Hugh Graham: “There will be more Oceania teams winning future Olympic medals.”

President of Oceania Zonal Volleyball Association, Hugh Graham, provides an update on the development of volleyball in the region

FIVB Executive Vice-President and Oceania Zonal Volleyball Association (OVZA) President Hugh Graham is committed to improving the level of volleyball throughout Oceania. The FIVB recently had an opportunity to talk with Mr Graham about how, despite a challenging pandemic period, volleyball has continued to grow while empowering local volleyball stakeholders in collaboration with the FIVB.

Dear Mr Graham, as the President of the OVZA in the Asian Volleyball Confederation (AVC), could you tell us about the latest developments in volleyball/beach volleyball in the region?

Volleyball is by far the most popular sport in Oceania. On most family land, you will see a volleyball net stretched between coconut trees. The basic skill-set for volleyball is learnt at a very early age. Most of our villages also have a more formal outdoor volleyball court that is fed by these communities. Increasingly, beach volleyball courts are being developed by the National Federations (NFs) and the communities. Most island countries also have a national gym where they host national competitions with their elite athletes. 

Volleyfest Cook Island one-star FIVB World Tour event

The top volleyball teams square off at the Pacific Games, which is Oceania’s regional multi-sport competition.  We were challenged by FIVB President Dr Ary S. Graça F° at the 2018 FIVB World Congress in Cancun, Mexico to think outside the box and start developing beach volleyball. Our first strategy was to open up beach volleyball at the Pacific Games, including Australia and New Zealand, to make this a truly continental competition recognised by the FIVB, and this was successful at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa.

To introduce a formalised beach volleyball programme to the national teams, many of Oceania’s NFs identified talent and paired national indoor team members together to create beach volleyball teams and continue the development of our beach volleyball. Oceania is prioritising beach volleyball in collaboration with the FIVB and Olympic Solidarity (OS). 

Austalia’s Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho del Solar won silver medals at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

Another priority for Oceania was to host at least two FIVB 1-star beach volleyball events, which we successfully delivered in early 2020 in the Cook Islands and Guam, as well as the Asian Volleyball Confederation (AVC) / Oceania Continental Cup Qualifiers in New Zealand, before the onset of the pandemic.

 Our Pacific Islands family was very proud of Australia’s female beach team (Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho del Solar) winning the silver medal at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.  I was there watching the competition and I felt really energised after watching this medal-winning performance and knowing that, with an organised programme, supported by the FIVB, there will be other Oceania teams winning future Olympic medals. Volleyball Australia’s President Craig Carracher is opening doors for all of us by leading the strategy of elite teams.

What has been achieved since the FIVB President met with the Oceania NFs in October 2019 and the OZVA outlined its high-performance strategic plan?

After meeting with FIVB President Ary Graça and the FIVB Technical and Development Department, we realised it was critical that we develop High Performance Training Centres (HPTC). The main objective is to prepare athletes to participate in the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour (now the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour) and AVC Beach Tour events and expose them to high-level competition. However, we were also encouraged by the FIVB to not only develop athletes, but also to develop their entourage, by providing high performance training to coaches and team support staff in areas including sports science, physical preparation/conditioning, personal mentorship, game analysis and team management. We designated Fiji and New Zealand as a high priority to develop these HPTCs to serve the surrounding Oceania NFs and local athletes with a daily training environment and facilities for hosting competitions.

FIVB President met with the Oceania NFs in 2019

Progress was moving at a steady pace prior to the onset of the pandemic which halted our forward progress. However, coming out of the pandemic and working on the foundations laid in late 2019 and early 2020, discussions are again moving forward. We are speaking to the governments, National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and the leaders of volleyball who have oversight of the sport in Fiji and New Zealand. We are also organising site visits to possible locations and there is great interest from sponsors and local resorts to establish HPTCs on their properties. The HPTCs are critical if we are to achieve our objective of developing elite teams for further participation at high-level competitions.

