Paige Poelman says she's sometimes met by surprised reactions when she tells people at the Canada Summer Games that she's on the Yukon's beach volleyball team.
"People are like, 'How does that work? Does Yukon have beaches?' We don't really, but we make do," says Poelman, 20, who is on the territory's first-ever entry into the women's event at the Games, now underway in Ontario's Niagara Region.
Poelman said beach volleyball has taken off in the Yukon recently, which was already mad about indoor volleyball:
"It's a big thing. We love it there."
Extending the opportunity to play outside in the summer just made sense, she said.
When Poelman began playing beach volleyball in 2019, she took to gravel courts at the Rotary Park in Whitehorse.
The growth of the sport in the region recently led to the construction of new sand courts behind a local high school.
Poelman said it's hard to believe how far things have come in a few years, and now she's representing Yukon nationally.
"I am very grateful I get to be here," she said about the Canada Summer Games, which began Aug. 6 and continue through Aug. 21. "It's very cool to be part of this national event. I never really realized how big of an event it is, but it is."
Keeping busy while not on the beach
According to the Games, beach volleyball made its debut at the competition in 2001, but didn't become an annual event until 2009.
There are two players on a beach volleyball team, compared to indoor volleyball, which has six players.
At this year's Canada Summer Games, every province and territory is represented in beach volleyball, although Northwest Territories did not field a women's team, said Games spokesperson Christopher Seguin. He added that 50 athletes are playing beach volleyball, with 24 of them women.
Poelman's partner in the sand is Caelon Workman, a friend she's known through indoor volleyball since elementary school.
Workman, 21, said the team is staying in "super nice" Brock University dorm rooms in St. Catharines during the Games, and it can get "pretty packed" in the cafeteria where the athletes eat.
There's an outdoor area with some lawn games, including bean bag toss, Spikeball and a mini-volleyball game, but so far, the latter has been too busy for the teammates to try to dominate their peers in a friendly match, she said.
"There's lots of pin trading going on," Workman said, referring to collectible pins from different provinces and territories that the athletes have been exchanging.
"We've met a few people from P.E.I."
Workman only started playing beach volleyball this year, but has long been an indoor volleyball player and, recently, a coach.
"It's a lot harder because you have to move faster in the sand and stuff, and deal with the weather conditions," she said.
"It's definitely more difficult."
Those weather conditions include a recent heat wave with humidity that made it feel like 40 C — a level of heat the teammates say was an added challenge.
"You kind of have to push through and have lots of water breaks," Workman said.
Another particularity to beach volleyball is the intimate team size, said Shannon Poelman, the team's coach and Paige's mom, who believes growth of the sport in the North has been partially fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It was something to do outside. We've just seen the numbers grow and grow."
No substitutions in beach volleyball
Shannon said that in beach volleyball, there are no substitute players, so "if one of your players gets injured, it's over for you."
A close relationship between the two players is crucial to their success because the game requires constant communication, so they get very accustomed to each other's style, signals and plays.
"They develop a system of how they communicate and how they move on the court," Shannon said.
She said preparation for the Games included four days a week of practices and two days of strength training, leading to the trio's close bond.
"Caelon, I've known her since she was little [and] to be here with my daughter, it's been pretty special," Shannon said.
The team lost its first game to Nunavut, on Monday. It also lost to P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador on Tuesday. The Yukon team was also set to play Newfoundland and Labrador again on Thursday.