TOKYO – The future of beach volleyball was shown on Monday morning (Sunday PT) in Shiokaze Park for the Olympic debut of Americans Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil.
Three of the four players in the US victory over Latvia came through an NCAA beach volleyball program that has only existed since 2012. El Dorado high-product Claes and Latvian Tina Graudina both went to USC, and Sponcil played for rival UCLA. (USC Trainer Dain Blanton, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist from Laguna Beach High and Pepperdine, worked on-court for NBC.)
For previous generations – like the other US women’s team, 39-year-old April Ross (Newport Harbor High, USC) and her 31-year-old partner Alix Klineman (Mira Costa High, Stanford) – college beach volleyball was not an option .
« I think a lot of athletes in the US are joining this younger generation because of the NCAA, which is super exciting, » said Claes after triumphing over her colleague Trojan and Anastasija Kravcenoka. « I’m really excited to see how this will make the sport grow. »
Ever since beach volleyball was added to the Olympic Games in 1996, it has relied on players who have moved to European or Brazilian professional leagues after indoor games in college and perhaps even beyond. But the NCAA beach volleyball programs gave Claes, 25, and Sponcil, 24 an option their predecessors didn’t have. (Men still don’t have a college beach program in the U.S.)
Americans are hoping an earlier start on the beach will help them dominate the sport again, as they did when Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor won Olympic gold medals three times in a row. In Rio de Janiero, Walsh Jennings and Ross won bronze for the only American medal – the worst US trophy of all time.
« It was really cool to see the beach volleyball pendulum shift around the world, » said Claes. “The US has been on the front lines for so long with Misty and Kerri. And then I think the rest of the world has caught up with us and passed us. With the NCAA there will be this huge new generation of great athletes. And I think we’re going to do this kind of push-back. »
Sponcil said growing up in Phoenix, younger girls would compete indoors at school and maybe only get a chance to play on the beach in the summer. There were no beach volleyball clubs in the area; now there are 10 or more.
“The girls start much younger. It’s crazy, ”she said. “And people just choose that as their sport. It’s really cool that so many girls go to the beach from the start, and they’ll be a lot better by the time they get into college and into professional life. »
And when she went to colleges, it was Claes who housed her and showed her around. She chose USC and led the Trojans to this year’s national championship; Claes and Sponcil won consecutive NCAA titles during their school years.
Despite being rivals on soccer weekends, it was Claes and Sponcil who teamed up to 21-13, 16-21, 15-11 win in their opener, scoring the last six points of the third set and with a small one Won USC victory. On-USC crime: A surge from Claes that bounced Graudina.
« We have lost to them the last two times (on the international tour) so a lot of vengeful thoughts went into the game, » said Claes. « But it was really exciting, a little nerve-wracking, to get into it. »
Ross and Klineman drove to a 21-17, 21-19 win over Chinese Xue Chen and Wang Xinxin in their Sunday (Saturday PT) opener.
Ross is making her third appearance at the Summer Games with her third partner. She has already won silver (2012 with Jennifer Kessy) and bronze (2016 with Walsh Jennings). Klineman makes her Olympic debut. They are among the favorites for the gold medal.
The US male pairing Jake Gibb and Tri Bourne looked in the 21:18, 21:19 win against the Italians Enrico Rossi and Adrian Ignacio Carambula Raurich in the opening game as if they had played together for years instead of two training sessions .
Bourne replaced Taylor Crabb, Gibbs partner for the past five years, after Crabb tested positive for COVID-19 upon arriving in Tokyo. Gibb and Bourne hadn’t played together before and only trained together twice before their opening game. Even so, they scored the first three points of the game and mastered Carambula’s skyball serve, which reached an estimated 55-foot height and spun with relative ease.
Gibb and Bourne will next meet Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan from Qatar, the second-placed team in the world.
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The four-time Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser had a difficult start in Tokyo.
The 2008 gold medalist is in modified quarantine as he is considered close contact with Crabb. Dalhausser sat near Crabb on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco before going to Japan.
Dalhausser and teammate Nick Lucena only trained together twice from their arrival in Tokyo until their opening game on Saturday.
The Americans lost to reigning bronze medalists Robert Meeuwsen and Alexander Brouwer from the Netherlands, 21-17, 21-18.
Next, Dalhausser and Lucena will meet Brazil’s two-time Olympic medalist Alison Cerutti (gold 2016, silver 2012) and Alvaro Morais Filho.
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