The clouds have been rolling in and out over the beaches at Ashbridges Bay all day, but at the moment the sun is out. It’s hot. The stands are full of tanned-skin bodies, but the crowd has swelled, spilling out past the rows of plastic folding chairs.
It is a crowd divided, their anticipation palpable, all eyes fixed on the little blue and yellow ball. Back and forth, over and over, finally it drops to the side of the net and rolls to a stop in the sand.
Simultaneously Martin Reader and teammate Josh Binstock fall to their knees and embrace. They are going to play beach volleyball at the London Olympics.
It was a satisfying moment for Reader – a fitting reward for the intense commitment he’s made to his sport. But his commitment to beach volleyball had taken him down a road that helped shape his life in more ways than one. On top of being able to call himself an Olympian, he can now add entrepreneur to the list.
But it’s a title born out of necessity more than anything else. Many Olympic sports (beach volleyball included) exist on the fringes of the sports news cycle. As a result, advertising dollars don’t flow to them like they do with hockey or baseball, and, unless they win medals, athletes can be marginalized.
But therein lies the problem. Unaided by publicists or assistants, the tasks – and stress – pile up and the road to the top becomes more difficult. Amateur athletes must patiently find a way to cope with their added workload as they squeeze errands in between workouts and travel.
Reader knows the feeling all too well. At one point he found himself standing in a crowded Russian embassy, minutes from closing, pleading with the line to let him pick-up his visa.
“I had to do a public announcement,” he chuckles. “I just said, ‘I need to get on an airplane in three hours to qualify for the Olympic Games representing Canada. I need to get this right now. Can I please go in line?’”
It’s a situation Sidney Crosby may never have to worry about, but it’s the kind of obstacle Reader’s been dealing with for a long time.
Born to a rugby-playing father and tennis star mother, he grew up in Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley. With a youthful, restless energy he was drawn to the water and dominated swimming competitions as a 10-year-old. But suddenly he was forced from the pool after developing an allergic reaction to chlorine that wreaked havoc on his respiratory system.
“Three days in a row I had to get pulled out of the pool. I had to stop cold turkey.”
To see him today, looming over everyone as a 6’7” tower of muscle, it’s hard to imagine him ever having a weakness, but at the time it was a disheartening blow to the energetic young boy who dreamed of swimming in the Olympics.
But shortly following this disappointment, his parents surprised him by taking him to a local hockey rink for a beach volleyball demonstration that featured some of the game’s best players.
“I have this flashback memory of that. Being this tiny little kid in the sand trying to bump. And after that I wrote in my journal that I wanted to play professional beach volleyball in Australia.”
To this day he has no idea why some of the game’s greatest stars like Randy Stoklos wound up at a demonstration in rural Vancouver Island. That random event would spur on an Olympic journey. He played volleyball as much as he could, but eventually he had a decision to make.
He left the University of British Columbia after one semester, hopped on a plane to Rio’s Ipanema Beach and started training camps, choosing to follow his passion, however unsure he was of where it would lead.
But over time the financial challenges mounted. Funding slowly dwindled, and Reader’s carding money (basically a salary from Volleyball Canada) started to fall short of what he – or anyone – could survive on. But out of this financial hardship, his entrepreneurial spirit blossomed alongside his athletic abilities.
“Since I was 24 I realized I needed to make money myself and I don’t have time to work because (volleyball) is a full time job.”
So Reader, in addition to his 6-hour training sessions, set about organizing fundraising events and started chasing down sponsors for himself. Just this past March he took the reins on organizing a fundraiser at Toronto’s Spoke Club – one successful enough to raise $25,000 for his team’s cause.
The more he talks, the more you get the sense that he loves the role that was thrust upon him. Sitting in a sparsely-filled restaurant in downtown Toronto, he gets that telling look in his eye that makes you realize the opportunity and hectic pace of the city suits his ambitious character.
“I resisted Toronto for three years. But I love it now, man. I’m embracing Toronto, I dig it so much. Just living life and meeting people and following those leads. It’s awesome.”
By taking stock of his reality and seizing a new role with the same ambitious energy he applies to his sport, he’s taken on just about any opportunity that comes his way. Whether it’s modeling or public speaking, or even blogging about nutrition products, there’s always that awareness of the importance of self-branding.
He’s just unwilling (or unable) to shake that beach bum attitude that fostered his love of the sport in the first place. After all, he’s a man who refers to his business suit as, “a pair of board shorts and sunglasses.”
But even after fulfilling his Olympic dream, Reader sees no reason to change his ways. He’s toyed with the idea of joining a new program at Ryerson University called “Life After Sport,” which is specifically for athletes and tailors to their schedules while preparing them for the corporate world.
At the same time, he feels like he’s doing great on his own and, apart from being at the 2016 Games in Rio, has his eyes set on another dream: rekindling the old Labatt’s Beach Volleyball Tour of the 90’s – or at least some manifestation of it.
“We regenerate the sport, but we pair music and the lifestyle of the beach with the actual players. Create a VIP experience – an Ibiza that goes to different provinces each month.”
Ambitious? Sure. But ambition and energy is what fulfilled his Olympics dream in the first place, so who’s to say it can’t fulfill more down the road?
Photo credits: Style photography courtesy of coryvanderploeg.com; volleyball image courtesy of Getty Images