In the lead up to the Rio2016 Paralympic Games, World ParaVolley will be sharing the stories of some of the athletes and teams that will be competing at the Games. The following tells the story of Canadian Women’s Team Athlete Jennifer Oakes.
Up and coming Canadian superstar Jennifer Oakes gives us an inside look into how she joined Sitting Volleyball and her experience on the road to Rio 2016.
How were you introduced into Sitting Volleyball?
I was first introduced into sitting volleyball while I was in the hospital after my accident, I started researching it and came to notice the team was in Toronto competing at the ParaPanAm games. Later on, both Shaccara Orr (a player on the team) and Ian Halliday (High Performance Director) contacted me telling me more about the sport and asked if I would be interested in trying out the game. I started training with them in September and has been ongoing since.
Do you have a sporting background? If so, what other sports did you play and at what level?
Before my accident I played School volleyball at Aberhart High school, earning two city championships as well as for a competitive division 1 club volleyball team for three years. After my accident I began working hard at physio to get back to the game I managed to play my fourth and final season of club. I had also played 13 years of division 1/2 soccer, earning two provincial titles before my accident.
What do you like about Sitting Volleyball? How do you find it different from other sports you may have played?
I like the intensity that sitting volleyball has, you need quick reflexes but also calmness in order to slow down the pace of the game. Being able to connect with individuals going through similar experiences as me was and is a huge part of my rehabilitation, my teammates have taught me so much about my new life as an amputee and I wouldn’t be able to find that from all sports. Sitting also challenges me to be more consistent and more accurate in my technical game.
What was required from you to increase/develop your skills to qualify for the Canadian team?
Since joining the Team I’ve had a ton of learning to do, specifically the movement. We have had a great training schedule built for us, we are all challenged to increase our level of play. I really just have to commit to the practices and push myself to be better each time i hit the floor.
How has your position in the team changed, if at all, over your career and in the lead-up to Rio?
As I learn more about the game and become more and more comfortable, I can step up into more of a leadership role than I had started with. In standing volleyball I am a Libero and, in playing sitting, I have converted to more of an outside hitter or setter.
What is your favourite experience with the women’s team outside of training and competition?
Any time I get to hang out with the women on this team we always have a ton of fun and share a lot of laughs. We are big into playing board games and Heads up (the charade phone game) on our free time and somehow always make it ridiculous. Dancing, although has it challenges for us is always one of my favourite things to do with the girls because we’re awful and just get so goofy.
What have been three sporting highlights for you personally in your Sitting Volleyball career so far?
Playing my first international game in China against Brazil will be a huge memory for me, after working so hard to get there it meant so much to see the hard working paying off and the growth on our team. Seeing the other sitting teams was also eye opening and got me excited to compete against them in the future and to see how far we as a program can get.
Going to England was hectic but rewarding for me, I arrived late, coming straight from my High school Graduation, and jumped right into competition where we ended up winning the tournament.
The training we get is a huge part of why I’m on this team and enjoy is so much, I have a great relationship with the coaches and respect them endlessly, having them be a part of the process is a highlight on its own as they’ve helped me grow so much as an athlete and individual.
What have been some of the challenges for you with the sport?
With every sport there will be challenges and I think in Para sport there are even more to think about. For each skill we need to individually learn how our bodies best move and really have to problem solve our way through everything. Specifically for me as I am a fairly new amputee I’m still learning about my body, what it can handle and what it can’t. Unfortunately in both China and Montreal I found myself having to take a day off from using my prosthetic as a sore had developed around my skin graft. Although I don’t typically let outside issues affect my game play, I think I let this issue mess with my mental game more then I should have, being afraid of making it worse instead of focusing on my game.
Do you have any support outside the team for your sport? How have they helped?
My friends and family have always been extremely supportive of me before and after my accident. I’m lucky that my family has always believed in me and been there for me to pursue whatever I want to. Since starting my sitting volleyball career my friends have been so proud of me and so interested in learning about this sport and so excited for me to continue to push myself and see me succeed.
What are you most looking forward to about the Rio Paralympics?
I am very excited simply to compete, that’s what we, as a program have been working so extremely hard for. I believe we have made some huge strides for improvement and we hope to show our growth and hopefully gain some respect in the sitting world and prove that we are competitors.
What is your goal for Rio personally and as a team?
Personally I hope to improve my game day by day, focus the process not the outcome, to better the ball as often as I can and to push myself to stay mentally and physically strong throughout the tournament. As a team, we are coming to compete and hopefully cause an upset or two, we hope to implement our new systems and are ready to quickly problem solve our way through any struggles we have. We hope to maintain our integrity to pursue greatness.
What else would you like to share with everyone?
We’re very excited for this opportunity in Rio, as we are the first ever Canadian sitting volleyball team to make it to the Paralympics and each of us are thrilled to be a part of the program and to see the growth we are having individually and as a team.