By David Song, July 5 2020 —
The Bethmuda Triangle is headed to Finland.
After playing five years with the University of Calgary Dinos, Beth Vinnell will embark on the next phase of her volleyball career in Northern Europe. The Cochrane, Alberta native announced the signing of her first professional contract on June 8 over social media. If all goes according to plan, Vinnell is bound for Salo, Finland in August, becoming a member of LP Viesti.
Vinnell graduated with a double major in education and kinesiology this spring and wants to become a high school Phys. Ed. teacher in the long run. Yet, playing pro volleyball has always been a dream for the former Dino.
“I would beat myself up if I didn’t try it out,” she admitted.
Outside of missing the 2016-17 campaign with injuries, Vinnell has been a tower of strength along the Dinos front row. The 6-foot-2 middle blocker finished her university career with 1224 points, 930 kills, 380 total blocks and 288 digs. In 2017-18, Vinnell achieved a Canada West-leading .443 hitting percentage (well ahead of second-place Aidan Lea’s .336) and came fourth in blocks per set with 1.19. She led the division in hitting percentage (.382) the following season as well.
Vinnell has thus earned the trust of head coach Natalie Gurnsey, the respect of her peers, and one of the most unique nicknames in Canada West. Years ago, she received a postgame text from fellow middle Autumn Davidson, who had watched the game from home due to an injury.
“Oh my gosh,” Vinnell recalls Davidson saying. “[Dinos play-by-play commentator] Jeremy Lee was calling you ‘the Bethmuda Triangle, where volleyballs go to disappear’ every time you got a block.”
Lee has remained consistent with his use of the moniker, just as Vinnell has remained consistent as one of the Dinos’ top threats.
“She is a notoriously excellent blocker,” said outside hitter Adriel Goodman, who transferred from the College of the Rockies to become Vinnell’s teammate for three years. “It makes sense that they would come up with some sort of mythological reasoning for it.”
Goodman is no stranger to idiosyncratic nicknames herself. Her Instagram handle is “Slaydriel,” an epithet coined by a regional broadcaster during her first year of college volleyball. Goodman is a little self-conscious of the moniker, and remembers how her Calgary teammates initially reacted to it.
“Who is this girl?” they said to themselves. “Who does she think she is, coming onto this team with a name like that?”
Yet, Slaydriel stuck, as did the Bethmuda Triangle. Over time, the Dinos and their communities have rallied around both nicknames as a source of pride.
The most important community in Vinnell’s life is her family. Her parents are teachers: father Brad and mother Nada both attended the University of Calgary. Vinnell’s younger brother, Zach, is himself a varsity athlete, playing defence for the Merrimack College Warriors hockey team.
Brad Vinnell looks back fondly to the days when his children were small. Beth and Zach became infamous for sneaking into their dad’s team photographs (Brad coaches youth volleyball) when they were as young as four years old. Many such photos decorate the Vinnell household as a monument to the children’s lifelong interest in sport.
Vinnell, who was always one of the tallest kids in her class, started dancing at a young age. Before long, her parents realized that should their daughter fall out of love with dance, her newly acquired training and body control might benefit her in sports.
They were right.
It began when Vinnell was still in elementary school. Brad, who was teaching at St. Vincent de Paul School at the time, arranged for his daughter to begin practicing with the junior high girls volleyball team. Before long, Vinnell was in junior high herself and her dad was also her coach. Although that relationship was admittedly “awkward” at times, Brad praised his daughter’s overall maturity level.
“She wasn’t a little prima donna,” he said. “She just wanted to learn the game and, you know, showed respect for her teammates, for the game and for me. It was an awesome experience being able to coach her those years.”
In grade seven, Vinnell was already skilled enough to play a prominent role on her team alongside older girls in grades eight and nine. We all know how mean junior high girls can be, but Vinnell won over her teammates with a combination of talent, work ethic and kindness—yes, kindness.
“Compassion and empathy, and just kindness are probably her three main attributes,” Brad said of his daughter. “In high-level sports, you expect [people] to be really ruthless, and a shark, and just in your face, but she’s able to walk that line. Most people that have ever coached her have said that about her. [Beth] is a really sweet, kind person, and shows that in all the different things that she does.”
As a reliable teammate and a compassionate human being, Vinnell has long been a rock that her peers can lean on. Her calming influence has impacted many a fellow Dino, including Goodman, who transferred to Calgary with a wealth of then-untapped potential.
Upon arrival, Goodman promptly set a new Dinos program record for highest spike touch at 10’2” (a mark she would later raise to 10’3”). She had a lanky 6-foot frame and all the raw athleticism you need, but those traits came with a lack of experience and refinement. Goodman had not expected to continue with volleyball after her stint at College of the Rockies, and initially struggled to match the skill level of her Dinos peers.
