One on One with: Chris McHugh
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.
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.
TS: The big success was the gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. How did you and Damien go in the lead-up to that tournament and did that success come as a surprise or were you always confident of being able to achieve what you did?
CM: Leading into the tournament we had our own Australian selection trials and competitions which brought its own stresses and pressures.
It’s not very often you get to play in a home, multi-sport event like the Commonwealth Games.
It was also the first time in history that beach volleyball had been a part of the Comm Games.
So once we’d been selected it was nice to just get away from all the hype and focus on the core things we wanted to work on.
We wanted to use the stage to promote the sport but also inspire the next generation of male beach volleyballers to take up the sport and to play the game of which we have got so much out.
Going into the tournament we were realistically a good shot for a medal, but knew that the Canadian team, Sam (Pedlow) and Sam (Schachter), were a quality team and on paper they should have beaten us about six or seven times out of ten.
We were also wary of the English and New Zealand teams lurking who, on their day, we knew were very good teams.
The big game for us was the semi-final against England.
You win that you’re guaranteed a medal, you lose and you have to pick yourself up and get ready for a fight for the bronze.
In the gold medal match, we felt as if the pressure was on the Canadian team and I think it showed a bit in the match itself.
It was a see-sawing affair and we did find ourselves in the doldrums a bit down 12-9 in the third set when you’re only racing to 15 points.
At that level, that game is probably lost 95 times out of a 100.
So to come back and ride the wave of emotion we got from the crowd really pushed us forward and got us over the line.
TS: When you’re in that situation, down 12-9, and it starts to turn back in your favour do you feed off the energy crowd or are you so in the zone you just block everything out?
CM: For sure you can feel that momentum swing your way when you have a huge crowd behind you.
Everything can seem to go right for you in that moment. At that time, we served an ace and that put the pressure back on them to close it out.
They made two quick errors and all of a sudden the crowd erupts and there is even more pressure.
TS: You mentioned the lows you felt of missing out on both the London and Rio Olympics. Where are you at the moment in the lead up to Tokyo 2020?
CM: Olympic qualification for us started in September 2018 and in the time since the Commonwealth Games there has been a team switch.
I’m now playing with Zac Schubert who’s a young South Aussie kid from Loxton in the Riverland.
Complicating that was I’ve had double knee surgery after the Comm Games so it’s been an interesting time trying to get back on the court and Zac and I haven’t really played that much.
We’re a little bit behind the eight-ball in terms of Olympic qualification.
We’ve got a few big world tour tournaments coming up so that will be a good gauge to see where we sit in the world pecking order, but it also gives us an opportunity to build entry points which are crucial for the Hamburg world championships later this year in Germany.
TS: As a product of the Australian volleyball system, how would you assess the sport more broadly in this country at the moment as we’re in the middle of an Olympic cycle?
CM: On the men’s side we have a lot of good quality young kids who are training here in Adelaide.
We have about six guys who are between 20 and 23-years-old and for beach volleyball they are babies.
You normally peak between about 30 to 35, so they’ve got a lot of growth and learning to do but the future does look very bright as long as they stick around.
In the girls, we’ve got Taliqua (Clancy) and Mariafe (Artacho del Solar) who are sitting about six in the world and on their day could be one of the best teams in the world.
I think they’re within a real shot of a medal at the upcoming world championships and if they can do that they can show that they’ll be a real medal contender at Tokyo 2020.