Kelly Claes, Sarah Sponcil want to be the youngest U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team ever

Kelly Claes, Sarah Sponcil
FIVB World Tour

U.S. beach volleyball teammates Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil were all packed and minutes from driving separately to Los Angeles International Airport in mid-March when they received the notification.

An FIVB World Tour event in Sydney, Australia, their first of the Olympic year, was canceled due to the emerging coronavirus pandemic.

“We called each other,” Sponcil said. “We kind of were in that moment of now what? Like everyone else.”

Claes, 24, and Sponcil, 23, then spent nearly the entire spring apart. Sponcil drove to her native Arizona. Claes hunkered in Southern California, where stay-at-home measures were instituted. Beaches closed. Beach volleyball tournaments, in the U.S. and abroad, were wiped off the calendar. The Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It was heartbreaking, especially given Claes and Sponcil accepted the risk of flying abroad back in March. While other teams withdrew from the Sydney event, they were entered right up until the cancellation.

“We were prepared to go out and play and get quarantined out there,” Claes said. “We had friends in Australia. We’ll quarantine with them.”

Every tournament could be vital for Claes and Sponcil over the next year, starting with the AVP Champions Cup. The three-legged substitute for a season is being held in the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center parking lot with imported sand. Matches are the next three Saturdays and Sundays with coverage on NBC Sports.

Next year, Claes and Sponcil can become the youngest U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team in history. So every extra opportunity to play together is viewed as beneficial.

They’re also ranked third more than halfway through U.S. Olympic qualifying. The top two teams go to Tokyo. That’s why they were so intent on flying to Sydney. The No. 2 team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, plus others, withdrew before the event was canceled.

“We want to pursue the Olympics,” Sponcil said. “If our health is on the line, we’re going to risk it.”

The AVP is not part of Olympic qualifying. But Claes and Sponcil will continue to season a partnership that is not yet two years old. All of the other teams going for U.S. Olympic spots are in the AVP Champions Cup field, except for Walsh Jennings and Sweat, given the three-time gold medalist is no longer under AVP contract.

In U.S. Olympic qualifying, world silver medalists April Ross and Alix Klineman hold a substantial 1,800-point lead over Walsh Jennings and Sweat. Claes and Sponcil are another 320 points behind. When international play resumes, the standings can change in a week. A team can earn as many as 1,200 points for a top-level international title.

Walsh Jennings, who is 41, is trying to become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player ever. She has said this will be her last Olympic run. If Claes and Sponcil accomplish their goal of qualifying for Tokyo, they will also likely end the Olympic career of a legend.

“I haven’t thought about it all that much,” Claes said. “There’s so many different outside voices and pressures. We’ve been just trying to stay in our own little bubble and focus on what we need to focus on.”

Plenty has kept them busy since partnering in September 2018.

“We’ve gone to hell and back,” Claes said last year on the beach volleyball podcast Sandcast.

Claes won NCAA beach volleyball titles with USC in 2016 and 2017. She and fellow Trojan Sara Hughes began playing internationally with a pedigree to become the next great U.S. team. Their bond was so strong that Hughes turned down Walsh Jennings’ proposal to partner up in 2017.

But in 2018, Hughes decided to pair with Summer Ross for a Tokyo Olympic run (which ended after Ross suffered a 2019 back injury). Claes finished the 2018 season with veteran Brittany Hochevar, then had to decide about a Tokyo Olympic run.

Claes “interviewed” multiple potential partners. She reached out to Sponcil, a promising player who was still competing collegiately for UCLA.

Sponcil was a revelation during her summer break from the Bruins. She made her AVP main-draw debut with Rio Olympian Lauren Fendrick and reached a final, dropping two close sets to April Ross and Klineman. Sponcil and Fendrick trained together once or twice before the tournament, which took place two weeks after Sponcil and the Bruins won the NCAA beach title.

“Before that, I didn’t really have a future planned,” said Sponcil, a setter for UCLA’s indoor team after transferring from Loyola Marymount, where she was that school’s Female Athlete of the Year. “I kind of wanted to go the indoor, USA national team route, but after we did so well in that tournament, it kind of flipped a switch. I kind of wanted to pursue beach.”

