By: Christopher Séguin
Black History Month may be annually celebrated with plenty of passion and genuine interest, but learning Black history shouldn’t be confined to only a handful of weeks in February. For many, like 30-year-old Canadian beach volleyball player Shanice Marcelle, this annual month-long celebration is much bigger and more personal than that.
“Black History Month, to me, is not just a one-month thing, it is a yearly thing,” said Marcelle, who’s father and grandmother immigrated to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago. “I just have to educate [myself] on Black history. I don’t know anything. You know having conversations with my Dad, and my grandmother, and my uncle from my Dad’s side, and learning about their experiences, and what they have been through, to me, that’s the most important thing of this month, and of the 365 days in general.”
To understand the importance Marcelle places on her Black roots, one must understand her journey.
The 2009 Canada Games alumna may have been born in Toronto, but at the age of five, following her parents' separation, she left Canada’s most multicultural city. Moving to a predominantly white small town called Errington on Vancouver Island with her mother Tracey, older sister Tanisha and soon-to-be-born brother Jordan. It was there, and later in Victoria, where she struggled to fit in at times.
Growing up without her Black father Roger, while having been removed from Toronto, a place filled with diversity, Marcelle found it difficult to accept all the parts that made her who she was. Often the only person of colour in her class, she was teased for her different looks and hair.
“It was really hard to feel like [my sister, my brother and I] belonged,” said Marcelle. “When we moved to Victoria, it was kind of the same thing [as Errington]. You know, always being the one person in my classroom who stuck out like a sore thumb.
“So, when I got involved in sport, it was like skin colour didn’t matter. It was your skill. Winning points or losing points, that type of thing. It really gave me a sense of belonging when I didn’t really have it at that young age.”
As Marcelle put it in her blog, sports saved her from an early age, and her introduction to volleyball only transpired thanks to a chance encounter in the hallways of her primary school in Victoria.
“When I was in Grade 5, I was walking around the halls of our elementary school with my sister, and the coach of the volleyball team came up to us and said ‘you need to try out for the volleyball team’ because we were both really tall, and sort of athletic I guess,” recounted Marcelle. “I was a very, very shy kid. I don’t think I would’ve gone on my own, but I had my sister there and she kind of nudged me to go. So, we both went together and we loved it right away from the first practice, even though we had no idea what was going on.”
Just as quickly as Marcelle fell in love with the game, so too did her talent grow. It wasn’t long before coaches and people involved in the sport could see the potential that she had, and they began encouraging Shanice’s mother, Tracey, to pursue more opportunities for her daughter.
Within just two years of learning the sport, Marcelle would attract the attention of Volleyball Canada, and later join the Canadian National Youth Volleyball team in 2006. Over her four years with the youth national program, Marcelle competed at the 2006 NORCECA Youth Championship, before switching from indoor to beach volleyball for a few years, competing at events both domestically and internationally — highlighted by an appearance at the 2009 Canada Summer Games in Charlottetown, P.E.I., as a member of Team BC.
“It was a really unique opportunity,” recounted Marcelle on her path to P.E.I. 2009, which was just the third Games to ever host beach volleyball. “It was something that I wanted to be involved in because our coaches, our coaching staff, and the people involved in the volleyball community at that time were like ‘this is something you want to be at. This is a really big deal. It’s a multi-sport games within Canada, and it’s a really unique opportunity."
Having missed Team BC’s first set of tryouts because she had her wisdom teeth removed, Marcelle managed to eventually secure her spot on the squad and travel to Charlottetown, where she and her partner Kara Jansen Van Doorn had aspirations of reaching the top of the podium. The only problem: they underestimated the talent they’d be facing at the Games.
“Honestly, it was so much harder than I had anticipated,” said the Victoria, B.C., native. “We ended up losing one of our pool play matches to a team from New Brunswick, which was like a huge upset. We were not expected to lose to them and that, I think, really lit a fire under our butts, and really motivated us to bring home a medal.”
Now confronted with a much more difficult path to the title, let alone a medal of any colour, Marcelle and Van Doorn did things the hard way. With a 3-2 record in pool play, the pair squeaked into the quarter-finals, where they downed Quebec in straight sets, before avenging an earlier loss to gold-medal favourites Ontario to reach the championship game. In the final, they made quick work of Alberta to secure the top prize.
Their rollercoaster ride to the gold medal would serve as an important reminder to Marcelle that she could overcome any kind of adversity, and gave her a boost of confidence as she prepared herself for her sophomore season at the University of British Columbia (UBC). However, on top of these valuable lessons learned, the memories Marcelle created outside of the competition are ones she will not soon forget.
