Kelly Claes

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Beach volleyball players fly to Australia, learn event is postponed

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U.S. beach volleyball players Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil learned about five hours before their scheduled flight to Australia that this week’s FIVB World Tour event in Gold Coast, carrying significant Olympic qualifying points, was postponed due to coronavirus concerns. They didn’t board.

Olympians Phil Dalhausser was already in Australia.

“The Coronavirus has officially affected the beach volleyball world,” was posted on the 2008 Olympic gold medalist Dalhausser’s Instagram. “Unfortunately the Australian tourney was suppose to start in a few days and most teams are already here.”

Efforts to reach Dalhausser, who is paired with Nick Lucena, have been unsuccessful, but he posted on Instagram over the weekend that he was touring Sydney.

Claes and Sponcil and Dalhausser and Lucena share this: They are the third-ranked U.S. pairs in women’s and men’s Olympic qualifying. The top two U.S. pairs per gender come a June 15 cutoff qualify for the Tokyo Games, unless the qualification procedures are changed given the coronavirus’ impact. Points are crucial for those teams just off the bubble.

The Gold Coast event was mid-level, given a three-star rating on a scale of one to five. The top two U.S. pairs per gender either didn’t enter the event or withdrew before scheduled flights.

Kerri Walsh Jennings, the three-time Olympic champion who is ranked second in Olympic qualifying with Brooke Sweat, posted that they and other U.S. teams decided collectively on Friday to withdrew from the Australia event.

“People had departing flights within hours of our decision,” was posted on Walsh Jennings’ Instagram. “It was extremely hard for all of us because we were each weighing our Olympic dreams & professional livelihood against a global pandemic and National State of Emergency in our home country. No athlete should ever be in that situation.”

Claes and Sponcil and Dalhausser and Lucena, the latter having just played a four-star event in Doha, were still on the entry list on Saturday afternoon. The FIVB said preventative measures had been planned to protect those at the event, but it was ultimately postponed.

“The FIVB and the organizers recognize that there are international travel limitations and other restrictions in different parts of the world that impact the ability of some of the participants to take part in the event,” according to a press release. “The health of athletes, officials and fans is the FIVB’s top priority, and the mutual decision to postpone the event was made in the best interests of all parties.”

Previously, four-star events scheduled this spring in China (two of them) and Mexico had been postponed or canceled. That made the points offered in Australia more valuable for Olympic qualifying, which takes each pair’s top 12 finishes from Sept. 1, 2018 to June 14, 2020 with greater weight given to higher-starred events.

That timeline and process could change.

“The FIVB, working in close collaboration with the IOC, is evaluating how to adapt the Olympic qualification for beach volleyball in order to preserve the technical balance and protect the athletes in light of the recent event postponements,” according to an FIVB statement Monday.

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MORE: Olympic sports events affected by the coronavirus

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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Kerri Walsh Jennings pleased by result after longest break in five years

Kerri Walsh Jennings
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Kerri Walsh Jennings returned from her longest competition break since 2013 and, with partner Nicole Branagh, nearly beat the world’s top-ranked team.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh ultimately were eliminated in the round of 16 at the Xiamen Open in China.

“We WILL do better,” was posted on Walsh Jennings’ social media. “We actually had a great showing and learned and battled and improved – sometimes the stats don’t show everything.”

Walsh Jennings and Branagh, a pair of 39-year-old moms, played together for the first time since July 22, when Walsh Jennings’ five-times surgically repaired right shoulder popped out mid-match.

Walsh Jennings, eyeing her sixth and final Olympics in 2020, underwent a sixth shoulder surgery and an ankle surgery and did not return to training on the beach until March (her longest break between hitting a ball on sand since switching from indoor following the 2000 Olympics).

The duo won their opening Xiamen match in three sets last week, then lost a three-setter to the world’s No. 1 team in group play. Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes prevailed 21-15, 22-24, 18-16 en route to the tournament title.

After Walsh Jennings and Branagh swept American qualifiers Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman in the first elimination round, they squandered a one-set lead in the round of 16. Australians Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy eliminated them 19-21, 21-16, 20-18.

Walsh Jennings said before flying to Xiamen that she and Branagh would next play on the FIVB World Tour at the Itapema Open in Brazil in mid-May. In four FIVB World Tour events since partnering last year, they were eliminated in qualifying once, bounced in the round of 16 twice and forfeited a bronze-medal match due to that shoulder dislocation.

Early season partner changes defined the U.S. women’s landscape. In Xiamen, one of those new teams, Kelly Claes and Brittany Hochevar, reached the final, losing to the Canadians.

It marked the first final four appearance on the senior FIVB World Tour for the 22-year-old Claes, an NCAA champion at USC with former partner Sara Hughes, and for the 36-year-old Hochevar, the older sister of former Kansas City Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar.

MORE: Walsh Jennings documents comeback from surgeries

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