IOC President Thomas Bach visits Oceania and meets with Hugh Graham

2020 was a historic year for Oceania with the Cook Islands and Guam hosting Oceania’s first ever international beach volleyball events outside of Australia. Can you tell us more about these? Were the events successful?

Our membership was challenged to host two 1-star competitions, and the Cook Islands and Guam NFs led the new strategy by hosting the first FIVB World Tour event in Oceania outside of Australia.

Cook Islands’ picturesque land served as perfect backdrop for 1-star World Tour event

The FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour 1-Star men’s event, Volleyfest Cook Island’, took place in January 2020. 18 teams from nine countries competed, with New Zealand’s strong performance securing the gold medal and the USA’s teams placing 2nd and 3rd. Four young, up-and-coming Australian teams competed and produced 5th and 6th place finishes, while strong competitions by Tuvalu and the Cook Islands showed the early return on investment into Oceania’s transition from indoor to beach. The FIVB also tasked expert Blair Harrison to mentor American Samoa’s Sam Montalvo and Guam’s Herman Ada as Technical Delegates-in-training to help advance the strategy of developing officials.

1-star FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour event in Guam

The women’s edition of the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour event took place in Guam in March 2020 and was branded the Guam Beach Cup 2020. 23 teams representing eight nations competed, with Japan winning gold and silver and the USA taking bronze. Three of Guam’s women’s teams were in the main draw and four additional local teams gained valuable competition experience.

OZVA Secretary General Terry Sasser collaborated with Guam Volleyball President and OZVA Western Zone Vice-President Herman Ada, the FIVB’s Technical and Development Department and OS to organise a Technical Course for Coaches which was delivered before, and in conjunction with, the FIVB World Tour event. A mix of the region’s coaches and referees participating in the competition and benefitted greatly from an FIVB Coaches’ Course and AVC referee course. This was a successful initiative with all the relevant stakeholders and will be replicated in the future.

Equally as important is Oceania’s strategic initiative to upskill its own officials and technical delegates. Continuing from the progress begun in the Cook Islands, Herman Ada and Sam Montalvo received additional training during Guam’s Beach World Tour event as FIVB Technical Delegates-in-training. Leading the professional development and overseeing the trainees’ progress were the FIVB’s expert and Oceania mentor Technical Delegate Blair Harrison (Australia), FIVB’s coaching expert Mike Rabago (Guam), and AVC’s Referee Delegates Stephen Giugni (Australia) and Hou Joung Do (Korea).

By 2023, during the Micronesian Games in the Marshall Islands, and the Pacific Games to be hosted in the Solomon Islands, OZVA aspires to be self-sufficient with its own regional experts for both beach and indoor volleyball.

Since 2017, the FIVB has approved 69 development projects for 20 countries in Oceania with a total budget of over one million USD. Could you please share some highlights of the projects and explain how they have empowered the region and the countries?

Oceania received a record number of FIVB Development Platform grants and the FIVB Technical and Development Department was able to provide additional insight and strategies for NFs to best maximise this funding.  It would have been very difficult for our teams to purchase the Senoh net systems, which were necessary to develop our NFs’ beach teams, without this important funding. The more developed NFs were able to request long-term coaches, which had an immediate impact with both Solomon Islands’ women’s team and Tuvalu’s men’s team qualifying for the Commonwealth Games, joining Australia, New Zealand and Vanuatu.   

We are requesting, and are willing to invest in, train-the-trainer courses to continue to train and develop the experts with FIVB courses, coupled with relevant OS grants. Those who rise to the top during these trainings and are certified by the FIVB as level-3 coaches would be qualified to serve as assistant experts for regional FIVB level-1 courses. With the required timeframe for hands-on experience, they would then move to the next step and be training to teach level-2 courses. The FIVB would then send experts to co-facilitate with selected OZVA assistant experts to deliver train-the-trainer courses as required. OS and the FIVB’s Development team agreed with the concept as it was sustainable. 

I am very excited with many of the recent developments. We have a great administrative team and our membership is enthusiastic to engage with the plan they were involved in developing.