’ I said ‘Well, nobody tells me what to do. Have you met me? That’s just going to make me want to play defense more.’ That’s been my whole life.”

In Volleyball Canada’s defense, it didn’t know that Bukovec had already traveled to Louisiana to practice with Wilkerson, where they’d test their potential partnership against Americans Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth. It didn’t know that the seed for the switch had actually been planted long ago, first by Collier, then again by Will Hoey, a player on the men’s National Team. At the time, Wilkerson was still playing alongside Heather Bansley, and together they formed one of the best teams in the world, rising to the No. 1 ranking in 2018 and early 2019.

But, Hoey wondered to Bukovec, what happens when Heather retires? Where’s Wilkerson going to go?

“I was like ‘Interesting turn of events,’” Bukovec says. “I was a pretty successful blocker, I don’t think I would have ever been top five in the world, but I would have been successful enough. But just sparking that, I thought maybe I’ll split block, I’ll get my toes wet and see if I can do this.”

She dipped her toes here and there, winning silver at a NORCECA in Martinique in 2018, defending for Poletto, her former teammate at USC. She split-blocked with Camille Saxton and won a silver medal at a one-star in Bulgaria. But when she had initially asked Wilkerson to play a tournament together, Wilkerson, who was coming off a fifth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics with Bansley, politely declined.

Months later, Wilkerson reached out: Could Bukovec come practice with her in Louisiana?

Sophie Bukovec-Brandie Wilkerson
Sophie Bukovec, left, and Brandie Wilkerson have the right chemistry/Volleyball World photo

“It was a lot of back and forth and in those practices I guess she felt a little chemistry because a few weeks later she finally committed,” Bukovec said. “I remember exactly where I was when she said ‘Hey you want to do this?’ So good. I was coaching at the university I coach for and ran up to the head coach and showed him the text and was super giddy. It was like a guy I liked asked me out. It was a really fun moment. It was really cool. I knew all of the hard work, all of the partnerships I’d been in, playing in Toronto outside in November in the freezing cold, all of those things led to that moment. It was really special. It was really cool.”

A cool moment, yes, but the two had no small amount of gains to make to reach their goal of qualifying for the World Championships, particularly as one obstacle stacked atop another. A fifth in the Itapema Challenger put them in good shape, especially with two more Challengers, in Qatar and Turkey, prior to the World Championships.

And then only their bags made it to Qatar.

Complications over the COVID vaccine kept Bukovec and Wilkerson from entering Doha from Brazil, which meant they needed at least a ninth in Turkey, the only event remaining, to qualify for the World Championships. A pair of pool wins assured them of exactly that.

Their first goal was met: They were into the World Championships.

The world was about to have its formal introduction to Sophie Antonia Bukovec.

Sophie Bukovec-Brandie Wilkerson
Sophie Bukovec and Brandie Wilkerson celebrate at the World Championships (Photo/Volleyball World)

***

Why, it’s worth asking, is Bukovec still here? Why did she continue playing after that devastating loss in the monsoon in Thailand? Why did she spend month after lonely month in the Canadian National Team gym, just her and Grant O’Gorman, putting in hours upon hours of repetitions with no guarantee they’d ever pay off? Why did she travel to far-flung places such as Rwanda, and China, and Poland, and the Czech Republic, all to fall in qualifiers, while losing thousands of dollars in the process? Why did she become a defender, in a country with a limited supply of blockers, when the very federation she represents explicitly told her not to do exactly that?

Because more than anything, Bukovec wants to surprise herself.

“I just love competition. When I talk to people about why you’re playing, I love the moments when you surprise yourself,” she said. I love thinking that you can’t do something in one moment and then ‘Holy smokes, I did that.’ That becomes your new benchmark. Now we have to up the ante and the standard. I just love those moments in practice, in matches.

“Those moments and that feeling are absolutely why I play. I’ve had a lot of those in my career: first National Championships at USC, that was a moment; first gold medal at the Under 21 World Championship, that was a moment. It’s not about the successes, it’s the little wins as well, but when they lead to the big successes, it feels just as good.”

It’s a perfect June evening in Rome. The Foro Italico has filled up for the semifinals of the World Championships. Not a single seat is actually taken, however, for everyone in attendance is on their feet, watching as Bukovec and Wilkerson require just one more point against Germany’s Cinja Tillman and Svenja Muller to extend their Cinderella run, one that has included victories over the top Americans, Betsi Flint and Kelly Cheng; World Tour Finalist winners Karla Borger and Julia Sude; and the home Italian favorites, Marta Menegatti and Valentina Gottardi. It’s Wilkerson who receives the serve, Wilkerson who uses her momentum to take a back set, Wilkerson who chops a shot high off the hands of Muller, one that will hit the sand, sealing a 21-15, 15-21, 15-12 victory, sealing a berth into the finals of the World Championships.

Bukovec falls to her knees, then simply lays in the sand. Wilkerson’s arms are raised, then she lets them slip behind her head. Watch that moment. Look at the photo. That’s why Bukovec is here.

Surprise.

Brandie Wilkerson
Brandie Wilkerson celebrates winning the World Championship semifinal (Photo/Volleyball World)

“Winning the semifinal in Worlds, I looked at Brandie and said ‘Holy smokes we just did that,’” Bukovec said. “It didn’t’ feel as monumental or as big as I envisioned it to feel, but it was so nice to take a step back and think ‘Holy smokes we just did that.’ ”

They did. And now the ante is higher, the standards raised once more. They began this season seeking only a berth into the World Championships, and only enough points to simply compete in the qualifiers of Elite 16 events. Now? They are ranked No. 13 in the world. Their entry points have reached a threshold so high they cannot even compete in Challenger events.

“It’s only been a year. It’s crazy to think that it’s only been a year and we’ve had such success,” Bukovec said. “It feels like there’s been a lot of hard work in the background for years now and it’s all paying off which is a really nice feeling. It’s nice to do it next to someone I really love and care about. It’s always a bonus when you like your partner. We’re pretty happy.

“I feel like I’ve surprised myself this year. It’s been good.”

If the world — even Bukovec — is surprised by her success, there are two individuals who are not: Anna Collier, and Wilkerson. In the moments after winning that semifinal, Julius Brink asks Wilkerson to “tell the world how great she is.”

“This girl,” Wilkerson says, turning to the crowd, “is a superstar.”

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