For the Czech Republic’s Markéta “Maki” Sluková and Barbora “Bára” Hermannová, this past year has been an absolute whirlwind. Despite facing a long and grueling qualification period, the team dug deep and fought tooth and nail to secure their last-minute spot to the 2016 Rio Olympics, fulfilling a dream few beach volleyball players ever get to experience. Since then, the dynamic duo has been on a mission to keep that momentum going, facing each challenge one step at a time. Recently, both players were gracious enough to sit down and discuss their careers, highlights going into this 2017 season, and goals for the future.
What was it that drew you to beach volleyball?
Maki: I started with indoor [volleyball] when I was about nine years old, but I wasn’t very tall so I wasn't sure if my change from gymnastics was the best move. When I was fourteen, I finally grew a bit and my volleyball career started to look a little brighter. At seveneen, I played beach volleyball for the first time and fell in love with it. It was not very common to be a beach volleyball pro in the Czech Republic, so most of the Czech players also played indoor as well. It took me two years to take that final step and quit indoor in order to focus soley on beach volleyball.
I love the complexity of this sport. You need to master all the technical and mental skills while trying to make your teammate the best he/she can be. It‘s very competitive and mentally challenging, so I believe it builds, and at the same time reveals, your character. In the past few years it become a true lifestyle for me
Bára: I started to play volleyball mainly because of my mum. She played volleyball for ages as a hobby player, and I remember going with her to almost every training session since I could walk. I started as a score counter and ball catcher, and later I sometimes had the chance to join the training sessions if they were missing players. I think that’s where my love and passion for volleyball started, and it holds up even now.
When I was sixteen, I played beach volleyball in the summer time and indoor during winter. When I was nineteen, I decided to only play beach volleyball because I liked the opportunity to travel outside of the Czech Republic and I saw that my indoor career was not looking to be anything special; I just knew I could be more successful in beach volleyball.
Looking back at the past two years alone, the team has had tremendous success: Gold at Antalya, qualification for the Rio Olympics, strong finishes in many tournaments, and being two faces of Czech beach volleyball. Just how do you both feel?
Maki: There was a lot of physical and mental hard work behind all those achievements last year. But the beauty of this sport is that sometimes even if you work very hard and do your best, the season still doesn’t go exactly the way you hope. Some things you just can‘t predict as there are too many uncontrollables [variables].
This year we want to work on the little things in our game. It‘s not always easy and there are lots of “ out of your comfort zone” moments right now. But we have a good team who “ secure our backs”, a clever and dedicated coach, and great supporters and sponsors. I strongly believe that we can turn our continuous hard work into some more memorable achievements.
Bára: There is still plenty of room to improve mentally and physically speaking, but on the court you have to work on this all the time. Luckily for us, we have really great people around who can help with everything. I truly believe there could be more great successes going forward on our journey.
Before talking about 2017, just how was this off season after such an eventful 2016?
Maki: Not as long as I thought it is going to be! I got married in September, and we [husband Simon Nausch] got a new Labrador/German Shepard mix breed puppy called Ozarka. She is a great dog, but at the beginning it was a lots of work and she kept us quite busy!! (Laughs)
Bára: I live in Prague, but my family and some friends are in Ostrava, so whenever I have more than a five day break from the beach I usually go home to see them. Heading home during the off season is the best time to do it! This time I also visited my friend in Scotland for a short time. We visited the nice city of Edinburgh and beautiful Loch Lomond, while also seeing some nature in the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park.
This year, the FIVB (International Volleyball Federation) dropped its old system of tournaments and adopted a new “Five Star“ model going forward. Has this change affected life on tour?
Maki: It was a little strange to start the season so early [at Feburary’s Fort Lauderdale Open]. Also, it has made planning the season quite difficult with all the cancellations of the other tournaments.
Bára: Exactly how Maki said. With all these system changes in FIVB tournaments, our calendar for this year looks poor compare to last season. On one hand its sad, because we like to play at the highest competition and we are used to traveling almost every week during the summer time. It‘s also our job, so less tournaments means less money to make a living. On the other hand we will have more time to play in some tournaments in the Czech Republic, and our coach Simon will also try to fill up those free spaces between the five and four stars events with more tournaments close to home (for example in Germany or Switzerland; they both have very good national tours).
Ft. Lauderdale may have started the season very early, but we played some exhibition tournament in Italy since then, so we haven’t had such a long break from competition.
Looking ahead to this season: what are you most excited about? Are there any tournaments that you are particularly looking forward to?
Maki: For me the highlight of this season is going to be the World Championship in Vienna. I’m really look forward to this tournament. It is quite close to Prague (my hometown) and to the Czech Republic in general, so there are going to be many Czech fans who will try very hard to make us feel right at home!
Bára: I‘m always looking forward to playing in Gstaad (Switzerland) - I really like that city with the spectacular mountain view all around. Last year we had to skip the tournament because of Olympic qualification, so I hope everything runs just fine and we get to play there. And of course the World and European Championships will definitely be two of our highlights for sure!
Finally, just what goals do you have going forward into the future?
Maki: I’ve been playing on the World Tour since 2009, so this is going to be my ninth season. My personal beach volleyball goals are changing year by year as I'm getting older-and hopefully also a little wiser.
At the beginning I was really mainly interested in winning and results. It made me very upset every time I suffered a defeat and I doubted the whole purpose of the competition. That has now changed.
I feel I definitely toughened up, especially since 2015 was a hard year for me. There were some difficult situations on and off the court which made me grow a lot as a person, evaluate my priorities, and discover what I truly want from this sport in general. I always loved the game, but now I can view everything much more rationally. Beach volleyball provides a great opportunity to discover and test your limits.
My goal in general is to enjoy this lifestyle as long as I can and to capture some more medals on the way. The secret for this season is to try and sneak our way into a semifinal and go from there. Let’s see what happens!
Bára: As long as I‘m going forward and improving, then good results will follow. Beach volleyball sometimes takes us into difficult times, and in those moments I would like to learn to stay more objective. Also, I want to try and find a way to better balance my emotions during a match. Finally, I‘m still dreaming about winning some more medals; if we stay healthy, I would just love to play in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics!