Kelly Cheng, Sara Hughes, once U.S. beach volleyball’s future, reunite after 4 years apart

Kelly Cheng, Sara Hughes
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It is about that time in the Olympic cycle for beach volleyball players to start forming long-term partnerships with eyes on the Paris Games.

The biggest early development in the U.S. is the reuniting of Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes, who at the start of the Tokyo Olympic cycle were the next big thing in American beach volleyball.

Cheng and Hughes, both now 27, are entered together in an international tournament in Australia on Thanksgiving weekend. It would be their first tournament as a team since March 2018.

Their second act began with a recent call from Cheng to Hughes.

“We came together and had a really great conversation,” Hughes said in a phone interview with both players on Monday. “I think Kelly and I both had pull towards each other, and kind of knew that it was just the right time again. And so it was a mutual decision of like, yes, we’re getting together, and we’re just really excited.”

Cheng (née Claes) and Hughes won NCAA beach volleyball titles with USC in 2016 and 2017. In between, they were the only pair to take a set off Olympic gold medalists Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross in AVP play leading up to the Rio Games.

Their bond was so strong that Hughes turned down Walsh Jennings’ proposal to partner up in 2017 before Tokyo Olympic qualifying began.

But in 2018, Hughes did pair with Summer Ross for a Tokyo Olympic run (which ended after Ross suffered a 2019 back injury). Cheng then teamed with Sarah Sponcil, caught fire to take the last U.S. Olympic spot over Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat and lost in the round of 16 at their first Games.

“It was a lot of the unknown and being young and kind of immature and listening to maybe outside forces and not really knowing how to deal with things as well,” Hughes said of their past breakup. “We’ve pretty much moved past that in our relationship. Moving forward with one another, we’re completely different players, and we’re a lot more mature. It feels like the right time. The past is past. We’re just moving forward.”

Cheng and Sponcil split after last season. Cheng played all 14 of her domestic and international events this year with Betsi Flint, taking first and third in their two most recent international starts.

Hughes, after having four different partners in 2021, played exclusively with Kelley Kolinske in 2022. Their highlights: this viral point, plus winning August’s Manhattan Beach Open, the most prestigious domestic event, by beating Cheng and Flint in the final.

“We really respected our partners a lot and have nothing bad to say,” Hughes said.

They’ve only had a few practices together but agreed their chemistry already returned. Their coach is Cheng’s husband, Jordan, who also coached Cheng and Sponcil.

“For sure, it feels different than college,” Cheng said. “We’re all grown. I think we both came into our own athletes, separately.”

Cheng and Hughes instantly become contenders for one of up to two U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team spots in Paris. Tokyo gold medalists April Ross and Alix Klineman have not played together this year, with Klineman sidelined since January shoulder surgery.

Walsh Jennings, a 44-year-old who gets inducted into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame this week, is expected to decide on a possible 2024 Olympic run soon, if she has not already. Walsh Jennings said in April that she hoped to play with 2000 Olympic indoor teammate Logan Tom.

The Olympic qualifying window begins in January and runs to June 2024.

“We want a gold medal in Paris,” said Cheng, who noted she and Hughes have conversed over the book, “The Gap and The Gain: The High Achievers’ Guide to Happiness, Confidence, and Success.” “So we’re kind of working backwards [from that]. In that regard, in our training, what are our strengths and our weaknesses? How can we kind of bring other things? How can we do that repeatedly well? Because I think the top teams in the world are consistent.”

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Jessie Diggins ties U.S. record for World Cup cross-country skiing wins

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Jessie Diggins tied Kikkan Randall‘s U.S. record with her 13th career individual cross-country skiing World Cup victory, taking a 10km freestyle in Lillehammer, Norway, on Friday.

Diggins, the most decorated U.S. Olympic cross-country skier with a medal of every color, prevailed by 3.8 seconds over German Katharina Hennig in the interval start event. Diggins trailed Hennig by one second at the 8.2-kilometer split, then made up 4.8 seconds over the final four minutes of the course.

“My fitness and brain were in a really good place,” Diggins said, according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard. “When I asked my body to go deep into the pain cave, it responded.”

Diggins tied the record of Randall, who in 2007 became the first U.S. woman to win a World Cup cross-country skiing race and ended her career by teaming with Diggins to win the first U.S. Olympic cross-country skiing title at the 2018 PyeongChang Games. (Another skier, Alison Owen-Spencer, won a race in 1978 that U.S. Ski and Snowboard counts as a World Cup, but the International Ski Federation does not.)

Diggins opened this World Cup season last weekend in Ruka, Finland, with a best finish of 10th among three races. She trended up each day, finishing that stop with the second-fastest time in last Sunday’s individual pursuit (where she started 19th).

Diggins, 31, has spread out her goals this season. One of the biggest is helping the U.S. win a relay medal for the first time at the world championships in three months. Diggins has been a part of relays that finished fourth at four different worlds.

She also eyes the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in the sport that goes to the best all-around skier for the season. In 2020-21, Diggins became the second American — and first American woman — to win the overall in a season where Norway’s top skiers, including superstar Therese Johaug, skipped early season races and chances to gain points for the overall title.

Johaug retired after winning three individual golds at last February’s Olympics. Diggins is the top returning skier given the absence of reigning overall champ Natalya Nepryayeva, who cannot compete due to the ban on Russian athletes for the war in Ukraine.

The World Cup season continues with a freestyle sprint on Saturday and a classic 20km mass start on Sunday in Lillehammer.

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Katie Ledecky out-touches new rival at swimming’s U.S. Open, extends streak

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It was a rare sight: Katie Ledecky being matched stroke for stroke in a distance race in an American pool. She was up for the challenge.

Ledecky out-touched emerging 16-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh by eight hundredths of a second in the 400m freestyle at the U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C., on Thursday night.

Ledecky and McIntosh were tied at the 300-meter mark. Ledecky ended up clocking 3:59.71 to McIntosh’s 3:59.79 to extend a decade-long win streak in freestyle races of 400 meters or longer in U.S. pools.

“I know we’ll have a lot more races ahead of us,” Ledecky said on Peacock. “We bring the best out of each other.”

The U.S. Open continues Friday with live finals coverage on Peacock at 6 p.m. ET.

U.S. OPEN SWIMMING: Full Results

At the Tokyo Olympics, McIntosh placed fourth in the 400m free at age 14.

She accelerated this year, taking silver behind Ledecky at the world championships and silver behind Tokyo gold medalist Ariarne Titmus of Australia at the Commonwealth Games.

Then in October, McIntosh outdueled Ledecky in a 400m free — also by eight hundredths — in a short-course, 25-meter pool at a FINA World Cup meet in Toronto. Long-course meets like the Olympics and the U.S. Open are held in 50-meter pools.

McIntosh also won world titles in the 200m butterfly and 400m individual medley, becoming the youngest individual world champion since 2011.

A potential showdown among Ledecky, Titmus and McIntosh at the 2024 Paris Games is already being compared to the “Race of the Century,” the 2004 Olympic men’s 200m free where Australian Ian Thorpe edged Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband and Michael Phelps.

In other events Thursday, Regan Smith, an Olympic and world medalist in the backstroke and butterfly, won a 200m individual medley in a personal best 2:10.40, a time that would have placed fifth at June’s world championships. She beat 16-year-old Leah Hayes, who took bronze in the event at worlds.

Olympic 400m IM champ Chase Kalisz won the men’s 200m IM in 1:56.52, his best time ever outside of major summer meets. Frenchman Léon Marchand won the world title in 1:55.22 in June, when Kalisz was fourth.

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