The Smiling Assassin

Melissa Humana-Paredes (24) is one of a kind. The Canadian beach volleyball player is a side out machine with an ongoing smile on her face. This season, FIVB awarded her the Most Improved Player of the season. In the interview, the 1.75 meters tall defensive player talks about her new partnership with Sarah Pavan (31), the rise of beach volleyball in Canada and her particular passion for the game.

Ninja Priesterjahn: Melissa, your first season with Sarah Pavan has been the most successful in your career until now. How did you experience the last months?

Melissa Humana-Paredes: Honestly, I did not expect this season to be so successful. Sarah and I have very high expectations of what we think we can achieve together, but we both kind of surprised ourselves with how quickly we were able to step up to the plate. We planned to be among the top ten in the world at the end of the season.

Now you are second in World Ranking, you won four medals and made it seven times to the semi finals out of eight tournaments…

It´s really promising and exciting to see, that we can compete with the best so early. It is really overwhelming and gratifying at the same time. 

It wasn´t a good start to our partnership

Exactly one year ago, you lost the country quota match at the Swatch FIVB World Tour Final in your hometown Toronto against Sarah´s former partner Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson in 37 minutes (21:23, 13:21). What happened after this tough start in your very first match together?

When Sarah approached me for the World Tour Final she also approached me with the intention of partnering for the future. Our long term goal was Tokyo 2020. And this first match wasn’t a good start to our partnership. There was a lot of drama involved with that game and the partner switches. I suddenly find myself in the middle of this big game for this big tournament. I was nervous feeling like I had to fill some big shoes. Losing that game was pretty defeating, but it made me work even harder, because I saw, how much more I had to improve. It made our team actually stronger, which is ironic.

What was your first reaction, when Sarah asked you to play with her?

I was so honoured and kind of really surprised, that she wanted to play with me. My former partner Taylor Pischke and I had an amazing five years together, we accomplished incredible things together (Bronze at U23 World Championships 2013 and 2014), but it was time for us to move on, if we wanted to make it to the next level. So it was easy to say yes to Sarah even though there were a lot on unknowns: I had to switch and learn a new side and I knew that I would have to raise my level because I would be getting served every single ball.

„We are both the student and the teacher

Sarah is 1.98 meters tall and left hander. She is not getting served very often, but this season, you were playing such a high level, some teams also tried to serve on her. Did that change the hierarchic between the two of you a little bit? Do you feel being an equal partner now?

I would not say we are equal in the sense, that I think, she has taught me so much more than I feel I am able to offer her. But from the very beginning, Sarah looked at me saying: You have been playing beach volleyball much longer than I, you have this intuition for the game that you can´t teach. It was incredible to hear that from her. I think, we are both the student and the teacher as well. Sarah definitively has more experience playing in semi finals and medal matches at that high level and helping me through high-pressure situations.

Watching the both of you playing it sometimes looks as if you can relax Sarah, when she is getting tensed up. Is that true?

Yeah (laughs), she has said that a couple of times to me. Sometimes, she gets really intense in games and when it´s really close, she looks at me, I smile at her and she feels instantly more calm and smiles back. She said, that is not normal for her. And if I am able to calm here in pressure moments, that is amazing, because she is also able to calm me in different ways.

„I will never forget our first gold in Porec

You always seem to have a lot of fun on the court. How do you manage to be that positive especially in very tense situations?

I am just so in the moment and so happy to be there, because at the end of the day, that´s why I do this. I love this sport and I live for these moments. That’s my dream and I am living my dream. It’s awesome that people are able to see how much fun I have on the court and that my love for the sport radiates off the court, it’s funny because one of the announcer, Dain Blanton, started calling me „The Smiling Assassin“ and it’s caught on. But it´s not always easy of course like at the World Championships and the World Tour Final in Hamburg where we finished fourth both times. That is really painful, but it´s those matches where  we learn the most. Everything is a learning experience.

Sarah and Melissa celebrating their first gold medal at Porec Major. Credit: FIVB

Do you have a favourite moment of this season?

