England’s chances of securing a beach volleyball medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games have been given a huge boost with Sport England agreeing to fund the leading men’s beach pair to the tune of £40,000.
Chris Gregory and Jake Sheaf’s current world ranking should see England qualify as one of the top-ranked Commonwealth countries. The new funding will be used to provide coaching support as the pair look to maintain that position before the qualification cut-off point in August. It will also support them through an extensive training and competition schedule leading up to the Games in April 2018.
Securing entry to the Commonwealth Games – to be held on Australia’s Gold Coast – would represent a significant achievement for a pair that was ranked outside the top 300 in 2014 but who have since climbed to 65. Of the Commonwealth countries, only Australia and Canada have men’s pairs who are more highly ranked than Gregory and Sheaf.
Commenting on the announcement, Chris Gregory said: “We’re really pleased to receive this funding, as to be in a situation like this is something we’ve been working towards for a few years. This funding opens up so many new opportunities for us in terms of training and competition – all of which are vital for us to compete at the very highest level. Above all, to work closely with our coach, Kirk Pitman, in different training environments and at competitions, is something we haven't been able to do before. It'll be huge to have more time with Kirk in the season and it's something the whole team is delighted about.”
“I try to stay on the optimistic side and was hopeful we would receive some funding because of the way we finished last year and because of our Commonwealth Nations ranking. I think we’ve shown that, with the right support, we can be medal contenders at the Commonwealth Games. Receiving this funding – for which we’re really grateful – suggests that Sport England share our confidence. We now have over a year to get ourselves into the best possible shape for the competition.”
“Lastly, I think receiving this funding is testament to all the work that's been put in, not only by Jake and I but also by the people around us, without whom we wouldn't be here now with this new opportunity to compete for England. Huge thanks must go to our incredible team, our supporters and the people behind the scenes who have made things happen. I think a successful bid is a small victory for the team, and for English Beach Volleyball, and we’ll look to make it count over the next year when we go out and represent our country.”
Now regulars on the European and World Tours, Gregory and Sheaf are no strangers to big competitions, having also qualified for the 2015 European Games and the European Championships Finals.
Under the tutelage of their coach, Kirk Pitman, who has previously supported the pair on a purely voluntary basis, they followed that up in November 2016 with a gold medal at the NEVZA (North European Volleyball Zonal Association) competition in Gothenburg; the best ever achievement by an English pair.
Pitman, himself a 10 year veteran of the FIVB scene, has not been the only volunteer supporting the pair. Strength and conditioning, sports psychology and physio services are all provided to the pair free of charge, courtesy of their band of volunteer supporters.
When it came to training camps and competitions abroad however, Gregory and Sheaf previously had to operate alone as well as funding these activities themselves. The Sport England award means that Pitman can now be a more permanent presence at their side, allowing the athletes to focus on their performance with fewer off-court distractions.
The two players – who are both Team England Ambassadors – will both be 28 when the Games come around; coincidentally the average age for first-time medallists at the Olympic Games. With Gregory standing at 210cm, the pair can also lay claim to having the second tallest player on the World Tour.
The award is further recognition of the growing professionalism within the beach game, with many national governing bodies now looking to provide full time coaching and support to their athletes. Among the Commonwealth countries, Canada, Australia and now England lead the way on this front.
Canada currently has four pairs in the top 50, led by the 11th ranked Chaim Schalk and Ben Saxton. Australia – whose spot in the Commonwealth Games competition is guaranteed as hosts – look likely to be represented by their one top 50 pair; the 23rd ranked Isaac Kapa and Chris McHugh.
Reacting to the funding news, Adi Fawcett, Talent Manager at Volleyball England, said: “This is fantastic news for Chris, Jake and Kirk as they gear up for performing on what will be the biggest stage of their lives. This is not development funding; this is performance funding for a pair who are already at the top of their game. The pressure will be on all three of them to perform to their best in Australia but the funding goes a long way to allowing them to do exactly that.”
“If this is big news for the team, it’s equally as important for beach volleyball in this country. If the team can secure their qualification, there will be plenty of exposure for the sport in the run-up to the Games. If we can seize this opportunity to attract more people to the sport, then it has the potential to be a real game-changer for English beach volleyball.”
 Correct as of 20 February 2017