Beach volleyballer Sarah Pavan finds new fans through love of anime series 'Haikyuu'

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As Sarah Pavan faces the world on the beach volleyball court in Tokyo, she's garnering support from an unexpected demographic: fans of Japanese animation.

Over the course of the pandemic, the 34-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., has tapped into a community of anime enthusiasts through her YouTube channel. Alongside tutorials like "How To Do A Beach Volleyball Pokey" and "Volleyball Rotations Explained," Pavan has posted more than a dozen clips of herself watching the popular series "Haikyuu."

In between gasps, laughter and occasional tears, she breaks down the techniques and strategies demonstrated in the volleyball-themed show, and weighs in on the decisions made by coaches and players alike.

As a result, she's seen a whole new audience suddenly tune in to her career — and to volleyball as a whole.

"They'll find my channel for 'Haikyuu' and then they'll dive into the volleyball how-to's from there. Whereas, before I started doing it, it was strictly volleyball enthusiasts, but now it's kind of like reversed," Pavan said in an interview from Tokyo, where she and her partner Melissa Humana-Paredes were 3-0 through the group play stage.

Her most recent video, which she posted from Tokyo though it was filmed weeks earlier, has drawn scores of comments from fans wishing her success at the Summer Games.

"I think it's cool because I have my volleyball fans and my volleyball community that really understand the sport, but now I have my 'Haikyuu' community who are equally supportive of my volleyball career, but they don't necessarily understand it in the same way," said Pavan, a former indoor volleyball player who switched to the beach game at 26.

"But to feel that love — and I get messages from them all the time — and now they're tuning in to real volleyball games because of my reaction (videos) ... I think that's amazing."

The show, based on a comic or manga of the same title, follows a high school student determined to excel at volleyball despite his short stature, as his underdog team sets its sights on the national championship.

Its impact on Japan's popular and sports culture was on display at the delayed Tokyo Olympics, where several of the show's theme songs have rung out over the loudspeakers during the Japanese men's team's volleyball matches — including this week's game against Canada.

Pavan isn't the only Olympic volleyballer who's become a fan.

Erik Shoji, the libero for the U.S. volleyball team, first discovered "Haikyuu" two years ago in Japan, when he and a few others walked into a store that had some of the show's merchandise for sale. They took a photo with the items and posted it on social media "and it kind of went viral within the volleyball world," Shoji said.

Since then, he's posted a few videos on YouTube where he reacts to some of the anime's show-stopping plays — particularly the digs by the main team's libero. One of those videos has more than a million views.

"I think 'Haikyuu' does a really great job of teaching the sport, and also showing some really good technique in volleyball. So I think it's great that maybe some non-volleyball fans are getting a really good glimpse into our sport," Shoji said in a recent interview.

"They're now just volleyball fans after watching the anime or watching my channel and watching the reaction, so I love that. I'm kind of reaching a different audience and it's been a really cool experience," he said.

Mark Lowes, a communications professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in pop culture and sport, said social media has helped popular culture transcend geographic boundaries and provided a platform where different communities can cross over and take new forms.

While sports and anime are very different on the surface, "underneath it, there's that kind of unifying theme of seeking meaning through identification with these things," which can be a powerful motivator, he said.

"In a way, a series of athletes who have joined or created a community of fans around the program are now propagating their interests through their media networks by drawing in their own individual followers ... that has effectively created a new community of fans," he said.

It was at the urging of YouTube commenters that Pavan started watching 'Haikyuu' — though it took her about eight months to actually do it.

"But I started watching it, and like, became obsessed," she said with a laugh.

"I've been playing this sport for so long that when the characters are going through a tough moment on the court, or the team dynamics or somebody on the bench wanting to fight for their starting position — I played indoor for the majority of my career, and I can relate to every single aspect of the show, and it brings up some like really great memories and some really hard ones," she said.

Pavan has been trying to buy "Haikyuu" merch while in Japan, but COVID-19 restrictions — and the language barrier — have made it difficult, she said.

It's not the first volleyball anime Pavan, 34, has enjoyed.

A self-described nerd who loved Sailor Moon growing up, Pavan remembers watching an anime called "Mila e Shiro" — the Italian title for the 1980s series "Attacker You!" — when she played professionally in Italy years ago.

Overall, though, "there isn't a lot of volleyball pop culture," she said.

"It's not like your mainstream sport. So to have found something like this is so cool."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2021.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press

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