I have to say Porec Major, because, it was so special in so many different ways. Winning our first tournament together that early was indescribable. It was both our first gold medal and I will never forget that moment, especially because it was on Canada Day, July 1. To be able to stand on the podium, hear your national anthem with fireworks in the background, it was kind of unreal.

„We have a history in beach volleyball“

At the moment, Canada has lots of teams being able to win medals at the World Tour. 2016, you managed to have four teams at the Olympics for the first time ever. What is happening in your country?

We haven´t been recognized for beach volleyball since the Olympics 1996 in Atlanta when Jon Child and Mark Heese won bronze…

…with your father Hernan Humada coaching them…

…correct (laughs). We have a history in beach volleyball. It just took us a while to get back there and I think it already started a few years back. We were getting medals in the youth division with Sam Schachter and Garret May winning 2010 gold at the U21 WCH in Turkey, Taylor and I winning a few medals. At the same time, Sarah and Heather and Jamie Broder and Kristina Valjas were winning medals on the World Tour. Seeing the older teams at the World Tour consistently get top ten results was really inspiring and showed the youth of Canada, that it is possible.

Hernan Humada_Swatch Major Series
Melissa and her Dad Hernan, former indoor and beach volleyball national coach in Canada. Credit: Swatch Majors Series

How is the support in Canada for beach volleyball?

We are a winter sports nation. We have snow on the ground eight months a year. So as beach volleyball players, we had never really gotten a lot of financial support during the last years. For the past six years, I have been on the national team, representing Canada, I only gotten 4.000 Dollars for the season. That might be another reason, why Canadians started flourishing again. Winning the next game really means money for food or getting the hotel for the next night. It was a struggle, but that´s what made us so strong as a country.

Did the good results change anything?

It took us a while to get recognized as a threat internationally. But fortunately, after qualifying 4 teams for the Olympics, they changed it. We actually do not have a lot of sponsors. But we get a little more funding from the government and Volleyball Canada. This year the senior athletes will get around 20.000 Dollars each. It was the first year, I felt comfortable without having to worry about the money.

Where do you normally practice?

I live in Toronto, which is where the national team is centralized. But as I am with Sarah now and our coach is in California, I moved and train there in the pre-season with a few other Canadians. I think, that is another benefit of our national team, they allow for the athletes to train anywhere and have personal coaches as well. The next few months, I will stay in Toronto. Sarah will come back from indoor around April, so I have a lot of time to rebuild myself in the gym and get fit again. And around February, I will move to California again.

„Beach volleyball is the best job in the world“

What are you doing, when putting the beach volleyball aside?

I graduated from York University this past April with a communications major. Now I have a little more time and I want to spend much of it with my family, I have a new little
baby niece who is growing up so fast and of course as always spend time with my dog, Zara. One of my goals this year is to volunteer for humane societies in Toronto and to help sheltered animals. I have wanted to do that for so long but it’s so tough when I travel so much. And in the future, I do actually want to go back to school. I would love to study environmental law. I do a master and a law degree after. That would be my ideal job after volleyball.

Karte Melissa´s Dad
The map, Hernan Humana gave to his children to follow him around the world. Credit: Humana-Paredes

Is it hard sometimes, to take a pass on other things because of beach volleyball?

You have to sacrifice a lot playing professional beach volleyball, that´s true, but I love it so much. I am very lucky to be my dad´s daughter, because he exposed me to the world of beach volleyball. I remember when he was on the travelling on FIVB World Tour with his team, he gave my brother (Felipe, beach volleyball national player) and I a map which I still have. He put pins and stars on every country he was going to, and every week, we would attach a string to each pin so we could follow him around the world. It seemed unbelievable to me that my dad was travelling all around the world because of beach volleyball. That´s when I realized that I wanted to do that. I thought, wandering the world playing beach volleyball must be the best job in the world – and that´s how it is.

Credit cover photo: Malte Christians /Swatch Beach Volleyball Major Serie

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