On the first day of the AVP New York City Open in June, the sun blazed down on the piers while fans sought shade, food, coconut water and booze.
Top 40 music blared on the stereos as beach volleyball players, strapped in bikinis and board shorts, warmed up on the sand.
The water glittered by the boats while glass skyscrapers winked in return. Everything seemed to scintillate, including the sweat on people’s brows.
But nothing shined brighter than Brandie Wilkerson’s smile every time she came up big with a block or scored a point.
The Swiss-born Canadian from Toronto was playing in her first match of the tournament and you could just feel how much fun she was having. Since 2018, Wilkerson has really found her groove.
She and her partner, Heather Bansley, had reached the world No. 1 ranking last November. That’s the first time she’d ever reached that level in her 6-year career.
On the pier that day, Wilkerson’s game-face was as equally serious as it was serene; she’s got the right balance of confidence and levity. But the 27-year-old says that she hasn’t always had that self-assuredness and still struggles with insecurities.
After Wilkerson’s victorious match, I caught up with the rising star about how she got into beach volleyball and how she grew to embrace her body and identity as a tall, bi-racial, multicultural woman.
First of all, before I get into this conversation, I wanted to say that these beach volleyball tournaments seem like one big party. People are jamming. Well, at least I am … Do you hear the music at all when you’re out on the court?
Yeah for sure!
Are there times where a song comes on and you’re like, “Hell yeah! That’s my jam”?
Oh my God. If I hear any reggae at all … Some of my coaches make fun like,”Were you dancing? Like what’s happening there?” But [the DJs] never [really] play it. We’re playing beach volleyball! Why are we not playing the best dancehall and soca music ever? But I’m a huge music person. So any dance music helps keep the energy.
Yeah, I totally get the dancehall/soca vibes and keeping the energy high. Did you ever go to the Caribana festival in Toronto?
I always went when I was a kid because my parents took me. But now during the summer, we are always traveling and we’re never around. So it’s like one of the things you have to sacrifice!
Wait, tell me where your parents are from.
My dad is American. African American and Cherokee as well. He’s from Texas. My mom is from Switzerland and she’s white.
Cool! I read your dad, Herb Wilkerson, was drafted to the Cleveland Cavs before he shipped off to play basketball in Switzerland. And your mom, Stephanie, is quite the athlete herself. I mean she was a multiple-time Ironman finalist.
Ha ha, she has no hand-eye coordination but she can run for 13 hours straight.
Yeah. I’m very blessed to have these genes and very determined, hardworking parents who, in the most hilarious way, deterred me from being a professional athlete as much as possible. They were like, ‘No, get a real job. This is not the life you want’.
Ha ha really? Well from my understanding, you didn’t strive to become a professional athlete when you were young. You were really into art and still are, right?
Yes. Love drawing. Love photography as well. I really loved fashion growing up. I love to design, but right now I mostly stick to painting or pen and ink.
What did art mean to you as a kid?
I was very creative. I had my art room with all my little arts and crafts. The biggest thing it did for me … I lived in not a great neighborhood growing up and the high school [near] my home wasn’t great either. So I auditioned for an art school that was like an hour and a half away — in a very nice area. And so by auditioning and making it, it really opened up opportunities. I wouldn’t be able to learn so much about art and myself and my interests if I hadn’t gone to such an amazing school. I don’t think I would have been playing volleyball let alone sports.
Hold that thought for a moment. You’re and artist; you have a bunch of rad tattoos … What does that one on your side say?
“She is clothed in strength and dignity and laughs without fear of the future.” It’s a Bible verse. I grew up in the church and I’m not religious right now, but [being in church] taught me how to be a woman and embrace character traits like strength and dignity. I’m always laughing and smiling and it’s genuinely because I am very secure in what I can do and control now. The rest is really what it is meant to be.
Were you always this secure?
Definitely not. And I’m still not, especially playing a sport where there’s a lot of physical and emotional exposure. But I think because I was so insecure growing up it’s taught me how to be stronger, I’ve had to fight it. It was very real for me.
What was your biggest struggle?
Coming in as an immigrant I didn’t speak English so I was super shy. Like, I would write tiny and not speak and walk around staring at the floor because I couldn’t make eye contact. Being a tall girl is always awkward … being mixed. People are always trying to fit you in a category like “Oh but is she white or is she black?” Everyone wants to put a label on something. So it was a lot of figuring out who I am and … having to love my body and everything it does for me as well.
Yeah … unfortunately that’s a common dilemma that women often have to navigate.
Yeah. Everybody is going through something and we just tell ourselves it’s just us. But the more I talk to people and the more people get to know me, it’s just been like, “we’re all struggling”. Like why are we even pretending like this isn’t it? And it’s just such a big stress reliever to know that it’s not just you and to be like “All right. Let’s just battle this together and get real about it.”
You mentioned physical exposure. You’re certainly exposed when you’re wearing a bikini as a uniform. And I know there are some people out there who only watch beach volleyball “because the women are hot”, as if that’s the only reason to watch the sport … I mean how do you feel about the bikini? Is it empowering?
The first year for me [wearing] the bikini was one of the hardest things, especially when I was insecure about my body. I would be on the court thinking about how I look. Now it’s really something I’m aware of and I have to do the things that make me confident in a very real genuine way because if I just cover up and pretend like it’s not there, we’re not solving anything.
Right now, I’m on the train where it’s like, “This body is amazing”. It’s not for anyone to judge. In beach volleyball, you see all sorts of shapes and bodies that are doing such amazing, athletic things. And I believe in that like strong powerful look but also very feminine and sexy. That’s part of our womanhood. It’s part of our power as a woman to have that sexuality and be strong. So that’s my goal to kind of express in my game. This is me.
Hear, Hear! Okay, so back to talking about your volleyball career. So you playing indoor volleyball in Canada makes sense to me … But beach volleyball!? How did you get into that? It’s cold up north.
It’s an interesting story for beach volleyball in Canada. I think there’s a really great love for it. We have the best teams in the world coming out of Canada. Our beach in Toronto has like hundreds of beach volleyball courts on it!
I played indoor in university and I had friends who played on the beach national team because the national training center was so close to my school. They encouraged me to try out. And when I did, I really loved how challenging it was and kind of stuck to it. As opportunities came and accomplishments came I started setting the bar higher and higher.
Well you have been killing it with your partner Heather Bansley, having reached world no. 1 in November. I know athletes meet each other at different trainings and events and sometimes decide who they are going to team up with based on who they meet … When you’re at training camp, are y’all checking each other out like, “Who’s hot this year?”
It’s so funny … It’s just like relationships. We’re like “Oh, are you with them? Did they break up? Are you long term? Are you short term? Are you committed?”
That’s hilarious … and also potentially awkward.
Yeah I mean every country is different so I can only speak really from what the Canadian system is like, and we choose our own partners. It’s advantageous to stay with that partner for as long as possible. So my partner and I started in 2017 and we committed to 2020 and really going for it.
How are preparations going so far? Are you ready for Tokyo? I mean it’s a bit early to say if you two will be on the team…
It won’t be official until next year to June. You just never know what’s going to happen in this sport. This season still has so much to go. The competition is fierce. But we’re just the type to keep our heads down, keep the bar high, have this goal. This means so much more than just playing. For me it’s for my family. It’s for the fact that you set something and you want to accomplish it. That’s what drives me.
Sounds like you’re in a good place right now.
Yes. If it all comes together and we’re at the Olympics [next summer] it will be beautiful.