The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will go down as one of Canada’s better Summer Games. As a nation, Canada has earned the third most gold medals in its Olympic history and its third best medal total. But it was Canada’s performance at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles that set the bar of excellence in both gold medals and total medals for Canada.
Terry Danyluk, head coach of the University of Alberta Golden Bears volleyball team since 1991, competed in the ’84 Games as a member of Canada’s volleyball team. It was there that Canada recorded a fourth-place finish in men’s indoor volleyball, a high-water mark that has yet to be eclipsed. Danyluk, who is originally from Tofield, Alta., and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the U of A, was a key member of that Canadian Olympic team after a sterling career with the Golden Bears program from 1979 to 1981. He sat down with Matt Gutsch from Golden Bears and Pandas Athletics and looked back on his Olympic experience.
MG – What was it like for you when you realized you would be representing Canada at the 1984 Olympics?
TD – It was a real process trying to qualify for those ’84 Games. As our men’s team was trying to qualify and go through the process this summer for the 2016 Games—first not qualifying here in Edmonton, and then having to play in that last-chance tournament—it reminded me of our 1984 process when we had the opportunity to qualify once and you had to finish top two. We did that; we accomplished the feat and finished behind the U.S. in that one tournament and ahead of Cuba to go, and it was like a huge weight off, because it had been a process waiting.
Plus there was a boycott in 1980, so there was no Olympics for the national team at that point. So making it in 1984, and realizing our dream, because we talked about it for a long time, we had the opportunities, our path was set. We didn’t have a second opportunity like the current men’s national team, so qualifying there meant a lot. There was a lot of relief and a lot of happiness, there was excitement, and then the “what’s next” moment. I just remember being so happy to have the opportunity to go play in Los Angeles and be a part of the whole thing, because every young athlete dreams of that. Hockey players probably dream about the NHL, but everyone else dreams about the Olympics.
MG – How much do you think your university career, and playing in the Universiade, helped prepare you for the run-up to the Olympics?
TD – My university career was very important to my development, because I had left high school to join the national team in 1978. After spending a full year in the development centre, I wasn’t mature enough mentally to handle that load. I had these expectations of going in right from high school and being “the guy,” and all the things that went with that as a young athlete. I had great opportunities, I got to play in a World Championship, but as soon as I got home I realized I wasn’t prepared to be away full-time.
Coming back to play at the U of A, I grew a lot, grew my leadership skills, my confidence grew, and after winning the national championship in 1981, I knew it was time to go back and make that commitment full-time. So the impact that the U of A had was the maturing process, the growing process, getting confident in different parts of my game, and really solidified my ability at the setter position. That part of my life was a big part of the success I had as an athlete.
MG – What memories and feelings emerge when you think about the opening ceremonies and representing Canada on that stage? What do you remember about your first days as a Canadian Olympian?
TD – The Olympic village was very cool. We were staying at the UCLA campus, and that for me was really cool. But I actually missed the opening ceremonies because I was healing a back injury and I didn’t want it to get aggravated standing, and knowing from the Universiades and the World Championships that opening ceremonies take forever, I had to make the decision on whether I wanted to go through the hassle, and actually opted not to go to the opening ceremonies. So my first memories aren’t of the opening ceremonies, because I saw those on TV, but how much the athletes’ village had an impact on me. Sitting to eat on my second day there and sitting across from Patrick Ewing, who hadn’t yet become famous, and introducing myself, and getting to know him while I was there. Reconnecting with Willie de Wit, the boxer, whom I actually played volleyball against in high school; that multifaceted aspect of the Olympic village, all those athletes running around, and being able to cross paths with all of them for pretty much every meal was a fun thing. Those multisport events always had the biggest impact on me.
MG – When you got down to competition, what was that feeling like? Was the pressure bigger? Could you feel the weight of being at the Olympics? How did you handle competing on that stage?
TD – I think we played OK. I don’t think we played our best volleyball, and I felt we got too caught up in the event of the Olympics, instead of focusing like another major volleyball tournament. I think there was added pressure because it was the Olympics. We changed a bunch of rituals and routines because it was the Olympics, and I actually think it was a mistake to change our mentality just for one event.
We needed to approach that championship just like any other; the natural adrenaline from being there would’ve been enough to give you that extra boost. So I always tell people not to get caught up in the event, focus on your volleyball game or focus on your hockey game, focus on your performance and be who you are, don’t try to be more. We did all the right things; we finished first in our pool and the U.S. lost to the Brazilians, and we were hoping to play them in the semifinals, but we ended up playing the U.S., who went on to win the whole thing. But up until that point things were going quite smoothly, although I felt like we had played better volleyball up to that point. There were some ups and downs in our performance, and maybe it had to do with the added pressure, but if I had the chance again that’s what I would change.
MG – What advice would you give new Olympians as they head into Rio to represent Canada for the first time?
TD – It’s not an easy thing, but you don’t want to have regrets after. You go there, you want to enjoy it, you want to experience the Olympics, but there are just so many things to experience. You see all the different athletes, and all the different approaches. Some fly in the day before their event and fly out the day after because they don’t want to be influenced by the event; they just want to perform. In a team event that lasts 12 days it’s hard to do that, because you have to be there and acclimatize, and get ready for the event. I think there are ways for a mature athlete to have those experiences without it hindering their performance. Realize what made you an Olympian, and do that. Don’t change yourself based off of the event.
