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If Cinja Tillmann’s beach volleyball career were to be compared to a roller-coaster, the last two years would certainly be the highest point of it.

After 12 years of some ups and many downs, the German star is proud of what she’s been able to accomplish on the sand, but at the same time hopes that the actual peak is still yet to come with her first appearance at the Olympic Games later this year in Paris.

The 32-year-old Tillmann first appeared at the international scene in 2009, competing at the U20 European Championships. She came back to win the event in 2010 and, two years later made her FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour debut, failing to advance from three qualifiers.

After a full decade, nine partners and two victories in minor tournaments, things started to change in 2022, when partner Svenja Müller and her won the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Ostrava Elite16 and followed it up with a bronze medal at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships.

In 2023, they won their second-straight German title and also delivered at the international level, taking silver at the Beach Pro Tour Finals and claiming bronze in front of their home fans at the Hamburg Elite16 to establish themselves among the top teams on the planet.

“The last two years have been the best of my career,” Tillmann reflected in an exclusive interview with Volleyball World. “Svenja and I took bronze at the World Championships in 2022 and that was certainly the best tournament of our lives. I think that some players may need some more time to develop and that’s what happened with me. Now I just want to keep working and going forward.”

Between 2012 and 2021, Tillmann had nine different partners, but didn’t get to play with any of them for more than eight international events. With Müller, she got to compete in 20 tournaments over the last two years, making it to the podium in five of them and securing top-ten finishes in half of that total.

“Svenja has been able to develop a lot earlier than I did and I’m happy that I found her and that I get to play with her,” the German explained. “The first thing that I noticed about her was how well she moved on the court despite her height. Her game was so smooth and she was already hand-setting so well. After two years with her, it still amazes me how quickly she continues to improve.”

Paired with the 1.92m-tall Müller, Tillmann was finally able to fully switch to defense and work exclusively on her game on the backcourt. The dedication has made of her one of the top defenders in international volleyball.

Having a full-time blocker at the net wasn’t the only change that the partnership with Müller brought to her. The 22-year-old blocker is also easily the youngest partner Tillmann has ever had in her career and the combination between the two has been working very well.

“I don’t think anyone around us would think I’m ten years older than her,” she said, laughing. “Visually, it doesn’t look like that and I don’t think that our conversations show that either. The age difference was never a factor in our team. We’re competing together for the same goals and everyone has their part in it. It’s been working well so far.”

But it hasn’t always been a bed of roses for Tillmann. Besides having had to deal with multiple partner switches over the years, she also had to handle injuries, another relatively common challenge for beach volleyball players.

The biggest challenge of her career, she says, was between 2019 and 2020, when then-partner Kim van de Velde and her couldn’t play in international tournaments due to a decision of the German Federation, despite having taken silver at the 2020 European Championship.

“The two years in which I wasn’t allowed to play internationally were really tough,” Tillmann recalled. “My partner Kim and I had to fight a lot for ourselves and those were probably the two years in which I learned the most about myself and about how hard two people can battle not only opponents on the court together, but really anything.”

The situation prevented Tillmann and her partner from attempting to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, as they were sidelined during the vast majority of the tournaments held during the qualification period.

Over the next few months, she will have an opportunity to definitely leave it in the past as Müller and her attempt to book their tickets to Paris. Currently in seventh place in the FIVB Provisional Olympic Rankings, the Germans are in a comfortable position to qualify, but they won’t relax until it’s done.

“Every player dreams about playing at the Olympics,” Tillmann remarked. “It will be great if we qualify, but there’s a lot to happen still in the qualification period and several tournaments for us to play before that happens.”

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