The late summer/early fall of 2018 was the crucial time. Olympic qualifying was about to start. Partner switches were happening. April Ross and Klineman paired a year earlier. Hughes and Summer Ross (no relation) earlier that year.

When Claes and Sponcil molded their team over lunch at a Southern California burrito joint, Walsh Jennings was still on the lookout. Claes was one of the players who worked out with Walsh Jennings. All of the players flew to China in early autumn for tournaments.

“I think it was still a little open in my mind,” to consider a partnership with the triple gold medalist, Claes said. “I mean, Kerri Walsh Jennings, amazing athlete. Five Olympics under her belt. I felt like I could learn a lot from her.”

Claes and Sponcil, in their first tournament together, finished third in a mid-level event in Qinzhou. Claes had agreed the next week to play with Walsh Jennings, who then right before the tournament announced Sweat as her new partner for the upcoming Olympic run.

Claes and Walsh Jennings, both blockers at 6 feet and change, still played that one event together. They won their first two matches. In the third, they went a set up on April Ross and Klineman, who already established themselves as the top U.S. team. Ross and Klineman rallied to win in three. Claes hasn’t played with anyone other than Sponcil since.

“[Walsh Jennings] and Sarah were, like, top of my list,” said Claes, who also tried out with April Ross in 2017 before Ross teamed with Klineman. “Each one would have been such a unique journey to go down. I’m so thankful it worked out the way it has because I get to now experience life with Sarah. I get to experience this journey fresh with Sarah, and we get to do it together versus if I had decided to play with Kerri, so much experience on her end. It would be me, I kind of feel like, tailing along and figuring out things as I go in that regard versus getting to live it with my partner.”

Sponcil said she felt confident that Claes would not leave her for the most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player in history.

“There’s always those thoughts, but I don’t think it really rattled me too much,” Sponcil said. “[Claes] was looking for a partner that was younger that she could kind of grow with.”

Claes and Sponcil forged ahead. Sponcil came up with a team name — Slaes. They write songs and perform them in videos.

“We’re both so goofy and dorky,” said Claes, a fan of Comic-Con, Dungeons & Dragons and the cartoon “Rick and Morty.” “We play off of each other so well.”

In competition, they opened the 2019 season in the hell that Claes mentioned. The U.S. was so deep in teams that Claes and Sponcil had to play an all-American qualifier just to get into the normal qualifying tournament for an FIVB World Tour main-draw event in Itapema, Brazil. It’s called a country quota.

This country quota came against Walsh Jennings and Sweat. That made it key, given the Olympic qualifying race. The veteran Olympians doused Claes and Sponcil 21-12, 21-14 in 28 minutes. Claes and Sponcil traveled all the way to Brazil for 28 minutes of competition. The early loss meant their travel expenses would not be reimbursed. Plus, they had to play in hurricane-like conditions.

“I was holding the ball out on my hand, and it was blowing out of my hand,” Claes said.

The early exit turned out to be a blessing. Claes and Sponcil used the extra time before their next tournament in China to train for a week straight. Before that, they were together on sand once or twice a week given Sponcil was finishing her last season with UCLA.

“That really changed the momentum for us for the rest of our season,” Claes said.

From there, Claes and Sponcil made the semifinals of all four of their AVP starts. They made the final of an FIVB World Tour event in Espinho, Portugal.

There is still room for growth. They have yet to beat April Ross and Klineman or Walsh Jennings and Sweat, according to BVBInfo, but should get plenty of opportunities before Olympic qualifying closes next year.