“The whole atmosphere at a multi-sport games is really incredible,” added Marcelle. “[Kara and I] were roommates with these little gymnastic girls. We’re two beach volleyball athletes. We’re really tall and our roommates are these tiny little gymnastic girls, and [I enjoyed] just being able to support them. Like, we’d come back to sleep in our bunks or whatever every night, and we’d be like ‘how did you do today’ and they gave us their update and we gave them ours, and we supported each other along the way.”
After saying goodbye to the beaches of Prince Edward Island, Marcelle journeyed back home to her west coast life at UBC, where she was coached by another Canada Games alum, Doug Reimer (Saskatoon 1989). Having already won a national championship in her freshman season, Marcelle picked up where she left off and began putting together what is arguably one of the most decorated collegiate careers of any Canadian athlete.
In five seasons with the Thunderbirds, Marcelle won five straight CIS (now U SPORTS) national titles. Individually, she earned two Mary Lyons awards as the country’s top female volleyball player (2011 & 2013), was named CIS Championship MVP (2011), and notably took home the BLG Award in 2013 as the CIS Female Athlete of the Year across all sports. Her success on the collegiate courts helped propel her to two FISU Universiade Games, where most memorably she was selected as Canada’s flag bearer during the 2013 Opening Ceremony in Kazan, Russia.
Yet, despite all the hardware and accolades Marcelle accrued over her years playing volleyball at UBC, in her mind, the biggest prize she earned as a Thunderbird came from inside the classroom.
“I’m most proud of being the first person in my family to graduate from university,” declared the 30-year-old. “For me, that was a really big milestone and something that I wanted to accomplish, and it’s something that I am very proud of, for me and my family."
Following her fairytale career at UBC, Marcelle jumped on a plane and crossed the Atlantic to play professional volleyball in Europe. Moving to Dresden, Germany, wasn’t an easy transition for the then 25-year-old Canadian. She didn’t speak the language, had to learn how to drive stick, and began to discover the mounting expectations that come with being a professional athlete.
To make matters worse, Marcelle was the victim of racial discrimination on several occasions during the two seasons she spent playing for Dresdner SC in Deutschland. Residing in a place that would years later publicly declare a ‘Nazi emergency’, Marcelle received hateful messages after bad showings in games, was the recipient of racial slurs, and was even confined to her apartment once a year as a result of an annual neo-nazi demonstration that took place in the city — the latter of which she only became aware of suddenly after a practice with her team.
“It was really weird being told to go straight home from practice, and not really understanding why, not really getting the information of why, or the nuances of what it was,” recalled Marcelle, who played in Dresden from 2013 to 2015. “It’s not comforting to know that those things are happening in the world, in general, but also happening in the city that I am choosing to live in, and that I’m choosing to be somewhat of a public figure in the sporting world, and being someone visible in their athletic community. It was really unsettling, even though it was a one-day-of-the-year kind of event.
“Anytime I had a weird interaction, or if it felt like something was a little bit off, I would just immediately get this unsettling feeling. So, I did spend a lot of my time just at home, not going and exploring things. I did keep to myself a lot because of that.”
Despite these immense challenges, Marcelle persevered.
In her two seasons with Dresdner SC, the Victoria-native helped her squad win consecutive German league titles, the second of which was secured after she scored the last four points of their championship match against Allianz MTV Stuttgart. Following that Bundesliga crown, she played one more season abroad with VB Nantes in France, before coming back to Canada in 2016, and although she returned home scarred by the hardships she experienced abroad, Marcelle had some powerful advice for young BIPOC athletes who might sadly be forced to confront the same things she faced in Europe.
“Be proud of who you are and where you come from, and to stand a little bit taller because of that,” declared Marcelle. “The second thing would be to reach out and let people know what you’re feeling and experiencing.
“You don’t have to hold on to that information, and feel like you are alone in that. I think more people are willing to be allies than we necessarily know. And it’s really important to give those people the opportunity to be those allies in those situations that can be uncomfortable, that can be scary, that can be whatever they are going to be.”
Once back home in Canada, things didn’t get much easier for Marcelle, as adversity seemed to plague her at almost every turn.
First, an overuse shoulder injury that required surgery prevented her from playing her usual starting position at the Olympic trials, which in itself was a crushing blow, as the aspiring Olympian could only watch from the bench as her Canadian teammates fell short of qualifying for Rio 2016. Then, while still processing this disappointing result, the young British Columbian was confronted with a major career decision: to either continue playing indoors, or to make the transition to beach volleyball.
