For Nikki Laird and Becchara Palmer, it was a fortuitous meeting this past November when the two Australian Olympians were at the crossroads of their beach volleyball careers.
"Our partnership came together quite fortuitously for me at a period of time where I found myself at a crossroads in my career," said the 25-year old Laird, who competed in the Rio 2016 Olympics with Mariafe Artacho after qualifying for the Copacabana Games via the Continental Cup route.
"We were having a conversation where I shared with Becchara that I felt I had become a passive passenger in my career and hadn’t made a strong decision about the direction I was heading in for a few years," the 6-foot-3 (190 cm) Laird added. "It became evident during the conversation that we had some shared experiences and it was clear that the decision to form a partnership was a step in the right direction in taking control of my decision making and rebuilding trust in my gut instincts."
Laird and Palmer are expected to make their FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour debut together in Cambodia where the Australians will start the event in the Phnom Penh Open qualifier on February 21. The Aussie duo will return home from March 6-10 for the Sydney Open on Manly Beach where the pair began talking about their partnership in November.
"Up until Nikki and I crossed paths in November 2018, I hadn’t considered coming back at a high level," said the 30-year-old Palmer, who competed in the London 2012 Olympic Games with Louise Bawden. "I thought maybe my window of opportunity had closed. But as soon as Nikki and I started talking about it, I completely lit up and knew that this was going to be something really special.”
Laird noted that she was "fortunate to find an incredibly unique player in Mariafe. She balanced me nicely in my strengths but mostly in my weaknesses, allowing me to play quite carefree knowing she would fix my mistakes. This is a playing style I have attempted to adjust and clean up in the last two years. I hope the work I have done will pay off making Bec’s job a bit easier. Becchara is a really easy player for me to partner with and we complement each other really well, so in a lot of ways, it feels like my partnership with Mariafe where I feel free to just compete hard."
While Laird has been a regular on the FIVB World Tour since 2015, Palmer started competing full-time on the international circuit in 2007 when she was 19. Both players have had success at FIVB Youth/Junior World Championships. Palmer teamed with Alice Rohkamper to win the 2006 under-19 title in Bermuda and Laird and Artacho topped the under-23 World Championship podium in 2014 at Myslowice, Poland.
Mariafe Artacho (third from the left) and Nicole Laird (third from the right) are joined on the podium by Jace Pardon and Lara Dykstra from USA and Melissa Humana-Paredes and Taylor Pischke from Canada.
Since the London 2012 Olympic Games, Palmer has competed in only seven FIVB World Tour events and played only 15 matches with three different partners in the past six years.
"Gosh, so much has happened since the London Olympics," Palmer noted. "Immediately after the games, I took some time off. The Olympic qualification process really took its toll on me mentally, emotionally and physically. I needed to pause for a bit. I ended up having shoulder surgery and came back to the sport about 12 months later balancing training with working a corporate job. It was a tricky time as so much of my self-worth and identity was wrapped up in being a beach volleyball athlete - there was a lot of soul searching, a couple of long meditation retreats and a bunch of personal development to come out the other side a happy human."
Although playing a limited schedule since London, Palmer said she "was part” of the 2016 Continental Cup Qualification process that qualified Australia a second team (Laird and Artacho) for Rio. She also played in a bunch of Asian confederation events from 2014-2017.
"Last year (2018) was another pivot for me," Palmer added. “With limited opportunities to play and compete at a high level in beach volleyball, I was feeling very unfulfilled and made the tough decision to step out of the full-time training environment. I was incredibly lucky to be offered a contract with the Adelaide Crows AFLW team (Australian Rules Football). It’s a hectic sport and I played a season. It was an amazing opportunity in a new semi-professional league here in Australia. In looking back, it was exactly what I needed to bring back the joy of playing sport at a high level."
After her season in Adelaide, Palmer moved to Sydney and began beach volleyball coaching on Manly Beach. "I remember being so nervous," Palmer continued. "I worried that I wouldn’t be able to remember anything and that it would all be foreign to me. It was the exact opposite, I fell back in love with the game for the first time since I started playing in 2003!"
Prior to this season and her debut on February 21 in Cambodia, Palmer has competed in 63 FIVB World Tour events with eight different partners. Palmer's greatest success was with Bawden as the pair played in 34 World Tour tournament together and posted a silver medal finish in their second event in 2009 at Stare Jablonki, Poland.
A silver medal team in Stare Jablonki (left to right) features Louise Bawden, Kylie Gerlic, Craig Marshall and Becchara Palmer.
Laird, who has played in 31 World Tour events with five different partners, started the 2018-2019 FIVB season with Brittany Kendall. The Laird/Kendall partnership netted a ninth and 25th at two Chinese stops in September and October at Zhongwei and Qinzhou, respectively.
Laird posted her best World Tour finishes in 2017 with bronze medal performances with Phoebe Bell and Bawden at back-to-back FIVB events in Australia at Shepparton and Sydney, respectively. With Artacho, Laird’s best placement was a ninth in their third FIVB World Tour event together at a 2014 stop in Shanghai where the Australian pair defeated Rio 2016 Olympic champions Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany in pool play.
Laird and Palmer are currently under the guidance of the Australian Senior Women’s head coach Tom Kroeger. "We have also been fortunate to solicit the help of Roger Jones in Sydney for times that we are away from the National Training Center," Laird noted.
In two Australian domestic events this year during January, Laird and Palmer have finished fifth in Adelaide and first in Cobram with a match mark of 7-1.
Event winners (left to right) Chris McHugh, Becchara Palmer, Nicole Laird and Zach Schubert during the Australia National Beach Volleyball Tour’s stop in Cobram.
"We are both definitely motivated to play in an Olympics again," Laird added. "However, we share the same view that qualifying isn’t our main objective but instead becoming the best players and team we can be as quickly as is possible is where we are prioritizing our energies."
Palmer, who is working full-time in Sydney, is “so grateful for my employer, Oneflare (an Australian online marketplace that connects customers and businesses). They have given me the flexibility and support I need to make the most of the beach volleyball opportunities coming our way. Since November, we’ve only grown individually and as a partnership and I’m really excited to see where we can take ourselves and the team!”