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Emerging Canadian beach volleyball duo Wilkerson, Bukovec continue to grow, build trust

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 started 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 concluded second and have tied for fifth in their two most recent competitions.

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 open play Thursday at 7 a.m. ET versus second-year pros Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth of the United States. On Friday at 3 a.m., they face Betsi Flint and Kelly Cheng, who won the most recent Elite16 tourney in Hamburg, Germany.

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.

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