The triumph of tenacity

The young players were visibly in good spirits, despite their resounding defeat. Some couldn’t resist throwing in a few dance moves as Prince Kaybee’s Club Controller blasted across the post-match stereo. It was a reaction that completely failed to mirror what had just transpired on the court.

China had just crushed the South African U20 women’s volleyball side at the Brics Games — there’s no way to put it euphemistically. Their performance was on a different plane from the first serve of the match. Yet the South Africans were buoyant.

“It was a bit difficult to remain calm,” Limpopo Molife, the libero (defensive specialist), admitted after the game. “The biggest thing was remembering to celebrate after every point we did get. It’s very important; we feed off each other’s energy and that’s a very big thing. Once someone feels down, then the whole team goes down. So we just need to keep our spirits up and then we play better, we feel better, we enjoy the game more, which is the most important thing.”

The ability to lose is one of the most underrated attributes a sports person can have. Being a “good winner” is easy: it’s not hard to revel in the splendour of victory. Standing tall on the back of a defeat takes something special, especially when the fall was exhaustive and sweeping.

Two weeks earlier, it had become clear that young players nationwide were imbued with this same tenacity. The Gauteng junior women’s team were putting in one last Sunday morning training session before a frenzied run of fixtures: the Inter-Provincial Tournament (IPT) in Limpopo and, for those selected, the Brics Games a few days later.

After an hour of warm-ups and volleyball keepy-uppy drills, it was on to a practice match; the team split and the coach and her assistant each joined a team. Even in this casual setting, both teams swiftly huddled up after literally every point. For the scorers, it was a chance to channel the momentum. For the others, it was an opportunity to regroup and not get swept away by disappointment.

It’s a conscious strategy, said the head coach of the Gauteng junior women’s volleyball team, Dina Kladis, who is also the assistant coach for the U20 national team. Fostering a spirit of togetherness is at the core of what people like her are trying to do to develop the women’s side of the sport in the country. Volleyball is a true team game: if any one of the six players on the court is not in sync, the entire pack will crumble. Haranguing anyone for a bad play is strictly forbidden.

For the second year in a row, the Gauteng side made it to the final of the IPT, only to falter at the end. There was little time for contemplation, however, because the Brics Games began a few days later. Four Gauteng players joined their coach in linking up with the national team: Molife, Tatiana Simopoulos, Sarah Shabalala and Nelia Tembe.

The now-annual event seeks to bring the five nations in the bloc together in sport: uniting over junior football and volleyball. South Africa played host this year, offering up the facilities of the University of the Witwatersrand. Russia decided not to bring a women’s volleyball side and the Brazilians didn’t bring any of their representatives of the sport.

At least 200 supporters flocked to the Old Mutual Sports Hall to watch the hosts take on India in their opening game. It began in a strained fashion, with each side typically afraid to give up foolish points. For much of the first set it continued in that manner, with the locals holding their own despite drifting behind on points.

As the match wore on, the difference in ability became less opaque. India were far more efficient in finding the corners and delivering the ball into open spaces. Half the battle on the court is won by predicting where the return will land, and the South Africans were not proficient in that regard on the day. When they did, it became more a case of delivering the ball back over the net by any means necessary. The soft shots allowed India to deflect them with little effort and send back vicious ones of their own.

It was at the midway mark that the onlooking Chinese squad decided they had seen enough. All of sudden, in unison, massive young men and women rose from their seats in the stands and, like a disciplined battalion, marched towards the exit. Their sheer height was impossible not to marvel at. Their commanding presence had more than a hint of foreshadowing to it.

Although the match was certainly not a one-way street, India were able to hammer out a comfortable three-set-to-zero victory. At no point in the match, however, did the hosts allow each other’s heads to drop.

Simopoulos, limping, had to withdraw early from the game. She would later reveal she had landed awkwardly on her ankle in training and wasn’t able to push on. The following Sunday, as the team prepared to face China, she stood dressed in kit for the pre-match handshake despite being unable to compete. “It was frustrating [to watch from the bench] but I have faith in my team and they actually played really well … you could see they were fighting for it.”

What followed was unadulterated Chinese domination. Their players were simply too powerful. At will, the team shifted the ball to the front, hoisting it up ideally for the spike —an opportunity for a leaping player to slam the ball into the ground. The points tumbled; South Africa were barely able to get more than a score of five in all three sets. One ended 25-2.

Yet at the end of every play, without fail, they still huddled up, closed arms and shouted “S-A”. It was stirring to watch; this was a team getting washed all over the arena and not once did any member bare her frustration. “I’ve learned that staying together and not fearing anything, keeping the team spirit high will get us far and make us a better team,” said Tembe after the game.

“It’s not difficult to maintain a spirit because you have five other people on the court, the crowd, and your teammates off the court pushing you and supporting you.”

The strong local support did their best to perpetuate the on-court ethos, cheering every irrelevant point as though it were game-defining. Four players from the Indian men’s team sitting among the supporters found the crazed backing extremely amusing. They burst out laughing when those around them erupted after their team made it 14-3.

“We’re all bubbly people; we’ve got a lot of energy, so it’s easy to feed off one another,” Shabalala added. “The crowd definitely brought the energy.”

The media almost perversely enjoy castigating our national sides. We gleefully string together headlines to illustrate the latest Bafana flop or Proteas choke. That impulse doesn’t exist here. There is a sense of sporting purity that was left on that volleyball court in those few days — one that perhaps has waned at the elite levels of the country’s favoured sports. These sportswomen lost, but they did so with such inflexible tenacity that it’s hard not to praise their performance.

And with only three teams competing, South Africa still managed to pick up a bronze, perhaps a fitting tribute to their triumph of spirit in the game.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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