“I went from being, like, a stud, second-team all-star, to: ‘you do not practice’ because ‘stop ruining the drills’,” Goodman recalls with an embarrassed laugh. “It was a huge wakeup call.”
Redshirting her first season in Calgary, Goodman credits Gurnsey and assistant coach Al Taylor for overhauling her game. After transitioning from left-side to right-side, the late bloomer from Burton, B.C. found her groove as a hard-hitting flamethrower. 146 of Goodman’s 180 career kills—and 58 of her 67 total blocks—came in her fifth year. And she is one of many to have benefited from playing alongside Vinnell.
“I’ve never really seen [Beth] get really angry, or kind of like, irrational,” Goodman said. “She’s so steadfast [as a blocker], and because you know what she’s going to do, it makes it really easy to play next to her. And then, she was super welcoming when I came in. It’s a very intimidating team to be walking into.”
Everyone who knows Vinnell is confident that she has the qualities needed to be a successful professional athlete. She is a leader, on and off the court. She pushes her teammates and knows how to enjoy the process. She makes wise decisions, redshirting 2016-17 in order to rehab injuries to her back and knee. She also brings a winning pedigree as part of the squad that won a Canada West Championship in 2018.
Vinnell’s boyfriend, former Dinos setter Blain Cranston, feels that one of Vinnell’s best attributes is her ability to block out the noise—no pun intended. “Beth has this gift to go and play without thinking about stuff too much,” he said. “It’s like, such an amazing thing for her, and allows her to play so free, and is a huge reason why she’s so good at [volleyball].”
Cranston has already walked the path that Vinnell is preparing to take—he has played professionally for German club United Volleys Frankfurt since 2019. As a self-professed over-thinker, Cranston praises Vinnell for showing him how to be more relaxed and loose on the court. He believes that those traits are bound to serve her well overseas.
In fact, it was Cranston who helped Vinnell get in touch with her agent, Matt Hender, a former University of Regina setter from Perth. Hender, a friend of one of Cranston’s Australian teammates, now runs a German-based management agency called Volleylink. After spending some time looking into bigger agencies this year, Vinnell realized that Volleylink was a great fit for her.
“I think there’s so many big agencies where the players just kind of become a number in the system,” she said. “I wanted to be able to work with someone smaller if I could. [Volleylink] was kind of perfect, exactly what I was looking for.”
Vinnell signed on with Hender, and he went to work, distributing her game tapes to his connections throughout North America and Europe. The process was slow. After all, COVID-19 had left many teams in tenuous financial predicaments with their upcoming seasons in doubt. Vinnell remained patient, and eventually Volleylink approached her with offers from LP Viesti and another club in Poland.
Hender recommended LP Viesti. In his opinion, it would be a better fit in terms of experience level and role on the team. While Vinnell is still expected to contribute on the court in Finland, she would have more room to develop as an athlete compared to the high-pressure, high-performance environment of Poland. Trusting Hender’s judgment, Vinnell accepted the Finnish offer.
LP Viesti, also known as LP SALO, was founded on February 28, 2008. Located in a southwestern Finnish town of roughly 52,300 people, the team has won nine Finnish championships to go with 10 victories and five silver medals in the Finnish Cup. Vinnell is scheduled to join at least two Europeans, Iina Andrikopoulou and Anna Syrjälä, as the newest members of head coach Tomi Lemminkäinen’s squad.
Cranston has tried to give Vinnell useful advice on playing abroad, everything from what to pack to how to get in shape. (Last year, he experienced firsthand how rigorous cardio demands can be at the professional level). With that said, Cranston believes his most valuable insight is mental, not physical.
“It’s how to approach life when the only thing you have to think about is volleyball,” he revealed. “Sure, you can travel a little bit, and that’s an amazing bonus, but when you have a bad practice and that results in you having a bad day, then it makes it pretty tough. You have to quickly separate volleyball and life, but once again, I think she’ll excel at that just because of the way she approaches the game.”
Ultimately, going pro is not for everyone. Goodman graduated alongside Vinnell this spring and is content with what she has already achieved in volleyball. She intends to put her chemistry degree to use, potentially as a firearms lab technician with the Calgary Police Service. Goodman also hopes to travel the world, COVID-permitting, of course.
For their part, Brad Vinnell and his wife Nada have often reminded their kids that there is more to life than just being an athlete. There is no need to continue if sport is no longer fun or enjoyable. They have already learned so much, and accomplished so much.
“The funny thing is, contrary to her beautiful, calm demeanour, [Beth] really gets pissed off at that,” Brad remarked. “It’s like, ‘no, I’ll quit when I want to quit, and I want to keep playing’. You know, that fire is still burning. For her, it’s a lifestyle.”