Born 11 years apart and raised 1,600 kilometres away from each other, Louise Bawden and Taliqua Clancy could never have foreseen how their lives would intertwine. Bawden was brought up in suburban Melbourne while Clancy was raised in rural Queensland. Neither played beach volleyball as a kid. Yet, now they find themselves heading to the Rio Olympics as Australia’s highest ranked beach volleyball team, dreaming of winning gold.
“We’ve both been on very different and unique pathways,” said Clancy. “But we do share a common goal and we believe in the same things. She’s a strong person and I’m a strong person and it’s that drive that we both have that kind of connected us.”
Bawden, who turns 35 during the Rio Games, has already competed at two Olympics, while 24-year-old Clancy is going to her first. One of beach volleyball’s unlikeliest pairings, together they form one of the most formidable forces in their sport, a classic combination of experience and you brought together either by fate or sheer coincidence.
Bawden was just a teenager when she made her Olympic debut at Sydney in 2000. Clancy was just eight years old at the time and still in primary school at Kingaroy.
Bawden’s path to the Olympics had been accelerated because Australia, as host-nation, was given automatic spots in some of the team events. A talented indoor volleyball player, Bawden was hand-picked by the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) to join an expanded national squad being prepared for Sydney. Although there were no guarantees, she left her family home and moved to Canberra when she was 17, giving up her final year of high school to pursue her Olympic dream.
She eventually made the team and competed at the Sydney Olympics when she was just 19.
“I was definitely thrilled beyond belief to have that opportunity and to share it with my family and my community and friends,” she said. “It was an irreplaceable memory and such a beautiful experience. We weren’t particularly successful. We only won one match but that experience was special.”
When the Olympic circus rolled out of Sydney, Bawden had some tough decisions to make. Academically gifted, she wanted to complete high school and go to University but she also had a small window to chase her athletic goals. So after consulting her parents she decided to pack up and move to the Netherlands, one of the few countries in the world where indoor volleyballers can make an income.
The bulk of the Australian squad that competed in Sydney had stayed intact and were showing real signs of getting better, qualifying in their own right for the 2002 world championships. But when the team failed to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics, they lost most of their government funding.
Bawden was offered a professional contract to play in Greece but when that fell through three days before she was about to board the plane, she decided it was time to come home and focus on her education.
“Watching Athens was a challenging time. Obviously a lot of people go through much harder and more serious things in life but that was hard for me at the time” she said. “One minute I was an Olympian and the next I’m back at TAFE trying to finish school and work out what I was going to do with myself.”
Bawden decided to study journalism and accepted an offer from Griffith University on the Gold Coast, and it was there that she was first introduced to beach volleyball.
Still, it wasn’t until after she went with some friends to watch the Beijing Olympics as a spectator that she decided to take up beach volleyball seriously.
“I knew a lot of people in beach volleyball and through watching it and talking to people, it stemmed from there. I clearly remember (Olympic gold medalist) Kerri (Pottharst) pushing me and challenging me about why I’m not trying beach volleyball and I didn’t really have a good answer so when I got back to Australia, I emailed all the programmes and said ‘remember me’. In December 2008, I got the opportunity to come and trial and by January 2009, I was moving to Adelaide.”
Bawden teamed up with Becchara Palmer and by 2011 they were Australia’s number one pairing, finishing ninth at the world championships. But qualifying for London was a long and stressful road. They struggled for consistency and were one of the last pairings to book their place. Twelve years after her first appearance, Bawden eventually made it back to the Olympics in a new sport but the effort had taken its toll.
“From a personal development experience it was a great process to have to go through because I had to evolve and learn a lot and fight a lot harder. But trying to qualifying took up a lot of emotional energy and we kind of burned ourselves out,” she said.
Bawden and Palmer failed to make it out of the pool stage and Palmer took a break from the sport after London. Already 31 and not wanting to waste another minute after waiting 12 years to get back in, Bawden decided to push on, but needed a new partner.
For as long as she could remember, Clancy had wanted to be an Olympian. A proud indigenous Australian who was raised by a single mother and lived with her grandparents, she watched in awe when Cathy Freeman won the 400 metres gold at the Sydney Olympics. Clancy was a natural, excelling at every sport she played, including indoor volleyball but there was no beach volleyball at Kingaroy, more than 200km from the nearest coastline.
When she was 15, Clancy moved to Brisbane with her mother after accepting a sports scholarship. Determined to get to the Olympics, she was already on her way, but still unsure which sport was the right one for her.
“I always saw sport as my pathway growing up. There was never really any other pathway I was interested in,” she said. “I went to a school with a really good volleyball programme but I was totally focussed on indoor.
“The first time I played beach volleyball, I just hated it. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t run in the sand and it was so hot the first day I played. It was like the worst experience of my life and I remember saying I hate beach volleyball.”
It wasn’t long before Clancy changed her mind. The more often she played on the beach, the more she liked it. A quick learner, she eventually had to choose between the two and when she was 17, the AIS offered her position in the beach volleyball programme at Adelaide.
“I knew that to fulfil my dream of going to the Olympics, beach volleyball was the pathway that I needed to take so the move to Adelaide and to cut off my indoor career wasn’t as hard as for me,” she said.
Bawden was also in the programme at Adelaide but she was a senior member and Clancy a junior. Both had different teammates but by 2014, all their stars aligned and they were they paired together, forming an instant bond.
They comfortably qualified for Rio, where Clancy will become the first indigenous Australian to compete in volleyball at the Olympics. Already a hero in her local community, she hopes her success will help inspire others.
“I’m definitely extremely proud and I hope I can be a really good model and help motivate a lot of Aboriginal people to take up sport or just to chase their dreams and not give up on what they want to do,” she said.” Whatever the journey is I want to be able to hopefully inspire them and let them know they can do.”
Much of Clancy’s inspiration comes from Bawden, on and off the court, and the feeling is mutual. Different in so many ways, their lives have criss-crossed because of a common goal they share.
“I make an effort regularly to remind myself of how lucky I am. I know it sounds a bit cheesy and a bit of a cliche but if you put a balance sheet in front of me of life on the pros and cons, my pros so far outweigh my cons and overshadowed all the setbacks and sacrifices I’ve made,” Bawden said.
“It’s important to recognise the moment and how special it is to be at an iconic place and be part of such wonderful event like the Olympic Games but at the same time none of that has anything to do with us going out and putting a gold medal winning performance on the court.”
Main image: Louise Bawden.