If you could imagine your ideal city, what would it be like?
Holtwick: As great as Berlin, but with less traffic.
Semmler: Berlin is pretty close to my ideal. I love big cities. You always get the chance to stumble across corners you have never seen before – even after living here for years. I never feel overwhelmed by the size of the city. Not everything is fancy, but people are very tolerant. Apart from the occasionally annoying traffic, this is a very pleasant metropolis to live in.
While you live and train in Berlin, you originally hail from North Rhine-Westphalia. Where do you feel truly at home?
Holtwick: I am rooted in North Rhine-Westphalia, but absolutely at home in Berlin now. My husband and I will definitely spend the next few years here.
Semmler: I feel the same. I feel very much at home in Berlin and would love to stay here for the near future. I also have strong roots in North Rhine-Westphalia where I spent my first 18 years. I do have ties to the region, but they are mostly to do with my parents and childhood home. By now, my life centers around Berlin.
Do you remember what brought you to beach volleyball in the first place?
Holtwick: Back then, my home team had a relatively large beach volleyball set-up, quite surprisingly for the times. So, it became the done thing to spend your school break outside playing beach volleyball – the gyms we used for team practice were closed for the vacation anyway. This turned out to be fun, and successful, straight away. I was hooked. Things were always looking up, somehow, which I am really grateful for. It helps you to stick with one sport while learning a new variant a lot more quickly than you might have thought.
What about beach volleyball’s slightly cooler image? Did this sway your decision?
Semmler: Personally speaking, I simply feel more at home in the sand and quickly realized that I was even better outside than indoors. And with six people playing indoor matches, there is always the danger of getting relegated to the bench, something I have always hated – I always wanted to play. Naturally, the two-person beach set-up adds to the pressure, but you learn to deal with it.
As the sport allows no substitutes, you really have to depend on your partner, no matter what. Are you always on the same page?
Holtwick: Communication is key in such a beach volleyball partnership. Ilka and I get along very well and that is important to both of us. But that’s not the only way it works – people who don’t necessarily like each other can still communicate effectively. There are some teams out there like that who are quite successful.
How does this communication work in practice? How much of it is strategic, how much based on intuition?
Semmler: Before the match, we always have a plan. Our trainer scouts for us and watches other games. He can tell us a specific player’s strengths and weaknesses. Then, we adjust our tactics accordingly. Of course, this doesn’t always work. That’s the tricky part of beach volleyball – recognizing when to change tactics without a coach and how to adjust your game. That’s where communications come in. You use the occasional time-out to discuss a few moves. Otherwise, this needs to happen between digs and sets. Sometimes, a long-time team only needs a word or two to get the essentials across. It tends to work pretty well.
You made your passion your profession. Does the sport ever get on your nerves?
Holtwick: There are always phases – especially after an extended season – when you find yourself looking forward to the break from playing and daily practice. But I guess that’s normal – any 9-5 worker feels the same.
Semmler: And then there all the great rewards. We get to see so much of the world! Not necessarily during tournament season, since it involves constant travel and little time to explore those countries and cities, but we get to choose where to train and prepare. This year, we picked Cape Town and had an amazing time! Those are the times that remind us what an amazing job we have.
Do you prefer playing on actual beaches or in a city, like here in Berlin?
Semmler: Both have their own appeal and I would find it hard to pick just one. And there are relatively few beach tournaments on the schedule. Generally speaking, matches on the beach are somewhat less predictable because the weather can change very quickly. This seems to happen less often in the city. Then again, natural beaches have their own flair. You also get a different audience in cities. More people pop in, sit down for ten minutes, and leave again. I guess both options work, in their own way, and both are fun!
Are there different types of sand? Do you find soft sand easier to play or more motivating, for example?
Holtwick: Yes, there are different types of sand! But with a little training it doesn’t take long to adjust; you might tweak your jumping patterns and timing, and then everything works just the same.
Semmler: It is definitely more fun to play on beautiful soft sand. Occasionally, the sand is dirty or full of shells – at other times, we play on construction sand. So, the right kind of sand can certainly be a motivating factor.
What about your favorite tournament?
Holtwick: One of the most beautiful tournaments – and a relatively new addition to the list – takes place in Long Beach, USA. And our home town tournament, here in Berlin, is always a very special occasion.
What’s next on your athletic agenda? Maybe the 2016 Olympics?
Semmler: The Olympics are right at the top of any athlete’s list. That’s an incredible highlight. In our discipline, the qualification period is very long, lasting one and a half years. So, it is still a long way to 2016. Other goals are more immediate: Right now, we have a bit of a dry spell, so we are aiming to get back on track. We already won a medal at the Prague tournament and want to achieve more top 5 placements at the Grand Slam tournaments. Last year, we proved that we can do it, so we want to do the same this year. Then, there are also the German Championships and we wouldn’t mind winning that one again! So, there is still a lot to be done.
So, who is going to win the World Cup?
Holtwick: Germany, of course! Playing the Netherlands in the finals.
Semmler: And we will win 6:5.
Interview: Alexandra Schade
Header image: At the smart Grand Slam Berlin 2013, photo: Daimler AG