They may be 18 months away, but the 2020 Olympic Games are very much occupying the minds of Tauranga’s beach volleyballing brothers, Ben and Sam O’Dea.
Bronze at last year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast gave them the taste of success at the global summit, and now they’re doing all they can to qualify for the biggest tournament of all at the Tokyo Olympiad in the middle of next year.
The process sounds simple enough, even if achieving the required results along the way will be somewhat challenging. Play a bunch of tournaments, accumulate rankings points, make the top 15 in the world rankings, head to Tokyo.
If they don’t make the top 15 by April 2020, there’s a second chance to get through by winning the continental tournament in Asia.
The problem the O’Deas have is that they’re starting the process far behind their rivals, having missed so much recent competition time due to the chronic shoulder injury issues that have been bugging younger brother Ben for the last three years.
If he and Sam were ever to live their Olympic dream, Ben knew he had to bite the bullet and get his shoulder sorted. After the Commonwealth Games, the moment arose.
“I decided against surgery quite a few times,” he says, “and battled with ACC for quite a long time to get it covered.
“Then, eventually, they came to the party and I decided after the Commonwealth Games that I had a little bit of time before we started our run for Olympic qualification.
The recommended eight-month recovery time still has a month to run, but Ben’s feeling good about it.
“It’s a lot better than it has been for the last three years already.”
Remarkably, they won bronze on the Gold Coast despite the effects of Ben’s injury.
“At the Commonwealth Games I wasn’t able to hit the ball with any power,” he says. So would it have been gold if he’d been at full strength?
“Ha yeah, that’s what we like to think.”
Having been sidelined since the Games, however, has meant team O’Dea has dropped out of sight in the world rankings.
“We may have a world ranking,” says Ben, “but I have no idea what it is.”
So at this stage, they’ve set their sights on lower-status tournaments in Asia to earn the points required to enter bigger events in Europe.
So far, 2019 is on track for the O’Deas, with wins in two events on the golden sands of Mount Manganui’s main beach in the New Zealand Beach Volleyball Champs and the Mount Maunganui Open.
A few minor niggles for Ben, unrelated to the shoulder, prompted them to pull out of the Waikato Open at Karapiro at the semi-final stage, but they recently cleaned up once more in the final event on the domestic tour - the New Zealand Beach Volleyball Open in Auckland.
Now they’re back home at the Mount, taking a break and letting their bodies rest.
“Our first tournament back is over in Sydney in March, and then it's pretty full-on from there on out,” says Ben.
So far so good, but the numbers give an indication of how tough Olympic qualification will be. Ben says there’s around 200 full-time teams competing on the world tour, and only 24 of them make it into the Olympic competition.
“It’s tough,” he admits. “Guys can have reasonably successful careers playing on the world circuit their whole lives and never make it to the Olympics.”
Making it even tougher is the fact that, despite their Commonwealth Games bronze, they have no funding from the government’s sports funding body, Sparc.
As far as paying for their great Olympic adventure is concerned, they’re on their own. That means fitting in work commitments around training, and it means a great sponsor hunt.
“That’s going to be a big one for us, to try to secure a sponsor before the season kicks off,” says Ben.
But they’re not going to let money troubles derail them.
“There's a lot of talented athletes in New Zealand, and if you get funding it’s a great help. But if you don’t, the only thing you can do is get some results and make sure you get it next time.”