Her nagging shoulder injury had created some cause for concern. It made her question whether the demands of the power-dominant indoor game would be too difficult for her to continue playing unencumbered by injury. Thus, given that the finesse style of the beach wouldn't be as physically taxing, on top of Marcelle’s burning desire to return to the sand, she pulled the trigger on the switch. Making the decision with plenty of confidence thanks in large part to the success she had playing on the beach years ago, highlighted by her Canada Games gold-medal performance in P.E.I.
“I think a lot of those experiences that I had when I was younger playing beach volleyball did play a big role in me switching sports,” said the Team BC alumna. “I felt like my skill set was better suited to the beach. It was something that I had always wanted to get back to, it was just a matter of time.”
With that time being now, Marcelle went to work on making her decision a reality.
She got the surgery she needed. Did the rehab for her shoulder. Moved to Toronto. Found herself a partner, and it wasn't just anyone. It was Jamie Broder. An Olympian fresh off competing at Rio 2016, Broder not only grew up in Marcelle’s hometown of Victoria, but she is also a UBC alumna who had won a CIS national title less than a year before Marcelle’s arrival on campus. Broder was an athlete who Marcelle had looked up to for years, making their partnership a dream come true for the younger Thunderbird.
So, with Broder in place and Marcelle’s health improving, the pair laid out a competition and training plan, which within weeks of beginning was completely derailed when Marcelle tore her ACL during a practice session.
“When that moment happened it was so devastating,” recalled Marcelle, who suffered her ACL injury as she was jumping. “I vividly remember talking to the doctor, and like being stone cold face, not showing any emotion about it, just [nodding my head], and then getting out of the building and calling my Mom, and absolutely breaking down and sobbing. Feeling like the world is over. I am never going to be able to play this sport again. Literally, everything negative that you can feel and say to yourself, I was feeling.
“But I took a few days to grieve about it, and then it was like ‘okay, Shanice, you made this decision to play beach volleyball. You want to leave the sport on your own terms. You have been through this before, but in a different way with your shoulder. You can do this.’”
And that’s exactly what she did. Just as she had done following shoulder surgery. Just as she had done while in Germany, or at the Canada Games — challenged by a significant amount of adversity, Marcelle responded like she always does. It took 790 days for her to return to form following both her shoulder and knee surgeries, but she managed to come back and excel on the sand.
Playing alongside Julie Gordon, who remains her partner today, Marcelle has competed in dozens of tournaments both here in Canada and abroad. Most notably, she and Gordon scored gold in the Senior Women’s age group at the 2019 Beach Nationals, before later being selected to the Women’s Next Gen (B) National Team in 2020.
At the same time, the days that Marcelle spent unable to compete were, in some ways, a blessing in disguise — serving as a time for personal growth and self-discovery. In addition to creating a blog during those two-plus years, Marcelle also found her way into coaching, and much like her introduction to the sport as a player 20 years ago, her coaching career began thanks to an interaction she shared with a player at a volleyball camp organized by one of her friends.
“One of the athletes, she came up to me. She was this young biracial woman, and she came up to me. She didn’t ask me anything about volleyball but she was like ‘do you like your hair,” recounted Marcelle.
“She asked me that question and I had to sit back and put myself in her shoes, and I was like ‘I love my hair now. When I was your age I didn’t, and I felt different all the time’, and kind of all these reasons. And I explained to her that her hair is beautiful, and that she should be so proud of it.
To me, that was the first moment where I realized how important representation is, especially in our sport where there are not many people that look like me. I felt like a lot of times I had to pave the way, and I am so proud and so grateful to be in this position, as a high-performance athlete, but also as a high-performance coach, to give young women a visible figure of where they could potentially go.”
That’s why today, along with continuing her efforts as a player on Canada’s beach volleyball national team, Marcelle continues to further invest herself as both a coach and role model. In addition to her role as an assistant coach with the York University Lions women’s volleyball team, Marcelle currently coaches a senior girls high school team, and U12 girls and boys teams. She freely admits that it can be a bit much at times. Something that’s understandable, when you consider she’s a national team athlete who also coaches three different teams. But, in Marcelle’s mind, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I would love to be a head coach at a university program one day,” professed Marcelle. “Being able to impact our future Canadian athletes. That’s something that I want to do.”
It seems Marcelle is well on her way to accomplishing that, and although her coaching efforts won’t stop her from striving to achieve her dream of playing in the Olympics, don’t be surprised if she finds her way there as a coach. I know I won’t be, and neither should you.
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