MG – It seems like every Olympics is saddled with some controversy or scandal, and the 1984 Games were no exception. There are athletes skipping the 2016 Games for a host of reasons. Looking back on the ’84 Games, how much of a distraction were the boycotts, and the hoopla that surrounded that, to you as an athlete?
TD – Other than the boycott, I don’t remember it influencing me too much. All of that other stuff is external to you as an athlete; you’re there to perform. For us, not having Russia at those games was big, because like us, they were a top five ranked team. To us volleyball players, to not have Russia there it felt almost watered down, to not have one of those top teams there to show how good you really are. For me, I thought we underachieved. We were a top three team but finished fourth; we had a chance to beat Italy for the bronze and did not play well, after beating them in previous years. We had our chances and didn’t win, adding to the fact that Russia wasn’t there, we will never know how good we really were.
MG – In 1984 Canada secured its best-ever finish in Olympic men’s volleyball. Looking at the world of men’s volleyball now, and how Canada stacks up, where or how did the game shift since you and your team finished fourth in L.A.? Besides the obvious technical changes, what about the world volleyball community or level of competition has changed since 1984?
TD – From Los Angeles to now, there is definitely a bigger athlete playing on average. The game evolved from that point, which was very complex with lots of combinations run during the match, to the addition of the back-row attacks that are a huge part of today’s game. Today’s game is much more about speed, and beating teams to the outside. Since 1984, there has been an evolution to get as big as we can be, and for a time there were tons of seven-foot, six-ten guys, but now it has come back a bit to get really athletic six-eight, six-seven guys who play the game with power and speed. There is also much more statistical analysis and video analysis than there was back then, with technology changing how the game is coached, and I think the tactics now are much more advanced, and the game is much more athletic.
MG – Any good stories from L.A. that you can share?
TD – One of the athletes who took me under his wing was Garth Pischke, who left the team but rejoined for the 1984 Olympics. When we were heading to the closing ceremonies he said, “I want to be the last athlete to enter the arena.” I asked how we would do that, as Canada is near the beginning of the ceremony. He just said, “I want to be the last guy to enter the arena; you want to hang out and do it with me?” So I joined him, and throughout the ceremony we kept dwindling back and back. The way they marched the athletes in, they marched you in a circle, and the later you entered the arena, the closer you were to the stage. We kept sneaking in behind people, and he pushed me forward so I wouldn’t be the last guy to enter the arena, and so he got to enter the arena as the very last athlete. The way it worked out, we ended up sitting right in front of the stage, where Lionel Richie was performing, and we were less than a metre away from him. So not only did we go in last, we got the best seats. That will always be a great memory for me.
The fireworks at the end of the ceremonies will also stick with me. They were extraordinary. They seemed to go on for an hour.
MG – What did you bring back as a souvenir?
TD – I kept all of my suits and uniforms, as well as the participation medal we received for finishing fourth, to go along with all the memories we brought back. I didn’t have time to do any shopping, but we kept all of our merchandise equipment from sponsors. But most important were those lifelong experiences.
MG - What part of the ’84 Games stays with you as a coach?
TD – We were probably the fittest team at the Olympics because we trained so hard, but I learned to find the balance between training and tactics. The game evolves, and as a coach I think you need to evolve with it. At the time, we could watch what teams were doing and what new aspect was being introduced, so as a coach I learned to keep an eye on the developments in the game that the top programs or players or countries are using. You want to keep your element steady, but you’re always looking to adapt.
MG – What moments of a match do you remember the most?
TD – There are several. We were able to beat Japan to finish first place in our pool, and I have snippets of moments that happened in that match and other matches, especially of long rallies, which even then didn’t happen much in the men’s game.
One personal memory I have is a sequence of defensive plays that happened in the match that I could consider the best in my life. And as an athlete, setting and hitting in the Olympics and getting to play two positions as an Olympian was amazing for me as well. But definitely the best team memories are from when we beat Japan to finish first in our pool of six teams at the Olympics, and then playing in an Olympic semifinal was really amazing too.
It was great that the Olympics were hosted in a very volleyball-friendly country. The U.S. wasn’t a huge volleyball country at that time, but California was really into volleyball at that time in 1984. And probably one of the coolest memories I have is that every time we went to play or practice, we’d look up in the stands and there was Tom Selleck. He was the honorary captain of the U.S. team, but he was also an avid beach volleyball player from his time shooting Magnum P.I. in Hawaii when he was a member of the Outrigger Canoe Club. So one of the cool things about those Games was the “L.A. factor,” because you’re playing in a 16,000-seat stadium, in a volleyball-friendly environment in California, and there are all of these celebrities in the stands watching. It was great for growing the sport. The people really understood and appreciated the game, and that was an incredible experience.
Canada’s 2016 men’s indoor volleyball team was ranked 12th going into Brazil, but despite victories over top-ranked teams from Italy and the United States, Canada was ousted in the quarterfinals, losing 3-0 to the third-ranked Russian team.
Danyluk has guided the Golden Bears volleyball program to eight national championships, including two as a player when he was the team and national MVP. He is also a five-time national coach of the year, and will be entering his 24th season as head coach in 2016-17. Alberta will also host the Canadian university men’s volleyball championship in March 2017.