Kelly Claes

Getty Images

Race for Olympic beach volleyball spots heats up World Tour Finals

Leave a comment

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

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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

Kerri Walsh Jennings
FIVB World Tour
Leave a comment

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

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

The beach volleyball player who turned down Kerri Walsh Jennings

FIVB
Leave a comment

VIENNA — A fan holding a large beer gestured to Sara Hughes with his free hand as he watched the world beach volleyball championships.

“That’s her,” the fan was overheard saying. “She’s the one who turned down Kerri Walsh Jennings.”

Word has gotten out that Hughes had the opportunity to partner with Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion, but instead chose to continue with collegiate partner Kelly Claes.

Claes and Hughes met as teenagers at a beach volleyball camp. Hughes, who had played since age 8, approached Claes, who was new to the sand, about a partnership.

“The chemistry was there just like that,” Claes said, snapping her fingers.

When it came time to pick a college, Claes initially committed to Long Beach State for indoor volleyball. But Hughes convinced her to instead play beach volleyball at USC.

They won two national championships as a pair at USC, where Claes, a redhead, and Hughes, a blonde, were nicknamed “Cardinal and Gold” after the school’s official colors. They graduated in May, with Hughes delivering the student-athlete graduation speech (VIDEO).

They describe themselves as “goofballs,” and often turned USC practices into dance parties by blasting their music at full volume over the loudspeakers.

“There are a million funny stories about these two dancing queens,” USC coach Anna Collier said. “I think the humor that they share together helps keep their relationship both on and off the court very solid.”

During their senior season, Hughes was contacted several times by Walsh Jennings, who split with Olympic bronze medal teammate April Ross in April. Walsh Jennings even flew to Alabama to watch Hughes compete at the NCAA championships, and told ESPN.com “all I wanted to do was play with [Hughes].”

But Hughes was not ready to respond to Walsh Jennings.

“I was honest and told her I couldn’t give her an answer right in the middle of the season with my team,” Hughes said.

Hughes was open with Claes about her conversations with Walsh Jennings.

“It’s really cool that my partner got asked by Kerri Walsh Jennings, and she decided to stay with me,” Claes said. “That just shows how much Sara believes in us.”

Walsh Jennings ultimately partnered with Nicole Branagh, but is sidelined after dislocating her five-times surgically repaired right shoulder in a match in July.

It has been a whirlwind couple of months for Claes and Hughes. Immediately after the NCAA Championships, they flew to Rio for an international tournament. Their best international result in their first full season on the FIVB World Tour was a quarterfinal in Porec, Croatia, a month ago.

They are now the top-ranked U.S. team as worlds get under way in the Austrian capital (broadcast schedule here).

“It’s a dream come true to be here,” Claes said. “We thought we would be watching this at home.”

They are enjoying life as professionals. In Vienna, they took a break from training to practice line dancing, and they plan on visiting the Prater, a public park believed to be home to the oldest amusement park in the world.

But they are all business on the sand.

“We want to show everyone that we are a force to be reckoned with,” Hughes said. “We aren’t these college girls that came out to just to have fun and play. We are here to win and be the best team.”

Partner changes are common in beach volleyball. Of the four teams that represented the U.S. at the Rio Olympics, just one is still playing together.

Even their collegiate coach believes they could benefit from a break.

“I think in some ways, after having played together for this many years, that Sara and Kelly might be nearing a ceiling in terms of their growth as a pair,” Collier said. “I think continued growth is important, and if they were to take some time apart, that when they come back together, they would have a new ceiling to reach for.”

Beijing Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser was in a similar position early in his career. In 2005, he turned down 2000 Olympic champion Dain Blanton to continue playing with childhood friend Nick Lucena. The next year, when Dalhausser was approached by another veteran in Todd Rogers, he put his emotions aside and split with Lucena. Dalhausser and Lucena reunited in 2015 and made the Rio Olympic quarterfinals.

If asked, Dalhausser would have advised Hughes to partner with Walsh Jennings and Claes to partner with Ross.

“I try to tell young players to think of themselves as a business,” Dalhausser said. “Sara would have learned so much from Kerri, and Kelly would have learned so much from April, and they would have made money right off the bat.”

But Claes, 21, and Hughes, 22, insist that they will stay together through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I believe in this [partnership] 100 percent,” said Claes, who wears a “Tokyo 2020” necklace that she has not removed in two years. “I believe we can make it to Tokyo. I believe we can take gold. I want to do all that, and I want to go through this process with [Hughes] because I love her and I know we’ve got what it takes.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: World Beach Volleyball Championships broadcast schedule