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Chris McHugh: The Adelaide volleyballer who scored gold

Since winning gold at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, Adelaide-based beach volleyballer Chris McHugh has faced everything from knee surgeries to a teammate shake up. He went One on One with Tom Staggard to talk about his Olympic dream and how he’s shaping up ahead of Tokyo 2020.

Tom Staggard: Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood and where you grew up?

Chris McHugh: So I’m actually originally from the far south coach of New South Wales and was born in a town called Pambula.

I moved to Adelaide when I was about 10 years old and it’s been home ever since.

I went to St Michael’s College down at Henley Beach and finished up there in about 2007.

I started playing volleyball in primary school in about year four or five.

It’s kind of funny because I basically started playing volleyball because it was on the same night as clarinet lessons and I had to do those lessons, so I just thought well if I’m doing that I can also play volleyball with my mates.

TS: Did you play any other sports growing or was it just volleyball?

CM: I actually played quite a few sports. I played footy for Henley Sharks in under 13s and actually got dropped for the grand final.

It was a bit rough on a 13-year-old so I thought stuff footy I’m not doing that again.

I also played hockey, soccer, baseball and a bit of everything really.

I fell into volleyball and was reasonably good at it so progressed into indoor volleyball, got picked up in the state team when I was in under 17s.

I then got picked in a third string team and eventually progressed and got selected in the South Australian Sports Institute (SASI) program.

From there I secured a spot to go to the under 19 world championships in Bermuda – my first international competition – where I partnered with Harry Peacock, who plays for the Australian indoor team.

After that tournament, I entered the Australian Institute of Sport program so trying to complete year 12 and train in that program was a bit of a juggle but we got there in the end.

I’ve been a part of the national senior side ever since so it’s been about 12 years.

Chris McHugh (left) with 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games partner Damien Schumann. PHOTO: Volleyball SA

TS: It sounds like a really busy time in your life. How did you juggle training at such a high level with your schooling and social life?

CM: I was extremely lucky in terms of my family being super supportive.

The good thing, which made it a little bit easier, was SASI was located about 2.5km from school, so it certainly made it easier to go to training at 5:30am and then jump in the car and head down to school.

It was certainly a challenging experience and the only downside was I’d fall asleep in double chemistry on a Wednesday afternoon.

I did quite well in school but I haven’t really had a chance to use it because volleyball sort of took over my life pretty quickly.

TS: When did you realise you could play volleyball at the highest level and make a career out of it?

CM: I suppose for me when I was about 15 or 16 I realised it was something I wanted to pursue full-time.

The thing that people don’t understand, especially in Australia, is that with both indoor and beach volleyball combined is the second largest sport in the world in terms of mass participation.

A lot of people around the world make a very good living out of playing volleyball.

Going around as a 15-year-old saying I was going to play beach volleyball for a living, people were certainly a bit skeptical.

However, for me it was about the Olympic dream and representing Australia at an Olympic Games.

Seeing Nat (Cook) and Kerri (Pottharst) win gold on Bondi Beach (at the 2000 Sydney Olympics) was a real catalyst for me to say ‘that’s really cool, I want to do that’.

I haven’t quite managed to crack the Olympics at this stage.

TS: You mentioned that Olympic dream. How close did you get at securing a spot at an Olympic Games?

CM: We got close at London 2012, missing out by just two points which was pretty soul destroying.

Last Olympic cycle in Rio, we just couldn’t physically get myself to play well enough for long enough.

The volleyball Olympic qualification period is over two years so you have to be performing at the top of your game for two years straight.

I had a bung shoulder so it didn’t work out too well. The Commonwealth Games in 2018 was a fantastic experience and Damien (Schumann) and I did really well and coming away with the gold medal.

To be able to play in front of 7000 other Aussies was fantastic but more importantly we don’t really get the opportunity to play high level tournaments in Australia.

For a lot of my family, that tournament was the first time they’d seen me play internationally.

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Tom grew up in Adelaide’s northern suburbs and is our resident North American sports expert. Tom has experience as a working journalist and has a keen interest in basketball, ice hockey and American football, as well as cricket, soccer and football. He spent his junior cricket career at East Torrens District and has played for a number of football clubs across Adelaide’s north.