Life’s a beach when you are Scotland’s top volleyball pairing, right? Well, not when you consider the shifting sands of life in lockdown.
For months during the Covid crisis, the closest Lynne Beattie and Melissa Coutts got to proper training was going through strength and conditioning sessions in a local park.
Then came the phased return of sport. Which was a bit like normal training. Without opponents.
Even when they were allowed to share a court with someone on the other side of the net, meanwhile, they somehow had to observe a two-metre distance. While playing. Sounds like fun.
Such worries will seem a lifetime away when this Scottish pair sample the Commonwealth Games atmosphere for a second time in Birmingham this summer.
Four years ago in the Gold Coast, this event unfolded in the sun-kissed backdrop of Coolangatta beachfront, where one mistimed spike could send the ball out spinning towards the reef.
This time around, it will take place on a converted patch of concrete in Smithfield, central Birmingham – once the site of the city’s wholesale market.
It rains more days in this part of the world in July and August than it doesn’t. But when you practice on windswept Portobello beach, even the worst weather forecast is likely to prompt only one response: “Bring it on.”
“We practice at Portobello literally all the time so we are ready for anything,” said Beattie, 36, who captained the indoor Team GB Olympic squad at London 2012 – and also walked away with £11,000 as a Deal or no Deal contestant in 2014.
“In the rules the only things you stop for are thunder and lightning.“
Courts added: “I think if it is extreme wind, proper extreme, then they will stop it as well. But I can’t see it being like that in Birmingham – it will be quite sheltered.
“It could be literally anything, though – pouring rain, blazing sunshine or anything in between.”
The duo’s ticket to Birmingham was stamped with a second-place finish in last summer’s Eurozone Commonwealth qualifier on their home sands of Portobello.
But a last-minute decision to risk the worsening Covid conditions and compete in an FIVB event in Langkawi, Malaysia, in March 2020 might go down as the moment they really did the hard yards.
The world was an uncertain place back then. Some teams were either being advised not to travel. Others were being told to turn around and come back as soon as they got there.
But the Scots toughed it out and got their rewards in ranking points.
Coutts, now 51, admitted: “We were actually in Malaysia in March 2020 and we weren’t sure whether to go or not.
“In the end, we decided just to risk it – and we are glad that we did. Because it was literally the last one before everything shut down.”
Beattie added: “I think the day we got back Malaysia shut its borders.
“We did quite well and the points became quite crucial in our qualification so we were really quite pleased about that.”
When the qualification window closed on March 31, the Scottish pair had enough points to take their place in the draw for the groups in Birmingham.
But Scotland’s men – represented by Seain Cook and Robin Miedzybrodzki in the Gold Coast – weren’t quite so lucky.
The boys didn’t make the cut, meaning that Beattie and Coutts will fly the flag alone for Scotland in beach volleyball in Birmingham.
“I haven’t actually spoken to them personally yet but it’s a shame for us, too, that there isn’t going to be a men’s pair there to share the experience with us,” said Beattie.
“I think it’s a learning for the sport going forward, that the long-term approach and vision is all important.
“That’s the thing we learned from last time – that it is very much a four-year cycle.
“As soon as the last Commonwealth Games finished we were back on tour immediately because we knew how important it was to contribute to qualification the next time around.
“It has been a long process but this was obviously the end goal and we achieved it, so we are very excited.”
The level of professionalism this pair display is such that you might be surprised to learn that they also have day jobs to get on with.
Coutts works for City of Edinburgh Council in a management role in sport and outdoor learning.
Beattie started a new job in January as a partnership manager with funding body SportScotland.
But their existence revolves around volleyball – even if that means watching DVDs or YouTube footage of matches in a nearby coffee shop after practice sessions.
They are grateful to a small but crucial network of support staff for helping them get through it all. One of these is Beattie’s sister Karen, who doubles as the pair’s physio.
“One of them is in Australia, one in Belfast, one in Glasgow, and just having that group of people around us, plus the federation, the governing body, has made it all kind of possible,” explained Beattie.
As the games get closer, the focus is only narrowing. The duo spent time in May out in Florida, working with respected Brazilian coach Pri Piantadosi-Lima and getting valuable match practice.
So what is possible for this duo down in the Midlands? Well, four years ago it was a quarter-final loss to eventual winners Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes of Canada (sister to Scottish volleyball’s performance manager Felipe).
This was after progression from a group which also included a match up with home favourites Australia.
“From a performance point of view, the best moment was playing Australia in front of their crowd,” said Beattie. “It was one of the best atmospheres, under the lights.
“There’s always the draw element, with a bit of luck in there, depending what seed we go in as.
“But getting out of our pool would be a good result for us and something we are aiming to do. Then anything can happen.”
Article by Stewart Fisher