Theo Brunner

Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
FIVB World Tour

Kerri Walsh Jennings boosts Olympic hopes with best finish in three years

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Kerri Walsh Jennings made her first tournament final since 2016 this week. She likely must reach more in what’s looking like her toughest road to an Olympic beach volleyball berth.

Walsh Jennings, a 40-year-old, triple Olympic champion, and new partner Brooke Sweat took runner-up at a mid-level FIVB World Tour event in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.

Accomplished Czechs Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova rallied past the Americans 24-26, 22-20, 15-12. But Walsh Jennings and Sweat still earned enough points to jump to the top of the very early U.S. Olympic qualifying rankings.

1. Walsh Jennings/Sweat – 2,620 (6 events played)
2. Klineman/Ross – 2,440 (4 events)
3. Day/Flint – 2,180 (5 events)
4. Larsen/Stockman — 1,680 (4 events)
5. Sponcil/Claes — 1,600 (3 events)
5. Hughes/Ross — 1,600 (3 events)

The key is that Walsh Jennings and Sweat have played the most events of the contending teams. The top two pairs come June 15, 2020, provided they’re ranked high enough internationally, will qualify for Tokyo. Most of the qualifying events, including the ones with the most points available, are still to come this summer.

Each team’s 12 best results go into the Olympic qualifying rankings. Alix Klineman and April Ross are in a stronger current position than Walsh Jennings and Sweat because they’re averaging more points per tournament having played two fewer events.

The Kuala Lumpur field lacked any teams from powerhouse Brazil. Also absent were Ross and Klineman and Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, the two U.S. teams to win top-level events last season.

Kuala Lumpur marked the sixth international event for Walsh Jennings since splitting from 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh and partnering with Sweat last fall.

Walsh Jennings’ 2017 season, after she and Rio Olympic bronze-medal partner April Ross split, ended prematurely with her sixth right shoulder surgery (followed by an ankle surgery). She said before the 2018 season that the 2020 Olympics would be her last, assuming she qualifies.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh had a best 2018 finish of fifth in six FIVB events before splitting. She and Sweat, who partnered with Lauren Fendrick in Rio, have a pair of thirds and now a runner-up in six events together.

Another veteran Olympian, 41-year-old Reid Priddy, had his best career finish by making the Kuala Lumpur final with Theo Brunner. Brazilians Alison and Alvaro Filho swept them 24-22, 21-18.

Priddy switched to the sand after competing in his fourth Olympic indoor tournament in Rio. Priddy and Brunner are one of several U.S. men’s teams jockeying for two potential Olympic berths.

The top U.S. men’s team in this Olympic cycle has clearly been 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, who were absent from Kuala Lumpur and have played just two events in the Olympic qualifying window, finishing second in one of them.

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LA traffic ends U.S. Olympic beach volleyball partnership

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Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson have been nearly inseparable as neighbors in Huntington Beach, Calif. since teaming up in 2013.

They can often be found playing co-ed beach volleyball with their wives. They even take their kids to the same preschool.

But when Patterson moved roughly 75 miles to Thousand Oaks for a new job recently, the 2016 AVP Men’s Team of the Year decided to end their partnership.

“It’s about a two-hour drive north, at best,” Gibb said in a phone interview. “We could have tried to make it work, but it just didn’t make sense.”

They considered breaking up even before the partnership became geographically undesirable when Patterson accepted the Beach Volleyball Director position at Sports Academy, a sports and fitness facility that he describes as a “Disneyland for athletes.”

They underwhelmed at the 2016 Olympics, finishing last in their pool after arriving in Rio as the No. 6 seed out of 24 teams. By the end of the 2016 international season, Tri Bourne and John Hyden had passed Gibb and Patterson in the standings as the second-best U.S. team, behind Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena.

“We needed something to change to ignite the fire again,” Patterson said.

The offseason after an Olympics often turns into a drama-filled frenzy as beach volleyball players search for new partners for the next quadrennial. Kerri Walsh Jennings famously approached rival April Ross at the net after the 2012 Olympic gold medal match to discuss a potential partnership.

Patterson reached out to Dalhausser, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist. Patterson revealed that he had decided to become a defensive specialist with the goal of eventually partnering with Dalhausser, a dominant blocker. Dalhausser listened, but ultimately remained with Lucena.

“Both of those guys are so rad that the thought of attempting to break them up was tough for me,” Patterson said. “But you have to try.”

Patterson also approached Tri Bourne, Theo Brunner and Ryan Doherty. Once the partnership carousel stopped spinning, Patterson aligned Brunner, Lucena’s former teammate.

“It’s like the ‘Real Housewives of Beach Volleyball,’” Patterson said. “There’s so much drama when guys are trying to find a new partner.”

Gibb will play with Taylor Crabb, who was named the 2016 AVP Defender of the Year. Gibb said that Crabb reminds him of Sean Rosenthal, his partner when he finished fifth at both the 2008 and 2012 Games.

“[Crabb] is incredibly gifted,” Gibb said. “His beach IQ is through the roof.”

Gibb and Patterson are expected to debut with their new partners on Feb. 7 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Gibb will be 44 years old during the 2020 Tokyo Games. He would become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player of all time if he represents the U.S. in Tokyo.

“I can’t turn away from this sport as long as I think I can still win,” Gibb said. “I still feel like I can, so I am going to keep playing.”

U.S. beach volleyball teams (Partners since)

Tri Bourne/John Hyden (2013)
Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena (2015)
Ryan Doherty/John Mayer (2015)
Theo Brunner/Casey Patterson (New)
Taylor Crabb/Jake Gibb (New)
Trevor Crabb/Sean Rosenthal (New)

MORE: Kerri Walsh Jennings ponders future with April Ross starting a family