Volleyball’s accidental pioneer leads path into Hall of Fame

Vale Savege’s efforts to bring gender equality to the sport of volleyball have been recognized internationally and by the Canadian Volleyball Hall of Fame.

On June 20, Savege will be honoured close to home as she's inducted into the Coquitlam Sports Hall of Fame for her longtime contributions to the court sport as a player, coach and official.

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But perhaps Savege’s most significant volleyball achievement was the result of a mistake.

In 1981, Savege became the first woman to officiate an international volleyball match when an organizer of a Japanese tournament thought her name was a man's. When she reported to collect her uniform, organizers realized their error but it was too late to deny her services.

Savege was assigned five of the event’s lesser matches but, she said, the first stone had been cast into volleyball’s patriarchal pond that would slowly ripple out to advance more women into the sport’s officiating ranks.

“I felt I was opening the road to women,” Savege said.

It was a long road and Savege had found it blocked several times, and in several sports, since she grew up in Thunder Bay, Ont.

A fraternal twin, Savege said she tried keeping up with her very athletic brother, Gayle, but in the 1940s, organized sports for girls were largely lacking. In high school, she discovered track and field and became accomplished enough in hurdles and high jump that she was recruited to join an elite club in Don Mills after she graduated.

Savege headed south to the Toronto suburb but an injury and loneliness from being away from home steered her to try team sports like basketball and volleyball. She was good enough that the club teams she played for went to national championships and stoked her dream to someday represent Canada in international competition.

To raise her game further, Savege headed west to hook up with the renowned Vancouver Molsons basketball program.

She was good enough to put on Canadian red and white shirt when she had a successful tryout for the national team that played at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg. Two years later, she was playing for the national volleyball team when she met her husband, Dale, who was also an accomplished volleyball player.

After moving back to Toronto, starting careers as an accountant and mother, Savege packed away her knee pads and began coaching with her husband at the University of Toronto from 1973 to ’75.

A job transfer sent them west again, where the couple founded the varsity volleyball program at Simon Fraser University in 1976. Savege also secured her official's certification, working games at the provincial and national levels.

Still, she said, she was an outlier, as the baselines and net perch were largely the domain of men.

“It’s just been the routine,” Savege said of the gender imbalance.

Changing that wasn’t easy.

In Japan, Savege said she felt the pressure of being the first female official.

“It was very stressful,” she said. “I was very nervous. I didn’t want to make a mistake.”

Savege said volleyball has been slow to embrace gender equity in its ranks of officials. Just four women were amongst 20 referees assigned to the volleyball tournament at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“Volleyball is very stop-and-go, and it’s felt sometimes the women can’t be in control of their emotions,” Savege said.

Working her way up to becoming an officials supervisor for Volleyball Canada has helped Savege debunk that perception, and in 2000, she was the first female official to be named a lifetime member of the sport’s national governing body.

Along the way, Savege also kept her hand in coaching and playing. She guided the girls’ team at Centennial secondary school that won provincial gold, silver and bronze medals during her tenure between 1991 and ’97, and she also participated as an athlete in the provincial Senior Games.

Now 78 years old and still active in slo-pitch and pickleball, Savege said her journey through volleyball has followed an interesting road, driven by her passion for the sport.

“I always appreciated a good official that understands the game’s spirit,” she said. “You want to be fair, so that when a player leaves the court, they feel like they did their best under the rules.”

More inductees

Also being inducted in Thursday’s gala ceremonies at the Poirier Sport and Leisure Complex are:

• The late Daniel Strain, as a builder, for his volunteer efforts with youth sports, including soccer, gymnastics and swimming, as well as his 20-year commitment to the Dogwood Pavilion dragon boating team that won 24 gold medals during his tenure until he passed away last year.

• John Allen, who led the Coquitlam Adanacs lacrosse team for nine years after he returned to the city from playing semi-pro in Quebec.

• Karin Larsen, a member of Canada’s national synchronized swimming team that won a world championship in Madrid in 1986 and competed at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

• Mike Mahovlich, a javelin thrower who represented Canada at several international competitions, including the 1987 world championships and the ’88 Summer Olympics.

Wall honours 2018 achievements

Several athletes, volunteers and coaches will also be presented with Wall of Fame awards for their accomplishments last year:

• Larkyn Austman, figure skating

• Mathew Barzal, hockey

• Zachary Curtis, curling

• Christian Del Bianco, lacrosse

• Justina DiStasio, wrestling

• Elaine Goodman, field hockey volunteer

• Jasmine Lew, track and field

• Kyle Mills, wrestling

• Larry Moro, soccer coach

• Michael North, soccer

• Stephanie Papillo, synchronized swimming

• Grayson Parkin, basketball

• Matteo Polisi, soccer, 

• Danae Robillard, soccer

• Addy Townsend, track and field

• Olivia Willett, track and field

• Centennial secondary girls soccer team

The Coquitlam Sports Hall of Fame induction event June 20 at the Poirier Sport and Leisure Complex begins at 7 p.m. and limited tickets are available for $20 plus service charges. For more information, go to www.coquitlamshof.com.

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