Interview with Jessica Grimson - England Beach Volleyball Player
Jessica Grimson is an England Beach Volleyball Player in preparation for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, and a trained Sports Therapist. We interviewed Jessica to find out about her relationship with AECC University College as she works alongside our School of Rehabilitation, Sport and Psychology, and our Human Performance Lab facility, to undertake elite level testing in support of her athletic pursuits.
Can you tell us about your athletic career to date?
“I started playing volleyball when I was 13 years old. My secondary school teacher used to play for England and she pioneered for volleyball to be added into the physical education (PE) curriculum across a number of schools.
“I sometimes get to attend sporting events and award evenings, and there was one where I won a champions race (which is the most points accumulated in the year for the sport), and my secondary school teacher was literally right at the front with her phone cheering me on – that was a very proud moment for us both.
“I owe her completely as I didn’t even know about the sport until she bought it to my attention. I grew up in Leeds and had been interested in pursuing a sporting career in football. I wanted to go to America and complete a scholarship, but when she introduced me to volleyball, it grabbed my attention – it was the hardest sport I had ever tried and this was exciting to me.
“It was the only sport I'd ever played that I didn’t pick up straight away. To go from a sport where you use your feet and absolutely not your hands, to a sport where you use your hands and absolutely not your feet, for me it was a very weird transition. I continued to play it, and hated it at the same time, but I wanted to get better. So, I went to every volleyball club, every after-school club and joined the local teams.
“When I was 15 years old I got into the England junior set up team which clashed quite heavily with the football I was doing. I balanced both until I was 16 years old and then decided to focus solely on volleyball to see where it could take me.
“I went to college on a sports scholarship programme in Chester and then went to Bath University based purely on volleyball, as the GB programme was based there. I moved to Bath to study and then I used to travel down to Bournemouth a couple of times a week to play for the local indoor team. A girl I regularly played with was based in Bournemouth, so when I graduated I decided to move to the area permanently. We played domestically and when we got to a point where we were comfortably winning every tournament in the UK, we decided to see how we'd fare going abroad.
“There's a volleyball tour called NEVZA, which is the North European Volleyball Zonal Association, which is a competition we performed well in, so we then had our eyes on bigger international tournaments. This took us to 2017, and there was a qualification process for the Commonwealth Games. By this point we were four-time national champions, and we were pretty much unchallenged in the UK, but we knew we'd have to put ourselves ‘out there’ and play a lot of international tournaments in order to have a good chance in the Commonwealth Games. That year alone we played around 14 consecutive events in places such as China, Korea, Switzerland and America, and we had to be within the top four world rankings in the UK for the Commonwealth Games… We finished fourth and qualified.
“We found this out in October of 2017 and the Commonwealth Games were in April 2018, so I quit my job and my volleyball partner took sabbatical leave, and we both focused on training full time. We were then based in America where we played tournaments and then eventually went to the Commonwealth Games in April 2018 and placed fifth out of 12 teams.
“After that, we played in Rwanda in August 2018. We then played in the world tour tournament and won a bronze medal, which is the first world tour we had ever done. It was the second time ever that a medal had been won by a British team in the history of beach volleyball, so that was a really big win for us.”
How are you preparing in your goal for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games?
“As you can imagine, covid-19 has really affected our ability to fully train, travel and compete in the lead-up to the 2022 Commonwealth Games, but before the pandemic hit at the end of 2019, I had been in conversations with another volleyball player that I was aware of called Daisy Mumby and the prospect of teaming up. We are not funded or financially supported by an organisation, so I had to really emphasise the financial sacrifice of partnering/competing at this level. It was a big ask, but equally, the opportunity of potentially qualifying for bigger and better games as an athlete is huge. At the time, she was training in Brazil, so I flew out to Brazil to meet and train with her.
