HERMOSA BEACH, California — There was nothing wrong with the 2023 season on the Beach Pro Tour for Melissa Humana-Paredes and Brandie WilkersonI. Even the stingiest of coaches with the sharpest of eyes would have had to agree that, in fact, it went about as well as a debut partnership could possibly go.

In 10 tournaments on the Beach Pro Tour, their first year as a team, they worst finish they turned in was a — gasp — fifth. They won three medals, including a gold at home in the Montreal Elite16. Claimed a silver at the Pan American Games. Eclipsed a top-five position in the world rankings. All but guaranteed themselves a spot in this summer’s Paris Olympic Games.

Their reward?

They scrapped everything.

Their coaches, Marcio Sicoli and Fiapo Tenius, “came in hot and heavy,” this off-season, Humana-Paredes said, laughing on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “He said ‘We’re throwing out everything we did last year.’ I feel like we just need to have our foundations laid and move forward and he goes ‘Yes, but we’re doing nothing the same.’”

Sicoli knows, as well as any beach volleyball coach on the planet, what it takes to win a medal at the Olympic Games. He has Olympic medals of every color on his resume, including a gold at the 2012 London Games with Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, and, most recently, bronze in 2016 with Walsh Jennings and April Ross. He knew that if Humana-Paredes and Wilkerson could accomplish all they did in 2023 with the basic foundations of a new partnership, they could elevate their games to levels neither had before experienced.

If only they trusted him with the simple instruction to abandon everything that got them that quick success a year ago.

“He told us that we’re adding these new things because you can, and because you’ve shown us you can and because we have the ability to,” Humana-Paredes said. “If they didn’t believe we could, they wouldn’t have asked us to, and we said ‘OK, heck yeah, we’re ready to level up.’ We feel like we’re one of the top teams in the world, we’ve got a couple medals, but we feel like there’s so much more room for us. It was intense.”

This is the part Wilkerson loves most. Twice voted the best blocker in the world, once an Olympian, seven times a winner of an AVP or Beach Pro Tour event, it isn’t those accolades or positions on a podium she craves. It’s growth, and the constant pushing of the limits until she alas finds the perimeter of her preternatural abilities.

She has yet to find them.

Given her absurd trajectory, she’s yet to get anywhere close.

So if her coaches saw more in her, something left untapped, there was no hesitation from Wilkerson: She wanted more.

“I think this is what is worth playing for is to really put yourself out there and try something new and see how you respond to those moments, good, bad, ugly, whatever the case is,” the 31-year-old Wilkerson said. “The results become a little less distracting when you’re fascinated with ‘I am so uncomfortable, how am I going to react to this situation? This is going to be crazy.’ We don’t have a lot of opportunities in our day to day lives to test ourselves. I want to soak up every moment of it. That’s the flip side of growth is being really comfortable with that uncertainty and unknown and really wanting it, craving it, just to see how much more you can unlock.”

Brandie Wilkerson prepares to block at the Ostrava Elite16/Volleyball World photo

How much more there was to unlock became immediately evident in the first tournament of the year at the Doha Elite16. In four straight tournaments to end the 2023 season they had finished fifth. To some, it would seem the Canadians had briefly plateaued, hit a ceiling they weren’t meant to break through, that the scouting report was in. Humana-Paredes and Wilkerson knew better. While the finish and the points and the prize money were the exact same, “every loss was different, every fifth was different, so even though it may have looked like we were stagnant, we were learning,” Humana-Paredes said. “It was just reframing that, not getting so bogged down in what the results are telling you. It can be really scary if you don’t feel like you’re getting better.”

In Doha, they found themselves in the quarterfinals yet again, matched up with a team they had not yet beaten in world No. 1 Ana Patricia Silva and Duda Lisboa. They knew they could beat them, of course, just as they trusted, deep down, that the sweeping changes they had made to their defensive system would one day pay off. They just didn’t know when either would happen. Doha seemed the most unlikely of places.

Heading into the tournament, they were still figuring out their blocking calls. Wilkerson would signal what she was blocking, and Humana-Paredes would wonder what in the world she meant. They were also still recovering from, oh, “a little car accident,” as Humana-Paredes described it, that limited their training in the leadup to the season-opener.

They were, in a way, sort of winging it.

And it worked.

They stumped Brazil in the quarterfinals and avenged an earlier pool play loss to Latvians Tina Graudina and Anastasija Samoilova in the semifinals. They’d return home with a silver medal and an inevitable question: If they could accomplish that, while not fully understanding their own blocking calls, while still a touch dinged up from a minor car accident, what are they truly capable of down the road?

What are they capable of come Paris?

“Our coaches did a good job establishing the longevity of our goal, so the pressure to be perfect right now was never really there,” Wilkerson said. “We were the ones putting pressure because we’re athletes and want to perform right away. They kept the perspective really well: ‘Remember what our goal is, remember what this is.’ ”

The goal is, like so many others, a gold medal in Paris later this summer. The silver in Doha is nice. So were all the medals that came before it. Most intriguing to Humana-Paredes and Wilkerson, though, is just how much better they can get, both as individuals and as a team, by late July.

An answer perhaps only Sicoli and Tenius know.

Brandie Wilkerson-Melissa Humana Paredes
Brandie Wilkerson and Melissa Humana-Paredes at the Gstaad Elite16/Volleyball World photo


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