Kiwi beach volleyballer Julia Tilley is finally touching the void. She is on track to be selected for the 2018 Commonwealth Games - where the sport will feature for the first time - and could also qualify for the world championships later this year.
Tilley has been New Zealand's top-ranked female player for the last three years, but has struggled to make an impact on the world stage.
That was mainly due to economic factors, as the cost of being on tour was prohibitive for players from this country. But the world tour has been significantly revamped, which has changed the equation for Tilley and her sporting partner Alice Bain.
The changes are two-fold. Tour events have been divided into five divisions (from just two previously), with the top ranked teams unable to compete in the one and two star events. This allows developing combinations to pick up valuable points and rankings, used to get into higher level tournaments. And even more significantly, the amount of world tour events in the southern hemisphere has increased, allowing a more realistic schedule.
"It's been massive for us - absolutely huge," said Tilley. "It's changed everything and suddenly having some success on the world stage is much more feasible. You play more, improve, get points, play more ... it's a positive cycle."
Despite New Zealand's climate and vast coastline, success in beach volleyball has been hard to come by. Glen and Reid Hamilton reached the 1996 Olympics but since then only the men's pairing of Kirk Pitman and Jason Lochhead and the female combination of Susan Blundell and Anna Harrison (top 40) have made a mark on the world stage.
"Typically, it has been really hard out there," said Tilley. "You can have the desire and the skill but there is so much more that goes into it. The teams from Europe and North America are often fulltime athletes, with coaches, managers and physios. But now we can compete; it's a lot different having to travel to Vietnam or Malaysia for events, compared to flying to Italy, Germany or Sweden for a tournament or being based in Europe for months at a time."
Tilley, 27, linked with Bain, 21, a year ago. They've achieved some positive results, including runner-up at a world tour event in Vietnam and a top 10 finish in Australia.
"We've got some real potential together," said Tilley. "Alice is very athletic with a big jump and good movement. I've got the court smarts and experience."
Tilley and Bain are also on track to gain selection for the Commonwealth Games. They are ranked fourth among Commonwealth nations, which, along with meeting NZOC targets at World Tour events, would gain tickets to the Gold Coast.
They plan to compete in 10 tournaments over the next four months. The climax will hopefully be the world championships in Austria in August, before a fulltime preparation bloc ahead of the Commonwealth Games.