“I really feel like we’re going to qualify and go the distance here,” said Claes, who as a teenager fractured her spine and underwent a cardiac ablation to treat supraventricular tachycardia. “I honestly think we have the most to gain from this kind of pause time because we are the youngest team and we have the least experience together. I think we have all the advantages of this time to gain some more experience before this last push before the Olympics.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Champions Cup marks beach volleyball’s socially distanced return

2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

FIBA Women's World Cup

The U.S. goes for its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headline a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, includes neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team includes nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 52 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The field also includes host Australia, the U.S.’ former primary rival, and Olympic silver medalist Japan.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), isn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA vs. Serbia Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada vs. Puerto Rico Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China vs. France Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia vs. Belgium Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA vs. Canada Semifinals
5:30 a.m. Australia vs. China Semifinals
11 p.m. Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. Final

U.S. into FIBA World Cup semifinals after trailing, triple-double watch

FIBA Women's World Cup

SYDNEY — Alyssa Thomas and her United States teammates were tested for the first time in the World Cup by a physical Serbia team.

After a slow start, the Americans used a dominant run spanning the half to take control of the game and reach the semifinals again.

Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists to help the U.S. beat Serbia 88-55 in the quarterfinals of the women’s World Cup on Thursday.

“I think you expect every team’s best punch in the first quarter,” Thomas said. “We just had to settle into the game and once we settled in, then we were really able to break away.”

Kelsey Plum scored 17 points and A’ja Wilson added 15 to lead the Americans (6-0) into the semifinals.

“They played super physical, more physical than we’ve seen the entire tournament,” Plum said. “Credit to them. I felt that early-on their pressure bothered us a little bit, but we were able to kind of get under control.”

MORE: FIBA World Cup Schedule, Results

The Americans had run through pool play, winning by 46.2 points per game and hadn’t faced any kind of challenge. Serbia (3-2) wasn’t afraid though, going right at the U.S. The Serbians scored the first basket of the game — marking the first time the Americans trailed in the tournament.

It was back-and-forth for the first 17 minutes, with the U.S. failing to go on any major run. Then, with 2:59 left in the half and the U.S. up by five, Kahleah Copper drove to the basket and was fouled. She landed hard on her hip and had to be helped off the court by the U.S. training staff. Copper, who has been a sparkplug for the U.S. in her first tournament, didn’t return.

“It’s too early to tell,” Reeve said of the extent of Copper’s injury. “We’re getting her some imaging and we’ll have information later.”

Plum replaced Cooper and hit the two free throws, starting a 12-0 run to close the half as the Americans led 50-33 at the break. Thomas had 13 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals in the opening 20 minutes.

The U.S. extended its run to 20 straight points in the third quarter before Serbia finally ended a nearly 8 1/2 minutes drought with a 3-pointer by Yvonne Anderson. That cut the deficit to 22 points. Serbia didn’t get much closer after that.

Anderson led Serbia with 14 points.

Betnijah Laney went down hard early in the fourth quarter on a put-back. She left the game and sat on the bench for the rest of the game.

“She took a hard fall,” Reeve said. “She was in the locker room afterwards and I think in her case it was a little more of it took the wind out of her.”

The victory was the 28th in a row in World Cup play for the Americans, who haven’t lost since the 2006 semifinals against Russia. The Soviet Union holds the World Cup record with 56 straight wins from 1959-86.

After going unbeaten in pool play again, the U.S. reached at least the semifinals for the 12th consecutive tournament, dating to 1975. That year completed a cycle in which the Americans lost 14 games combined in four tournaments. They’ve only lost five games since.


The U.S. had dominated the paint even without Brittney Griner, outscoring its opponents by an average of 60.8-24.4 in pool play. Serbia held a 20-16 advantage at the half and ended up outscoring the Americans 28-26 in the game by constantly having two or three players inside to clog up the middle.

“It’s one of those things you got to live with,” Wilson said. “Hopefully these next couple of games we can get back to owning the paint. Serbia did a great job of locking it down.


Thomas, who had a triple-double in each of the last two games in the WNBA Finals, fell just short again of getting the first one at the World Cup since Erika Dobrovicova in 1994 for the Slovak Republic against Spain. Assists and rebounds weren’t kept before 1994. Thomas had 14 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in the opener against Belgium.


Jewell Loyd returned to the U.S. starting lineup a game after resting according to the team. She had eight points.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!