Canadian volleyball player Alexa Gray hopeful of memorable year — one that might include Olympics

Alexa Gray, a 29-year-old native of Lethbridge, Alta., spoke with CBC Sports this week from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with her main focus on the Canadian women's volleyball team qualifying for the Olympics.

'We really bought into we can actually do this,' says Lethbridge, Alta., native

A Canadian female volleyball competes in a Volleyball Nations League game in 2023.
Alexa Gray, a 29-year-old native of Lethbridge, Alta., comes from an athletically gifted family. (Volleyball World)

Entering her eighth season with the Canadian women's volleyball team, outside hitter Alexa Gray is primed for what could be her most memorable year yet. 

After coming just short of earning a berth to this summer's Olympics at last September's qualifying tournament, Canada is still in contention for one of five remaining spots in Paris due to their FIVB World Ranking (they're currently No. 11). 

A good showing at the prestigious Volleyball Nations League over the next six weeks and Canada just might make it back to the Olympics for the first time since 1996 in Atlanta.

Gray, a 29-year-old native of Lethbridge, Alta., comes from an athletically gifted family. Her father Evric and late mother Stacey were NCAA basketball players and her sister, Jordan, who's 13 months older, was a Tokyo 2020 Olympian for the U.S., in Rugby 7s. 

A multi-sport athlete growing up in her formative teenage years in Calgary, Gray juggled basketball, volleyball and track (don't ask her one year of "terrifying" rugby) until she settled on volleyball. 

After six seasons of playing pro in Italy, she took her talents to Istanbul, Turkey, where she played this past year for 28-time league champions, Eczacıbaşı Dynavit. 

Gray, Canada's captain, was the team's top scorer last season in Volleyball Nations League (VNL) and fifth overall in the 16-team tournament.  

She spoke with CBC Sports this week from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil ahead Canada's Volleyball Nations League game tonight against the host country, which is being streamed live on CBCSports.ca at 8 p.m. ET

This interview has been edited for length and clarity:

You're about to embark on a high-pressure season, with a potential Olympic berth on the line, how are you feeling?

Gray: I'm obviously nervous, but really excited. Even in the two weeks we've had together in pre-season, everyone has shown a lot of growth and improvement over their pro seasons. I'm hoping we can all find our rhythm together like we had at the end of last summer. I think we can do some great things at this tournament. 

This team has had a remarkable climb over the last four seasons under coach Shannon Winzer, going from No. 18 in the world to No. 11. What makes this team special? 

Gray: We've really bought into what our team does best. It's easy to get caught up in trying to be perfect passers and perfect blockers but I think we've really dialled in what our strengths are. We have a pretty close knit team, we hang out a lot outside of the gym when we're on the road and that transfers into our on-court chemistry. Being together for four years really helps with trusting each other on the court in these long tournaments.

You hear the word "trust" a lot in volleyball. How important is that attribute within a team? 

Gray: With any team sport you need trust, but volleyball in particular, you need your teammates every point. Unless you get an ace, there has to be at least two people touching the ball for something great to happen. Knowing that I'm trusting my setter to give me the best set possible or make the best decision when to set who in critical situations and trusting our defensive positions. Without trust you can tell when a team is disjointed and playing individual volleyball. 

A Canadian female volleyball player competes at a game in the Volleyball Nations League in 2023.
Gray, centres, believes trust in team sports is important, but more so in volleyball. (Milad Payami/Volleyball World)

Was there a particular moment where you saw those connections forming within the team? 

Gray: It started slowly with things like getting coffee with a new person, but since most of our time together is in the summer, a lot of my memories with this team is around the pool or the beach because this group loves getting a tan (laughs). We play games or ask silly questions, we like to laugh and not be so serious off the court. 

What kinds of games? 

Gray: I don't like cribbage but a lot of the girls play crib. We'll just do random 'would you rather' or '21 questions' or (setter) Brie (King) O'Reilly makes up some of the most absurd games and they always seem to work out. 

You were named captain last year, how would you describe your leadership style? 

Gray: I'm not a huge vocal leader. I'm not going to be the person giving inspirational quotes, but I try to lead by example and consistency both on and off the court. I'm trying to be someone that people can come to if they need help. I'm a pretty good observer so if I see something with some of the younger players, I give them little snippets of advice.

In speaking with your coach and other players over the past year and a half in particular, there's talk about a change in mindset within the team — that it's not just about wanting to play for the national team, it's about wanting to be an Olympian. Was there a time where you saw that shift happen? 

Gray: There's a few instances. When we first qualified for VNL in 2020, I really felt that summer we were clicking together as a team. It felt like there was more hope in our game. When I thought we could go to the Olympics was two summers ago at the world championships. We were competing and pushing a lot of the high-level teams in the world and we made it to the second round for the first time in I don't know how long. After that summer, we all had a little more hope and with the new world ranking points and every game counting for and against, we really bought into 'we can actually do this' and it's not as far fetched as it seemed last quad (Olympic quadrennial).

Canadian female volleyball player celebrates during a Volleyball Nations League in 2023.
Gray believes in Canada's Olympic chances. (Milad Payami/Volleyball World)

How much will you be doing mental math before every match this season? It's got to be hard knowing how many world ranking points are on the line when that's ultimately what decides your fate in mid-June (when the VNL preliminary round ends). 

Gray: I'm not big into looking at those because they stress me out, but even this summer, they've added a new feature on the website that you can go and see how many points you're going to get if you win 3-0, or 3-1, for example. That might be a little more tempting, a little more motivation, but for me, I have never looked at that. After the game, it's fun to see how many points we win. But beforehand, I'm just going to try and ignore it.

Sometimes on our broadcasts of your matches, analyst Dallas Soonias or I remark that you seem to float in the air, not in a negative way, but it often looks like you're flying and have multiple seconds to make a decision in attack. Does it feel like that for you?

Gray: It depends on the day and now that I'm getting older it seems few and far between (laughs). Not every ball, but there are some balls where I feel like I can see the whole court, which is fun. Brie gets me in really good situations where I have a lot of court to work with. She definitely makes it easier for me. And our middles (middle blockers), because they're also threats, they are able to hold the middles on the other side which gives me more one-on-one looks.

Where do you live when you're not playing professionally?

Gray: I signed one more year with my same team next year and then in the off-season, my sister Jordan lives in San Diego so I spend a lot of time there and in Southern California. It's not a bad place to spend a summer.

What has she told you about her Olympic experience?

Gray: It was the pinnacle of her career. She retired soon after, but she had so much fun even though it was a weird Olympics. I wish I could've been there to watch. She had the time of her life.

Do you have a favourite moment in your career so far? 

Gray: I hope later, maybe we can talk in a month and a half, and I can answer that question better. The best has yet to come. 


Signa Butler is a host and play-by-play commentator with CBC Sports, where she has worked for nearly two decades. Beijing 2022 will be her 11th Games with CBC.

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