by Michael Grange
When Melissa Humana-Paredes (BA ’17) was deciding where to go to university, York was not initially her first choice. It wasn’t because the volleyball program wasn’t up to snuff for the future Olympian, or because the school itself was too intimidating or unfamiliar.
In fact, it was the opposite.
For the Canadian beach volleyball star, York University was – quite literally – home. She learned to ride her bike there. Some of her earliest memories are of having the run of the place on weekends: going for a swim at the recreation centre, shooting hoops at the Tait McKenzie Centre or running around and making mischief with her brother at sporting events. The Keele Campus was in her blood.
“I knew it like the back of my hand. I grew up there,” Humana-Paredes told me over a Zoom call from Jurmala, Latvia. She was on the Beach Pro Tour, keeping sharp with an eye toward representing Canada at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, as she did at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, where she finished fifth with former partner Sarah Pavan.
Her father, Hernan Humana, is an associate lecturer in the Faculty of Health in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science. The former Chilean national was himself a York grad, a former Lion, and served as head coach and assistant coach for the women’s and men’s volleyball programs, respectively, over his more than 40-year association with the school. He was also a residence don at Founders College when Melissa and her older brother Felipe – who also played volleyball for the Lions – were youngsters. She remembers taking in movie nights in residence and interacting with students who seemed cool, mature, and sophisticated to an eight-year-old.
“I got to live campus life as a kid, and it was honestly the best childhood ever,” she says.
But when it came time to choose where to go to school and play volleyball, she wasn’t so sure. The thought of trying something new and different loomed large; Western and Queen’s were possibilities. There was even some consideration of playing volleyball at a school in the United States, but York it was.
“York just made the most sense – it checked a lot of boxes,” she says. “And I remember being a tiny bit resentful, like, ‘I don’t know if this would have been my number one choice, just because I wanted a different experience.’
I think that’s why I feel so connected to the school. Because I feel like it shaped me when I was a really young kid trying different things and learning what life is about
However, within the first week of being there, during frosh week and meeting the team and being in my own dorm, I knew that it was the best decision for me.”
Over a four-year career beginning with the 2010-11 season, Humana-Paredes was a three-time OUA all-star. She was an All-Canadian in 2012, the same year she was named York’s female athlete of the year as she worked toward a degree in communications studies.
“I have so many great memories of that team. One, we were a phenomenal group in terms of performance; I think we were incredible,” she says. “But the main thing that I always remember and really value from my experience there was the group of girls and the experiences of the team off the court. Those are the reasons why they’re my best friends, still to this day. We have a true sisterhood.”
The relationships endure. Humana-Parades’s new partner as she takes aim at the 2024 Games is former York U teammate Brandie Wilkerson (BA ’15), herself a 2020 Olympian.
There is some irony to the fact that, as Humana-Paredes has thrived on the global athletic stage, her time at York has become even more cherished.
“I think that’s why I feel so connected to the school. Because I feel like it shaped me when I was a really young kid trying different things and learning what life is about, and then again at a very formative time when you’re becoming an adult and trying to figure out who you are and create your path.… It’s really meaningful.”
The path takes her everywhere. There are no complaints – travelling the world to play volleyball in the sun and sand in what is now her third Olympic cycle beats most nine-to-fives. And, knowing that it’s not a career that can go on indefinitely, she’s made a point to soak in the local culture wherever she visits, scoping out restaurants and looking for opportunities between travelling, training and competing to take time for a museum, gallery or walking tour.
But with a professional life that demands long periods far from friends and family, the decision to study and compete at York takes on a different meaning.
“It was actually a blessing, because my parents could come up if I ever needed anything, and they were there at all my games,” she says. “And right now, one of the hardest things I deal with is being away from home, so I’m glad that I had those years. They were the best years of my life – I can say that with complete confidence.” ■