By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Winning Pan American Games medals in a soccer stadium car park was still a thrill for Brazilian beach volleyballers on Tuesday but the dream of playing at next year's Rio Olympics on the sacred sands of Copacabana remains the ultimate goal.
The atmosphere inside the temporary arena pulsated with a beach volleyball vibe but competing beside the home of Major League Soccer's Toronto FC hardly comes close to matching the breathtaking backdrop seen at the sport's spiritual home.
In a year's time, BMO Field will be replaced by Sugar Loaf mountain and the statue of Christ the Redeemer will gaze down upon the Olympic action as waves crash onto one of the world's most famous beaches.
"It means my dream, my dream to be in the Olympic Games and if we can play on Copacabana it would be the biggest dream of my life," Lili Maestrini told Reuters after she and partner Carolina Horta beat Canada in the bronze medal game.
"It is like this crowd always full and they cheer for every team with their heart. It is one of the best places to practice and play."
If the sport did not instantly spring to mind at the mere mention of Rio de Janeiro, amble along the Copacabana boardwalk on any given day and you will see plenty of fit and tanned young people enjoying games of beach volleyball.
The compatriots of those seaside sportsmen and women have returned home from every Pan Am Games with beach volleyball medals and no country has won more Olympic medals in the sport than Brazil.
However, there was no gold for Brazil in Toronto as Mexico's Juan Virgen and Rodolfo Ontiveros upset Vitor Aruajo and Alvaro Magliano in the men's final to deny the 2016 Olympic hosts a third straight title, while the women had to settle for bronze.
"We tried today to play with our heart and with big emotions like how Brazilians play every time," Maestrini lamented. "We are a good team, we are growing."
The Copacabana mystique is not lost on the young Canadian duo Melissa Humana-Paredes and Taylor Pischke, who plan on hitting the Brazilian beach next summer.
"I really want to be able to go to Copacabana and represent Canada there because that is the home of the sport I love, it is the birthplace of it and people their appreciate it so much," Humana-Paredes said.
"They love it," she added.
"It will be a different environment from here. Here a lot of people have never really seen beach volleyball or appreciated it and this was their opportunity to appreciate the beauty and atmosphere and experience an amazing sport."
(Editing by John O'Brien)