Porto Santo, Madeira, Portugal, September 15, 2006 - Since the end of the 2003 SWATCH-FIVB World Tour season, the competitive life for Australia’s Natalie Cook and Nicole Sanderson has been filled with "up-and-downs" as the pair seeks to regain a spot on an international Beach Volleyball podium.
Cook and Sanderson ended the 2003 season with a bronze medal finish at the SWATCH-FIVB World Championships on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro where the Australians lost a three-set semi-final match to Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. The Americans eventually claimed the Rio world title before capturing the Athens 2004 Olympic gold medal.
Since the Brazilian finale in 2003, Cook and Sanderson have both struggled to recover from injuries, including shoulder surgeries that limited their participation in only 20 of the next 41 SWATCH-FIVB World Tour events. Cook's shoulder problems were apparent at the Athens Games where she just missed securing her third-straight Olympic medal by dropping both "final four" matches with Sanderson.
After winning 44 of their first 60 matches together in 2003 when Cook and Sanderson captured four bronze medals and five "final four" finishes in 11 SWATCH events, the Australians have posted a 42-38 mark in their next 19-plus FIVB starts with only one medal (2004 silver in Osaka, Japan).
One of their recent wins was here Friday as Cook and Sanderson won their opening elimination match in the US$200,000 Porto Santo Line/TMN Open by defeating 11th-seeded Simone Kuhn and Lea Schwer of Switzerland 16-21, 21-17 and 15-13. The 12th-seeded Aussies now play fourth-seeded Xue Chen and Zhang Xi of China in their next match Friday afternoon.
"It has not been a pretty picture for us the past three seasons," said the 30-year old Sanderson, who missed a chance to participate in the Sydney 2000 Olympics when she was sidelined with knee surgery two months before the Summer Games in her home country.
"Both Nat and I are in better physical shape this season, but we have really struggled on the sand," Sanderson. "We have been inconsistent. We practice hard to improve one area of our game, and in the next tournament, some other area is hurting our play. We just can’t find our groove and it was driving us nuts."
With their "game out-of-sync," Cook and Sanderson are looking for a new coach after ending their relationship with Steve Anderson. Cook had been with Anderson through three Olympics, including the 1996 and 2000 Games where she captured the bronze medal in Atlanta and the gold medal in Sydney with Kerri Pottharst.
"It was really a hard decision to let Steve go, especially for Natalie," said Sanderson. "He had been coaching Natalie for a long-time. Steve’s coaching methods were not going to change. We thought we needed a change since we felt the game is different now than when he started coaching us in 2003. Steve’s a great coach and person, but we needed this change to prepare for the start of the next Olympic qualifying process in 2007."
Since Anderson's departure following last month's SWATCH grand slam stop in Klagenfurt, Austria, Cook and Sanderson spent time training in Brisbane with Steve Tutton, the head of the Australia National Beach Volleyball program before heading off to participate last week in a Brazilian domestic event in Fortaleza where they placed fifth.
"We had a good week with Tutton and his efforts helped us to a good finish in Brazil," said Sanderson. "We have a great deal of respect for Tutton as he has been associated with Australian Beach Volleyball for a long time. He presented us some new ideas about the game."
In Brazil, Cook and Sanderson finally defeated Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede for the first-time. The two teams met 11 times on the SWATCH-FIVB World Tour with the Brazilians winning each match. Adriana and Shelda are two-time SWATCH-FIVB World Champions (1999 and 2001) and two-time Olympic silver medalists (2000 and 2004). The Brazilians are the winningest team in international history with 31 titles, $2,106,765 in earnings and a 553-120 match mark.