Cape Town, South Africa - elite16 - Beach Pro Tour 2022 - News

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Slukova and new partner Havelkova will appear in the qualifier in Cape Town

Marketa Slukova has been away from beach volleyball for just over a year, but when she treads the sand at Wednesday’s qualifier in Cape Town, South Africa, it will, in several different ways, look like a fresh start for the Czech athlete.

· Watch all matches at the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Elite16 event in Cape Town live on Volleyball TV.

A lot has changed on and off the court since the difficult experience Slukova had to endure at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, when she and partner Barbora Hermannova made the trip to the Japanese capital but couldn’t play due to positive COVID tests. At 34 years of age, Slukova, arguably the most accomplished player in her country, feels almost like she is back to square one.

Her time away from the sand was necessary so she could give birth to her first daughter, Maya, who was born in June. It also worked as an opportunity for Slukova, however, to physically and mentally reset after 15 years competing internationally.

“We had both done three successful Olympic cycles together, and volleyball was our priority for many years,” Slukova, who is married to her coach, Simon Nausch, told Volleyball World. “After the last Olympics, it was the right time for us to focus on family. I’m a different player than I was before. My body feels great, but is still adjusting. I’m incredibly grateful that this is all even possible. I have a beautiful and healthy daughter, the family I always wished for, and, after only two months, I was able to return to the court, train, and do what I love. Expecting Maya gave me a much-needed break and I’m now ready to hustle again.”

Returning to the sand after Maya’s birth was always Slukova’s plan, but when and in which conditions that would happen, she wasn’t so sure. As a player who had competed at three Olympics and won six gold medals in international events, she was pretty satisfied with what she had already accomplished on the sand.

Top athletes are, however, moved by challenges and opportunities and Slukova was presented with both at once when she was approached by Helena Havelkova, one of the most successful Czech volleyball players, with an offer to be her partner as she transitioned to the sand to pursue her goal of making it to the Olympics.

“I was disappointed with what had happened in Tokyo, and wanted to decide when and how to end my career and not to finish like that,” she explained. “I wasn’t sure if it would be possible, but I always kept the doors open for a comeback and the opportunity to play with Helena got me really excited. I went into this new project wanting to enjoy the journey, the process of building and developing something new, and have big dreams once more.”

Havelkova, 34, had a long and successful volleyball career, playing for clubs in Italy, Russia, Türkiye, Poland and other leagues, but never had a real shot at qualifying for the Olympics with the Czech national team, which she captained for some time.

Determined to fulfil her Olympic dream, she reached out to Nausch to invite him to help as she transitioned to the sand when the possibility of playing with Slukova crossed her mind.

The two have been able to practise together for two months before their debut this week in South Africa, but feel like they still have a lot to improve if they want to accomplish their team goals.

“We played together on the Czech national team when we were 16 and I knew that she wanted to play beach volleyball,” Slukova commented. “She had a fantastic volleyball career and could have just stuck with it, but she decided to pretty much start over and pursue her dream and I admire that. I knew that if I wanted to try to make it to Paris, I’d need to have someone who’s mature and experienced by my side. It’s a big challenge for both of us because we don’t have much time and both my return after pregnancy and Helena’s transition will have to be really quick. We have no time to lose.”

Slukova is certainly not the first beach volleyball player to resume her career after becoming a mother and, although she was inspired by the likes of Germany’s Laura Ludwig, USA’s Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brazil’s Carol Salgado and Spain’s Liliana Fernandez, she feels that only now she fully understands all the challenges that are involved.

Maya’s arrival has changed a lot in her life and daily routine, but Slukova says she’s fortunate that everyone around her is working really hard to make things work. The team’s traveling party now also includes her mother-in-law, who takes care of the newborn during practices and matches.

“I assumed that if I wanted to come back, it would be completely different from what I knew, and it has been,” she added. “Maya has turned everything upside down. She is such a gift and being parents exceeded all our expectations, but being a mother and athlete is tough. I have seen many beach volleyball players do it over the years, but only now do I fully understand how admirable and courageous it really is. I call it ‘a career after my career’ and Simon keeps reminding me about it when it gets too overwhelming. The entire team and our support system have been putting so much effort in to make things work, it wouldn’t be possible without them.”

The trip to Cape Town will be the first for the new team and will start with an always-challenging qualifier. But for a player who has found the motivation and the desire to return to the sport and start from the bottom after more than a decade of success, nothing is too much.

“I have had a great 15 years on the beach, but when this opportunity came along, I couldn’t resist,” she admitted. “I love the sport and I love to challenge myself and see if I can make my fourth Olympic qualification, but this time with two extra challenges - less time and as a mother. And, who knows, maybe Paris won’t be my last goal.”