WOLFVILLE, N.S. - There will be an unfamiliar presence on the bench for the volleyball Axewomen this season, but Vanessa Chorkawy is by no means unfamiliar with the sport of volleyball.
"I'm really excited to have her here," Axewomen head coach Michelle Wood says of Chorkawy, who will be contributing to the daily operations and training for Acadia women's volleyball as an assistant coach.
Surprisingly, Wood and Chorkawy had had "no prior relationship with each other, with the exception of playing across the net from one another." Chorkawy attended a symposium on Women and Girls in Leadership and Sport this past spring. The event was held by the Ontario Volleyball Association, where Wood was asked to present.
Chorkawy, who had been coaching club volleyball in Sudbury, approached Wood after her presentation "and asked her if I could come to Acadia and observe training and then sit on the bench. I was thinking it would be a 'one-off' thing, a chance for me to gain more experience."
Wood ended up having different ideas. "Vanessa told me she was interested in coaching long-term. It turned out we had 90 girls register for our summer volleyball camp," which was a lot bigger turnout than she had expected.
At Wood's invitation, Chorkawy "came out and coached at our camp." Wood also thought there might be an opening as an assistant coach. "I gave her some time to think about it. She was excited about coming here, and it's just spiraled from there."
After speaking to some of the other programs who have coaches in similar support roles, the details of Vanessa's responsibilities were worked out, and Chorkawy "is now here, and is looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge." Wood is equally excited to have someone of her background and experience by her side on the Axewomen bench.
A native of Lively, ON, just outside Sudbury, Chorkawy played four years of varsity volleyball at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, during which time she was a conference all-star outside hitter.
She trained with the national Senior 'B' program, and also played professionally in Europe.
Chorkawy, began playing volleyball in elementary school - "club volleyball didn't exist in our region at that time" - then moved to a club program in Sudbury.
She was recruited to Lakehead, and played there for four seasons. "Actually, I still have a year of eligibility left. When I was here this summer, it felt like a recruiting trip."
Between her third and fourth years, she took time off and joined Volleyball Canada's national training centre, then located in Winnipeg. "It was completely a training cycle. That summer, I made the Senior 'B' national roster. Because it wasn't an Olympic year. I got to spend a lot of time just training."
After graduation, she went overseas and played professionally in Sweden and the Czech Republic. "Luckily, I had traveled a lot in high school. I had been to Europe before, so it wasn't much of a culture shock, but in terms of the volleyball, it was a whole new experience" - and a whole new level of play.
She ended up playing pro for two years. "My fiance was teaching overseas, and we decided to move back to Canada and start the next phase of our lives." They are planning to marry next summer.
Meanwhile, she returned to Sudbury and took a position as an assistant coach with the Northern Chill club program – a rival program to the one she had been part of as a club player. "I had played against them, and it was kind of different to get to coach them."
The opportunity came out of the blue. "When I first came back, I was planning to go back to school and do grad studies. They called me up and offered me a coaching position. I wasn't even considering coaching. It was a completely new side of the sport for me."
She began coaching in 2015, "and took to it immediately. It was a steep learning curve. I started out as an assistant coach at the 15-U level. I saw it as a way to give something back to the sport, and in my hometown besides. It didn't take me long to become fully immersed."
At first, "my goal was to learn that side of the game. I was looking for a way to stay in the sport. I had no real goals. By my second season, I knew coaching was something I wanted to pursue long-term. I was taking a second degree at Laurentian, so coaching in Sudbury was a good fit for me."
The 2017-2018 season was her first as a head coach with the Northern Chill. "I was starting to develop a connection with the athletes." Then, "on a whim, I signed up for the Women and Girls in Leadership and Sport symposium in Toronto and met Michelle, who was running one of the individual sessions I could sign up for."
In her talk, Wood "highlighted some of the challenges, and all of the exciting things about her position here. I couldn't wait for her presentation to be over so I could talk to her."
Chorkawy "knew Acadia existed," but had never even visited Acadia or Wolfville. She agreed to come and help out with the summer volleyball camp, the record registration for which "said a lot about what Michelle is doing here, and in the community."
Wood, she says, "places a lot of value on women in leadership roles, and giving young girls the opportunity to be leaders. Although we've taken different paths to get where we are, I can see a lot of similarities through the conversations we've had."
Chorkawy sees her new position as "an opportunity to be challenged, to grow (as a coach) and to learn something new every day. I'll spend the whole season on the bench here, as a full-time assistant coach."
Wood says she "wants to prepare Vanessa to be a head coach someday. Having her here takes our program a step forward, and gives us the potential to do so much more."
Chorkawy got to meet a couple of the Axewomen players at the summer camp, and has since met the rest of the team "and the rest of the coaches I hadn't already met."
With Acadia coming off an appearance in the conference final, "it's almost a perfect time to join a program." The team "has specific goals, and things they want to accomplish." She is "most looking forward to being in the gym every day with the girls. I'm also learning the ins and outs of coaching at the university level, and all it entails. It's a lot more than just games and practices."
She is "benefiting from coming in with no preconceived notions or expectations. Michelle is allowing me to develop my own relationships" with the Axewomen players.
So far, she is seeing a committed group of athletes "with a lot of focus and drive and great character. They're all strong people, and each one brings important things to the team." The Axewomen, she believes, are "definitely a team that can contend," and build on last season's successes.
Chorkawy is "still chasing my first championship" at this level. "This team is ready to take that next step. You can see it in their drive and commitment in practice."
At present, Chorkawy is committed to Acadia for the 2018-2019 season "and through to the end of next summer and the summer camp, though I'll have to work around my wedding next summer." If things can be worked out, she would like to stay at Acadia for the 2019-2020 season and beyond.
"From the minute I arrived here, I've felt embraced by the community. My fiance is a teacher, and he plans to come here after Thanksgiving and put his name on the substitute list. We both love it here."
She acknowledges, "it's maybe not the direction I thought I'd be taking, but I'm really excited to be on this side of the game, which allows me to stay involved with the sport. I've never had a female head coach. I can see a shift taking place, and it's nice to be able to be part of this next step."