Brandie Wilkerson remembers feeling a natural level of nerves, anxiousness and anticipation this past spring at the Tlaxcala Challenge beach volleyball event in Mexico. It was her first in five years without Heather Bansley, who retired days earlier.
They were the world's top-ranked women's team late in 2018 and early 2019 before placing fifth at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But Wilkerson began a new partnership in February with six-foot Sophie Bukovec, an undersized blocker who had spent two years transitioning to defender and waiting for a call from her fellow Canadian.
They didn't make it out of the qualifying round in Tlaxcala, swept 21-15, 21-19 by Germany's Sarah Schulz and Chantal Laboureur in their final match at the season-opening Challenger competition.
"Everything was extremely new for Sophie, playing with a new partner on the world tour in a new position," said Wilkerson of the inaugural stop on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour. "I can only imagine the amount of pressure that had been building.
"But what I recognized immediately was her ability to face that pressure, put herself out there and [show] resilience in those tough moments. Even when we lost, it wasn't because we gave up. I always felt she was going to try her best and that's been a theme this year."
Wilkerson and Bukovec, who spent the previous year grinding it out at one-star events, quickly developed chemistry on the sand and entered their fourth tournament in June — the world championships in Rome — as the 20th seed in a 48-team field. They finished second and have tied for fifth in their two most recent competitions.
WATCH | First-year partners Bukovec, Wilkerson capture world silver medal:
Ranked 13th in the world, Wilkerson and Bukovec didn't get much of a pre-season and jumped quickly into tourneys, so they have decided to end their season at this week's Paris Elite16 with two event left on the schedule.
The Toronto natives opened play Thursday and dropped a three-set decision to second-year pros Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth of the United States (17-21, 21-13, 13-15). On Friday at 3 a.m. ET, they face Betsi Flint and Kelly Cheng, who won the most recent Elite16 tourney in Hamburg, Germany.
Live coverage will be available on CBCSports.ca and CBC Gem.
Wilkerson and Bukovec lost 21-16, 21-13 in the quarter-finals in Hamburg to the current world No. 1 duo of Barbara Seixas and Carol Solberg from Brazil, who have captured four medals in 2022.
"I think we were playing extremely well up until [Bukovec got injured] and felt confident," Wilkerson said. "Passing is something we were working on all of that tournament and we've been trying to get more aggressive with our serves."
It was something that just needed time and rest to heal. ... She'll always find a way [to play]. — Brandie Wilkerson on beach volleyball partner Sophie Bukovec's sprained wrist
Since that tourney in mid-August, Wilkerson has played multiple Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) events with different partners, including Melissa Humana-Paredes, her former teammate at York University in Toronto who recently split from partner Sarah Pavan.
Bukovec spent the downtime nursing a sprained right hand and reunited with Wilkerson for a training camp in Los Angeles two weeks before flying to France.
"It was something that just needed time and rest to heal. We're back to full hitting, full everything," Wilkerson said recently, noting Bukovec had the hand taped at camp and sported a brace but wasn't sure if that would be necessary during matches in Paris. "She'll always find a way [to play]. She'll fight."
Bukovec wasn't able to solve Nuss and Kloth, who beat Wilkerson and Humana-Paredes twice, including the final, at the AVP's Chicago Open earlier this month. Thursday was the first time Bukovec and Wilkerson played them as a tandem.
Wilkerson, who defeated Nuss and Kloth with a different partner a week before the Chicago Open, had hoped to take advantage of her familiarity with the Americans in Paris.
"Sophie is physically bigger than the other partners I played with, extremely strong and dynamic," she said. "She has a great presence, so I think they'll be facing a much bigger team."
Nuss and Kloth displayed new skills in Chicago, added Wilkerson, serving differently and possessing more two-ball options. In a two-ball offence, a player hits the ball on the second contact following service reception rather than setting for a third contact.
"Now that I've seen more of their offence," Wilkerson said, "I'm starting to understand their tendencies more and see what does and doesn't work [against them]."
Wilkerson pointed out she has worked more on two-ball of late and that could help against Flint and Cheng, who take advantage of the latter's variety of two-ball options.
"She will do slower shots, hard hits or different locations because of how comfortable she is with that offence," said Wilkerson of Cheng, "versus people who use two balls when they're forced to or once in a while, so you only see one area of the court used or one style of hit.
"They're going to stay consistent and not make huge errors. Betsi [is] a stable, solid passer, defender and server, so it's a matter of making sure we are prepared for all of the odd plays they do and minimizing the errors."
As first-year partners, Wilkerson and Bukovec have developed a way to communicate their game plans and find a pre- and post-game routine. The trust between them, Wilkerson explained, was first established through admiration and respect for each other and their respective journeys to become elite athletes.
'My game has developed immensely in my confidence'
"When we saw we would battle through those hard moments together — coming back from losses and a string of errors — and saw how we responded and supported each other, the trust continued to grow, she said.
"I'm trying to learn new skills and my game has developed immensely in my confidence, in my capabilities and assuming a leadership role. Managing a team is something I've grown to do."
Wilkerson mentioned how Bukovec, who won the under-21 world championships with Tiadora Miric, is finding her own style of defence, and has been impressed with her ability to transition digs.
"It's one thing to get the ball off the [sand] but then to get up and score is a whole other thing," said Wilkerson. "I think that will continue to set her apart from other defenders.
"There are still a lot of things to improve and we just have to keep our heads down and work."