Kerri Walsh Jennings, eyeing a sixth Olympics at age 42, and new partner Brooke Sweat must rally past another U.S. team in the last qualifying event next week to make it to Tokyo.
Countrywomen Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil won the penultimate international qualifier in Sochi, Russia, on Saturday, passing Walsh Jennings and Sweat in the race for the second and final U.S. Olympic women’s beach volleyball spot.
Now Walsh Jennings and Sweat must finish third or better in the qualifying finale in Ostrava, Czech Republic, next week to have any shot at Tokyo.
Walsh Jennings is the most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player in history with three gold medals and one bronze, but she and Sweat last made the semifinals of a top-level tournament in August 2019.
They lost both of their main-draw matches in Sochi, marking the first time Walsh Jennings finished 25th (tied for last place in the main draw) in 151 international events dating to her start in 2001, according to BVBinfo.com. (Walsh Jennings once had a worse result, losing in qualifying.)
April Ross and Alix Klineman, the lone U.S. pair among the Olympic medal favorites, clinched the first Olympic spot two months ago.
Walsh Jennings and Sweat ranked second in U.S. qualifying standings for the last two years until Claes and Sponcil’s run in Sochi.
Claes, 25, and Sponcil, 24, are aiming to become the youngest U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team ever.
They went 10 consecutive international tournaments without reaching a semifinal, dating to July 2019, until Sochi, where they upset Ross and Klineman in a three-set quarterfinal.
Before that, Claes and Sponcil were 0-8 against the Ross and Klineman team, and 0-17 when including matches with other partners, according to BVBinfo.
Claes and Sponcil then Swept Russian and Swiss pairs in the medal rounds, overtaking Walsh Jennings and Sweat in points and then earning their first international title.
“It was a long road to the finish line,” Sponcil said.
Walsh Jennings and Sweat had a small but significant lead on Claes and Sponcil for the second U.S. spot going into 2021.
Claes and Sponcil chipped away, but lost three quarterfinals in their first four events this year. The quarterfinals mark the key round in Olympic qualifiers, because a victory gives a team two more matches to gain points — the semifinals and either a final or a third-place match. They finally broke through in Sochi.
Walsh Jennings endured a difficult Olympic cycle. She had three different partners, underwent a sixth right shoulder surgery and had to work through qualifying tournaments after teaming with Sweat, a Rio Olympian with Lauren Fendrick. Sweat underwent knee surgery last spring.
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, who tried out to be Walsh Jennings’ partner in 2018, and even played an event in China with the legend, turned to Sponcil, a setter for UCLA’s indoor team after transferring from Loyola Marymount.
Claes and Sponcil spent nearly the entire spring of 2020 apart, but the Olympic postponement turned out to be a blessing.
“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,” Claes, who as a teenager fractured her spine and underwent a cardiac ablation to treat supraventricular tachycardia, said last summer. “I think we have all the advantages of this time to gain some more experience before this last push before the Olympics.”
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