“I knew she had a lot of work to do, but I could gage that she was willing to do it; she had the right attitude and was very self-motivated. We came back to the UK from Brazil and were ready to get going with our first domestic season together. We managed to train together twice and then covid struck. I was very fortunate being based in Bournemouth that I could still train at the beach. Fast forward a year, we have since played eight tournaments and won seven of them.”
How is AECC University College supporting you?
“We self-fund this career, meaning we don't get any financial help or support, so I had previously contacted AECC University College Clinic to enquire about imaging services and whether they could support me. I am always injured, and this time I had damaged my finger and it wasn't healing, so I came to the clinical services at AECC University College to have some scans. It turns out the end of my bone wasn't healing and there was blood in the joint, which is why it was swelling. Even knowing things like that, we would normally have to pay for ourselves, so this really helped me out.
“This then opened the door to further support, which would benefit my training and AECC University College’s testing and research. Phill Heritage, Course Lead for the BSc (Hons) Sport, Exercise and Health Science degree at AECC University College and Lecturer in Physiology and Health, as well as the coordinator of the University College’s on-site Sport Performance Centre, has since been working with myself and Daisy on the physiology side of things and testing in this area. We have come onto the AECC UC campus to undertake VO2 Max (a maximal exercise test performed on a treadmill or bike while connected to a machine capable of analysing your expired air) and lactate threshold testing (the level at which the intensity of exercise causes lactate to accumulate in the blood at a faster rate than it can be removed). This has been really good as we have been able to direct our strength and conditioning training, for example, if a weakness is highlighted. We can work specifically on that area. On top of that, it helps us to be the best we can be, and especially in a sport where every 1% of help we can get is a massive help. The stats and information that AECC University College offers is not something we've ever had access to, and it's always been a massive support.”
Can you tell us about the specialist equipment you are using here as part of your training and how this is aiding your performance?
“We have undertaken the Wingate test (an anaerobic exercise test performed on a stationary bicycle that measures peak anaerobic power and anaerobic capacity) and had two lactate threshold and VO2 tests on the treadmill. Phill is also looking at using the isokinetic machine for resistance-based exercises and testing power output when isolating a movement or a flexion/extension, as well as VertiMax (vertical jump training). This is more specific to volleyball for us – how high we can jump, the better.
How does the AECC University College treadmill differ from you using an average gym treadmill?
“The treadmill links up to a heart monitor – you wear a heart rate strap and it instantly connects to produce readings. A computer screen attaches to the treadmill and it has oxygen and carbon dioxide tubes attached – you run wearing a mask and this measures your carbon dioxide, oxygen levels and heart rate, all of which transfer into data and information that can be analysed and interpreted to inform an individual’s fitness performance. This is different to your average treadmill as you don’t usually look to measure heart rate and oxygen levels on a normal treadmill.”
What’s next for you in your athletic career?
“The focus at the moment is inevitably very Commonwealth Games driven. Time frame wise this is a mid-term goal; the short-term goal however is to get on the international circuit and see how we fare. I am currently playing a whole new type of volleyball with Daisy because she's so tall. My old partner was roughly the same height as me, whereas Daisy is so tall and can offer so much physically. It’s allowed us to play differently and for me specifically, play a whole new type of defense within our game. I think she's probably the biggest blocker English volleyball has ever had.
“There’s also the European Volleyball Championship in 2023 and after that there is the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour. The goal of competing in the Olympics will always be there for any professional athlete, but I’m not at a stage in my life where I can drop everything and train for the Olympics, as everything I do is based around my job and my life. We are just doing the best that we can right now, with the time and resources that we have.”
AECC University College wishes Jessica and Daisy the very best of luck as they progress in their professional volleyball career and compete at the Commonwealth Games this year. We have valued the opportunity to be a part of this journey with you.
Want to learn what it means to study Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences? Then take a look at the courses we offer at AECC University College. Discover our evidence-based, practical approach to improving elite sport, sports performance, public health, and the wellbeing of the population.