Not bad for a Superliga rookie... In fact, it was a superb club season for Canadian opposite Sarah Pavan. Pavan is playing for the first time in Brazil, a country that has been dominating the volleyball stage. Brazil grabbed the last two gold medals at the Olympics. This Sunday morning Sarah led her Rio de Janeiro based team, Unilever, to their eighth Brazilian League (Superliga) title. It was not easy as she was playing with some Olympic champions. Natalia Zilio, Valeska Menezes, two time Olympic gold medallist Fabi Oliveira, and volleyball legend Fofao. Fofao is an Olympic champion in Beijing and at 43, is still playing high level volleyball. American left side Logan Tom, two time Olympic silver medallist also played on star-studded Unilever. Unilever is under the command of multi champion Bernardo Rezende (aka Bernardinho), a coach that has won everything with Brazil men’s team but coaches the women during the club season. Sarah knew about Bernardinho’s reputation and flew to Brazil to learn from him.
One might think that with a star studded roster and head coach, the championship would come easily. Think again. On the other side of the net was the defending champion Sollys from Sao Paulo. Sollys is a squad where every starter (and a few subs) have already played for the national team and have Olympic gold medals on their resume. To add more advantage to Sollys, the final match was played in Sao Paulo, in front 20,000 fans that packed Ibirapuera arena. The two teams have been in the final in the last nine consecutive seasons, something that bugs the other coaches and sponsors. The men’s league is more balanced. Last year in Rio, Sollys shut Unilever’s supporters up, closing the season with a straight sets victory.
Today, the whole country was watching as the main TV network broadcast the final. Sollys opened the score, 25-22 and 25-19, but this time Sarah Pavan was there to give Unilever a hand (her left one, by the way). The Sollys domination ended and the few Unilever fans at the arena could celebrate, as their team scored 25-20, 25-15 and 15-9. Sarah was the top scorer of the gold medal match, notching 22 points alongside her teammate Natalia Zilio. The Brazilian press stressed Sarah was decisive and took a leading role in the final, after her squad was behind 0-2 in sets. She ended the season as the third best scorer, right behind two Olympic champions. Bernardinho thinks Sarah is a very important player and she was crucial to make the team stronger, so they could reach their eighth Superliga title.
Once the club season ended, it’s time for the national teams to get together. How Sarah Pavan feels about the Canadian national team and if she thinks they’re heading into the right direction? Sarah told us most players are very young and very inexperienced. “It’s difficult and there’s a lot of work that has to be done, and they have to play a lot of games to reach a higher level”, stressed the champion.
In order to improve and become stronger in the world stage, the opposite thinks the Canadian players have to find a spot in better leagues. “My teammates in Canada don’t play in the best leagues, so it’s very difficult for us to improve. Here in Brazil I get to play against some of the best players in the world every day, and that makes me better. So, if Canada wants to be stronger, our players have to go to the stronger leagues” adds Sarah.
Apart the matches and the tiring training sessions under Bernardinho’s eyes, she’s been having fun in Rio. She has learned some Portuguese (she has a cute accent) and has been enjoying the city when she gets a day off. She visits tourist sites and walks downtown or on the beach. Rio will be the location for the next Olympic Games, does Sarah sees herself playing there? “I don’t know if it’s gonna happen. I hope so, but I’m just a small part in this puzzle, but I hope to be there”.
Check out highlights from Sarah Pavan and Unilever's 3-2 comeback win below.