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

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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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Sam Mikulak to retire from gymnastics after Tokyo Olympics

Sam Mikulak
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Sam Mikulak, the U.S.’ top male gymnast, said he will retire after the Tokyo Olympics, citing a wrist injury and emotional health revelations during a forced break from the sport due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It does sound like some pretty crazy news, but there’s a lot of factors that go into it,” Mikulak said in a YouTube video published Sunday night. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it during quarantine.”

The 27-year-old is a two-time Olympian, six-time U.S. all-around champion and the only active U.S. male gymnast with Olympic experience.

Mikulak said he noticed significant wrist inflammation last year that was temporarily healed by a November cortisone shot. But during quarantine, the wrist worsened even though he wasn’t doing gymnastics. He took a month off from working out, but the wrist didn’t heal.

He thought for a time that he might not return to gymnastics at all. A doctor told him he would need cortisone shots for the rest of his career.

“At that point, it was really made for me that this has to be my final year of gymnastics because I don’t want to ruin myself beyond this sport,” Mikulak said.

Mikulak also noted realizations from the forced time out of the gym. He learned that he’s much less stressed while not doing gymnastics, a sport he began at age 2. Mikulak’s parents were gymnasts at Cal.

“For so long, I’ve been sacrificing, and I’m sick of it,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to being able to be free from gymnastics and being able to do all these things that I’ve been putting off in my life for so long.”

Mikulak realized a career goal in 2018 when he earned his first individual world championships medal, a bronze on high bar. He wants to cap his career with a first Olympic medal in Tokyo, then, perhaps, become a coach or open his own gym.

Mikulak recently got engaged to Mia Atkins, and they got another puppy, Barney.

“Everything I’ve done in gymnastics is enough for me right now,” said Mikulak, who plans to document the next year on YouTube. “I was actually somewhat happy that I was able to come to that type of decision because for so long I felt like gymnastics really wasn’t going to be fulfilling until I’ve gotten my Olympic medal. And during quarantine, I had this whole revelation where, you know what, I am happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life, and I’m not doing gymnastics, so even if I don’t accomplish these goals, I am still going to be so damn happy.”

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April Ross, Alix Klineman complete perfect, abbreviated AVP season

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April Ross and Alix Klineman consolidated their position as the U.S.’ top beach volleyball team, completing a sweep of the three-tournament AVP Champions Cup on Sunday.

Ross, a two-time Olympic medalist, and Klineman won the finale, the Porsche Cup. They won all 12 matches over the last three weekends, including the last 14 sets in a row, capped with a 21-18, 21-17 win over Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil in Sunday’s final.

“It feels like we’re midseason in a normal year,” Ross said on Amazon Prime. “I can’t believe it’s over.”

The AVP Champions Cup marked the first three top-level beach volleyball tournaments since March, and a replacement for a typical AVP season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The setting: on the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center parking lot without fans and with many health and safety measures.

AVP is not part of Olympic qualifying. It’s unknown when those top-level international tournaments will resume, but Ross and Klineman, ranked No. 2 in the world, are just about assured of one of the two U.S. Olympic spots.

According to BVBinfo.com, they’re 10-0 combined against the other top U.S. teams — Claes and Sponcil and triple Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, who are likely battling for the last U.S. Olympic spot.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who do not play on the AVP tour, have a lead for the last spot more than halfway through qualifying, which runs into June.

Earlier in the men’s final, Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb kept 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena from sweeping the Champions Cup. Bourne and Crabb prevailed 21-17, 15-21, 15-12 for their first AVP title since teaming in 2018.

Bourne, who went nearly two years between tournaments from 2016-18 due to an autoimmune disease, and Crabb redeemed after straight-set losses to Dalhausser and Lucena the previous two weekends. Crabb guaranteed a title on Instagram days before the tournament.

“Those guys are the best in the world, and they make you look bad at times, but we’re relentless,” Bourne said on Amazon Prime. “You’re going to have to play the best volleyball in the world to beat us every time.”

Bourne and Crabb, Dalhausser and Lucena and Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb (Trevor’s younger brother) are battling for two available U.S. Olympic spots in Tokyo.

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