There were many reasons for Brandie Wilkerson to smile that thousand-watt smile of hers on Saturday night. Just take your pick for which one might have lit her up the brightest: She and Sophie Bukovec had just beaten Germans Cinja Tillman and Svenja Muller in the semifinals of the World Championships. In a day’s time, they’d be competing for gold, as unlikely of a gold medal opportunity as the new team could have asked for just a few months ago, at a Challenger in Tlaxcala, Mexico, an event in which they didn't make it out of the qualifier.
Sophie Bukovec, Brandie Wilkerson's new 'superstar' defender, shines bright at World Championships
The Canadians exceed all expectations in a scintillating run to the World Championship finals in Rome
Pubblicato 08:10, 20 Jun 2022
Now she was one sleep away from competing for a World Championship gold medal.
So she was positively beatific, for all of the aforementioned reasons, but more so than any other, Wilkerson was shining ever so effervescently because she had the microphone, and she had her opportunity to sing the praises of her new partner to the thousands in the Foro Italico and the thousands more watching on Volleyball TV.
“This girl is a superstar,” Wilkerson said, whirling around to see the entire crowd, making sure they knew the girl she was referencing was the 26-year-old standing next to her, smiling ear to ear. “You guys will follow along with her all year. I’m in love with you. You’re playing amazing. I’m so proud.”
Proud is an understatement. An understatement for what Wilkerson, Bukovec, and the entire Canadian federation could be feeling about the 6-foot tall defender. It was only a year ago that Bukovec was grinding it out in one-star events – even coming out of qualifiers in the lowest rung of the FIVB ladder. Only a year ago that she was blocking, playing on the right side. But Wilkerson, the 2018 Blocker of the Year, saw something in Bukovec that nudged her to take a chance on a player whose only major experience playing defence was a single match in the Itapema four-star qualifier last November.
In Rome this week, the world got a 10-day glimpse into the potential Wilkerson saw earlier this year, when she announced that she’d be making a run at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games with Bukovec.
“It’s a dream,” Bukovec said after that semifinal win. “I’m so grateful, so honoured to be here and to play here and play on this stage is incredible and to play on this stage is – no words.”
Indeed, she may be left speechless for some time, Bukovec. She chuckled a bit at herself on Saturday evening, taking inventory of her ascent: the first major final of her career just so happens to be at the World Championships?
Are you kidding me?
“Making it to our first final in the World Championships is a great accomplishment,” Bukovec said. “I’m proud of how we fought in each and every match. We’re just looking towards the future, I’m very proud of our team.”
The future is a bright one for the two. They entered the World Championships as the 20th-seeded team in the 48-team field. Of the eight matches they played, they were the on-paper underdogs in half of them, requiring a comeback from down 8-13 to defeat Kelly Cheng and Betsi Flint in the final round of pool to win, 21-19, 21-19. That victory paved the way for upsets over World Tour Finals victors Karla Borger and Julia Sude, home favourites Marta Menegatti and Valentina Gottardi, Ostrava Elite16 champs Muller and Tillman, before the finals matchup with Brazilians Duda and Ana Patricia Silva.
They’d fall in that final, 17-21, 19-21, but they didn’t make matters easy for the Brazilians. Bukovec’s play in defence left brilliant commentator Simon Golding consistently wondering: “When are we going to stop referring to Bukovec as a blocker transitioning to defence, and instead simply referring to her as a defender?”
Bukovec’s journey thus far is a mirror-image of that currently being had by Swiss defender Anouk Verge-Depre. The 30-year-old competed in the 2016 Olympic Games as a right-side blocker – then promptly made the switch to a left-side defender behind the block of Joana Heidrich. A bold move, to be sure, but one that has worked out quite well for Verge-Depre. In 2021, she and Heidrich won a bronze medal, the first women's Olympic medal for Switzerland.
“There’s been a lot of changes, from blocking to defending, right side to left side,” Bukovec said. “There’s been partner changes. I’m really proud of how I’ve adapted, how we’ve adapted, I have a great partner, I have great leadership around me. I’m just grateful to be here.”
And Wilkerson is grateful to have her. You could see it all over her face on Saturday evening as she took the liberty of introducing Bukovec, her superstar, to the world. It wasn’t the golden finish they sought, but a silver at the World Championships, in just their fourth tournament as a team, is a superb finish, one that confirms the risks taken by both -- Bukovec switching sides and positions; Wilkerson scooping a relatively unproven talent -- were worth the medal-laden rewards to come.
“It was a win-win situation for us,” Wilkerson said. “It was such an incredible accomplishment to be here, I’m incredibly proud of Sophie, the strides she’s made as a player, the new position, and just how we played as a team. And I’m proud that we’re upset because that means that we both knew we could have won it. All the emotions are totally valid. We’re going to take a moment and remember this feeling so we don’t get it again.”