2018-02-24 17:10:00 CEST
Only one European team has ever won gold on a World Tour tournament in America in FIVB history. We spoke to legendary Norwegians Björn Maaseide and Jan Kvalheim and asked them how they did it
Next week, all of the European teams descending on Fort Lauderdale Beach for the first Beach Major Series tournament of 2018 will be aiming to make a little bit of history when they hit the sand.
It has been 22 long years since a European team last stood on top of the podium and returned back across the Atlantic Ocean from a US tournament with a gold medal in their hand luggage.
And it might interest you to know that a European team winning in America’s backyard has only ever happened twice in World Tour history. Better still – just one team has managed this achievement: two Norwegian guys who went on to become superstars in Scandinavia for their exploits on the sand.
Björn Maaseide and Jan Kvalheim were the original beach volleyball Vikings. They joined forces while playing indoor volleyball in France in 1991. Jan had previously applied for French citizenship and even played one World Tour tournament in 1990 as a Frenchman before his application was rejected by the French government.
Björn and Jan played their first tournament together in Cap d’Agde in France. They finished fifth in that competition and that – together with a fourth-place finish in an FIVB Olympic invitational event at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona – was enough to convince them that a career playing beach volleyball was what they wanted to do.
The pair went onto play in two Olympic Games together, won the European Championships in 1994 and remain the only European beach volleyball team to win gold on the FIVB World Tour across 17 tournaments on US sand. Their first success came not far from Fort Lauderdale, in Miami in 1994, and they followed that up by taking first place in Hermosa Beach California two years later.
Since then though, all of the tournament golds have gone the way of teams from either North or South America. Just 18 medals have been won by European teams in the 17 tournaments, with 80 of the 102 podium places up for grabs won by North and South Americans. Last year in Fort Lauderdale, one European team won a medal: Germans Chantal Laboureur and Julia Sude won bronze.
For Björn and Jan there was no magic formula to beat teams in their own backyard. Just something very un-Norwegian: confidence.
“I remember our attitude and approach was not typically Norwegian – we just believed in ourselves,” explains Jan, now 55 and the elder statesman of the team. “We had so much self-confidence and we just knew that we could be good together as a team.
“When we played against the likes of Brazil and the USA we went into the games with no fear. Björn and I loved playing against them and having possession of the ball, especially on their home turf.
“We’d often observe the other European teams slumping into their seats when the draw was made and they were paired against a South American team. For us, however, our motivation had the opposite effect: our confidence was boosted when we were drawn against the USA or Brazil because we knew we’d be taking on some of the best players in the world.
“The best thing was that we loved playing them and we never, ever feared them. Even if we were trailing 14-10 in a game we always thought we could pull it back. Having this attitude really helped us win those two tournaments in the US.”
Björn also had the advantage of studying at UCLA in California – one of beach volleyball’s spiritual homes. He possessed the talent to choose volleyball over soccer and downhill skiing for a career. But volleyball won that argument.
“We were very much the contenders from Europe when we burst on the scene,” recalls Björn, who now coaches the Under-17 and Under-19 Norwegian women’s teams in Stavanger. “It came in the middle of an FIVB/AVP war so there was a rivalry developing between Europeans and Americans. Between 1995 and 1997 we were at our peak and it was a great time to be a part of the scene.
“That’s what made it exotic, two guys from Norway traveling the world playing beach volleyball. There was nobody like us on the tour and were very successful – as you can imagine winning tournaments in the US was a big thing and we were probably the first real kind of sports superstars I Norway.”
Their first tournament win in Miami in 1994 proved to be the springboard. Success over some of the world’s top teams only served to enhance their already brimming confidence.
“It was a real big surprise because we thought the win came earlier than we thought it would,” admits Jan. “But we had the confidence that we could really challenge the Americas and Brazils in the sport.
“We were seen as the equivalent of the Jamaican bobsleigh team – a team from Norway playing a summer sport. But we showed them and teams soon began to fear us.”
One thing the team would never do, despite hailing from one of Europe’s coldest countries, would be to blame the hot and humid climate when playing overseas.
“I’m not saying teams weren’t as mentally strong as us, but we were so confident in our mentality that we could deal with whatever was thrown at us: teams, weather conditions, sand conditions – anything,” says Kvalheim. “In Brazil it’s 35-40 degrees outside and when you walk out of the hotel it hits you. You can either say ‘wow this is too hot for us’ or you can say to yourself ‘this heat is great, in Norway it’s minus 15!’ and that was always our thinking. We always tried to be positive in our minds.
“We had beach volleyball in Stavanger for many years and sometimes it would be 10 degrees and raining and you could see some of the teams who weren’t in the right frame of mind because it was too cold. When you see that behavior, you get an extra boost.
“Some teams hated playing on the center court against Brazilians and Americans in those countries but Björn and I loved it. We had so much motivation when we were booed by the home crowd. It’s a special kind of mental strength – we just embraced everything as two Norwegian beach volleyball players a million miles from home.”
The duo still have fond memories of their partnership on the beach together; they are still very good friends and are still celebrated in Norway for their achievements and are often recognized in the streets.
However, Björn and Jan have high hopes of the next generation of beach volleyball players from their homeland, in particular Anders Mol – last season’s Rookie of the Year – and Christian Sørum.
And wouldn’t it be something if this young team that ended Europe’s wait for a gold medal in the US?
“I’m a strong believer of this team,” says Björn. “I don’t see anyone else in the world at their age that has played as many tournaments as them. They grew up with a beach volleyball in their hands. I’m sure they will qualify for Tokyo 2020 and if they don’t win a medal there I’m sure they will in 2024.”
Jan agrees. “What they’ve done already is really impressive,” he says. “We played against them last summer at a training camp and even though we’re old now (!) we were impressed with their physique and their ball control. We’re really cheering for them.”
So as the European teams jet into Fort Lauderdale for the biggest beach volleyball tournament in the United States this year, what advice do Jan and Björn have?
“The statistic is surprising because European teams have been doing really well on the World Tour, at the Olympics and the World Championships,” Jan adds. “I’m not sure I have any advice because they have the talent. I would say, just don’t think about things too much.
“There are plenty of teams who are capable of winning the tournament – I only think it’s a matter of time before the European teams are winning in the US.”
If the European teams reading this can embrace and be inspired by the words of Björn and Jan then who knows – that wait for a gold might come sooner rather than later.
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