Will Kerri Walsh Jennings qualify for Tokyo? Olympic beach volleyball questions linger during break

Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
FIVB World Tour
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The race for beach volleyball spots was among the most compelling across U.S. Olympic qualifying when the coronavirus pandemic halted competition.

Kerri Walsh Jennings, the three-time gold medalist, and new partner Brooke Sweat held a small lead for the second and final women’s berth. Three men’s teams, including 2008 Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, were tightly battling for two spots.

It shaped up to be a pivotal spring. Now, uncertainty. Not only when will tournaments resume, but also how will the Olympic qualification process be amended.

Under the original rankings system, a team counted its top 12 finishes in tournaments from Sept. 1, 2018 to June 14, 2020. Nearly all of the top teams reached the 12-tournament minimum, meaning they were competing in 2020 to improve on their lowest results.

The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) has not announced what changes will be made now that the Olympics are postponed until 2021. Obstacles are plenty once sports resume, starting with rescheduling tournaments and/or determining a 2021 schedule.

“Is it going to be fewer events to qualify, or is it going to be more events to qualify?” NBC Olympics analyst Kevin Wong said. “There’s still a lot of question marks about that.”

Wong believes that Walsh Jennings might gain the most from the extra year. Even though, at 41, she is older than any previous Olympic beach volleyball player.

“In general, the delay helps the more mature athletes, the older athletes, and it hurts the younger athletes,” Wong said. “Older athletes, they know their bodies better. They’ve played more. There’s more muscle memory there and more in the data banks. So, they’re going to be able to refine.”

April Ross and Alix Klineman, the 2019 World silver medalists, had a nearly insurmountable cushion for the first of two U.S. Olympic spots when sports were halted.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat were in second place, 320 points ahead of Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil. Claes, 24, and Sponcil, 23, are closer in age to Walsh Jennings’ three children than the legend herself.

Top teams average more than 550 points per tournament. Claes and Sponcil benefit in that their 11th- and 12th-best scores (400 points each) are lower than those of Walsh Jennings and Sweat (480 points each). If and when Claes and Sponcil put up strong results in future tournaments, they would gain more points by throwing out lower scores.

“Sarah and Kelly, each tournament they’re learning new things,” Wong said. “This [canceling tournaments] is the kind of the thing where you’re taking away their biggest opportunities to grow and get better.”

The U.S. men’s standings:

Taylor Crabb/Jake Gibb — 6,680 points
Trevor Crabb/Tri Bourne — 6,360 points
Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena — 5,840 points (in 11 events)

The Crabbs are brothers who formerly played together. Gibb, 44, is three years older than the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player in history. Bourne, after just missing the Rio Olympics, went nearly two years between events due to an autoimmune disease.

Dalhausser, who earned gold with Todd Rogers in 2008, has been the top American for the last decade-plus. He mulled retirement in 2018. Dalhausser said last year that he planned to make 2020 his last international season.

Plans change.

“More than ever, this is a time where motivation becomes a thing,” Wong said.

If Dalhausser and Lucena move forward, they will likely pass Crabb and Bourne for second place once they play their 12th event in Olympic qualifying. Dalhausser and Lucena average 530 points per event. Adding another one of those would put them into second place by 10 points.

The Olympic favorites established themselves the last two seasons. Norwegians Anders Mol and Christian Sorum on the men’s side. Ross and Klineman and Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes for the women.

“But I think this delay brings more uncertainty,” Wong said. “There was a pretty proven pecking order on the women’s side, and now you have a lot of time to think. I also think, though, that [Ross and Klineman] were a little banged up early in this year. I think, if this has more fortuitous timing for anyone, it would be them.”

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