Alix Klineman

Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
FIVB World Tour

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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Race for Olympic beach volleyball spots heats up World Tour Finals

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April Ross and Alix Klineman can all but wrap up an Olympic beach volleyball berth this weekend. For Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, a strong finish at the FIVB World Tour Finals in Rome may prove crucial for Tokyo 2020 hopes.

Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA airs live coverage Saturday (6 a.m. ET quarterfinals and 12 p.m. semifinals) and same-day finals coverage Sunday at 12 p.m. NBCSN airs coverage Sunday at 11 p.m.

The international season ends with a bucket of Olympic qualifying points available. There will be more tournaments in the fall, winter and spring before the Olympic qualifying cutoff date of June 14, but the majority of next season’s schedule has not been announced.

“It’s so uncertain right now,” NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong said. “You need to lock in points as soon as possible. We don’t know how many events there are going to be next year.”

And there might not be any events with as many Olympic qualifying points at stake as the World Tour Finals, which carries five-star-level status. Only the biennial world championships, which took place earlier this season, had greater ramifications.

A maximum of two U.S. pairs per gender can qualify for the Tokyo Games.

Ross, a two-time Olympic medalist, and Klineman, her new partner as of two years ago, are ranked No. 1 in the world. With the World Tour Finals, they will reach the requirement of 12 events played to be eligible for the Olympics.

They already have 8,160 Olympic qualifying points, which is 1,280 better than the next-best U.S. team of Walsh Jennings and Sweat.

Walsh Jennings, a triple Olympic champion who split with Ross after their Rio Olympic bronze medals, paired with Sweat about a year ago. They have been up and down but grinded through qualifying matches to reach main draws all season.

They have a 580-point lead for the second and final U.S. Olympic spot over the No. 3 American team of Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil.

Both pairs have met the 12-tournament requirement, which means each is playing to replace their lowest-scoring result so far. Teams can play as many tournaments as they like in the Olympic qualifying window, but only their 12 best points results count.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat are looking to drop a 480-point score. Claes and Sponcil want to drop a 240-point score, which means they can finish lower than Walsh Jennings and Sweat this weekend and still gain on them in the qualifying standings.

The World Tour Finals winners get 1,200 points, a significant increase over a four-star event (800 points) and a three-star event (600 points).

On the men’s side, three pairs are also in the running for two Olympic spots. The teams include 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena and brothers playing with different partners — Taylor Crabb with Jake Gibb and Trevor Crabb with Tri Bourne.

MORE: Olympic beach volleyball champ eyes comeback

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April Ross, Alix Klineman win biggest title of their young partnership

April Ross, Alix Klineman
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April Ross and Alix Klineman notched the biggest title of their two-year beach volleyball partnership and consolidated their lead in U.S. Olympic qualifying on Sunday.

Ross, a two-time Olympic medalist, and Klineman, in her third beach season since switching from indoor, won an FIVB World Tour Major Series event in Gstaad, Switzerland. Major events carry the most Olympic qualifying points of any tournament outside the world championships.

Ross and Klineman, who earned world champs silver a week ago, swept three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat 21-17, 21-13 in Saturday’s quarterfinals.

Then on Sunday, they swept Swiss Tanja Hüberli and Nina Betschart 22-20, 21-17 in the semifinals and rallied past Brazilians Maria Antonelli and Carol Salgado 15-21, 21-17, 15-12 in the final.

Ross and Klineman have won four FIVB World Tour events since they began playing together at the start of the 2018 season. They’ve made at least the quarterfinals in their last 11 World Tour events.

Ross and Walsh Jennings split in 2017, less than a year after taking bronze in Rio. Ross earned world silver with Lauren Fendrick in 2017 before picking up former Stanford indoor player Klineman later that year.

Ross and Klineman have a comfortable lead for one of two U.S. Olympic spots more than halfway through the two-year qualifying window. Walsh Jennings and Sweat are in second place after a boost as the only other U.S. pair to make the quarterfinals in Gstaad.

There is one more major event this season in two weeks in Vienna.

MORE: Olympic beach volleyball champion eyes comeback

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