Seth Rubinroit

FIVB

Beachvolley Vikings, sport’s top team, inspired by Kerri Walsh Jennings

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HAMBURG, Germany — Kerri Walsh Jennings smiled at the decade-old picture of her posing with a young Anders Mol.

Since Walsh Jennings met Mol, the now-22-year-old and his 23-year-old Norwegian partner Christian Sorum have become the top-ranked team in the world.

“Those boys inspire me a lot,” she said. “That’s how I want Brooke [Sweat] and I to play, really.”

Walsh Jennings met Mol in his native country at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Stavanger. Mol attended with his father, Kare, who was coaching the Norwegian teams, as well as his brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias Berntsen.

Walsh Jennings noticed the young Norwegians, who are now nicknamed the “Beachvolley Vikings,” eagerly doing the pepper drill on the sand between matches from 6 a.m. until well after dark.   

“She walked by and told us, ‘Hey, you guys are so good that if you guys keep practicing, you’re going to be playing on this stage one day,’” Mol recalled.

Mol’s passion for the sport only increased as he hit puberty.

As a teenager, he derailed his family’s vacation plans in San Diego by making them battle traffic up to Los Angeles to hear Walsh Jennings give a speech.

Childhood photo of Mol and Walsh Jennings. Courtesy of Anders Mol.

At 13 or 14, Mol and his brother beat their parents for the first time. Impressive, considering Mol’s father was a former national indoor team player and his mother, Merita Mol (née Berntsen), competed in beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics.

At 16, he enrolled in ToppVolley Norway, a beach and indoor volleyball school that is a two-hour boat ride north from Stavanger. For three years, the boys would attend classes, lift weights and train for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Free time often meant pick-up soccer matches, which occasionally proves useful on the sand.

“It doesn’t look like Hogwarts,” Mol said, “but it sounds like Hogwarts because everybody is like a big family in this school.”

When Mol graduated, he played a year of professional indoor volleyball in Belgium. But he quickly realized that he preferred the freedom of beach volleyball, where players book their own travel, hire their own coaches and schedule their own practices.

In 2017, Mol was named the international tour’s top rookie. By the end of the 2018 season, Mol and Sorum had firmly established themselves as the world’s top team, winning their final three international tournaments including the FIVB World Tour Finals.

They have not slowed down in 2019, winning three tournaments on three different continents over three weeks in May. They have won 36 of their last 38 matches.

“The best blocker right now is Anders, and the best defender is Christian,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb. “It’s not really fair.”

The only two teams who have defeated the Norwegians since April 28 — Germany’s Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler and Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt/Evandro Goncalves — did not offer any clues on how to do it.

Wickler admitted that “in no other stadium would we have won this game” after the Hamburg world championships semifinal played July 6 in front of more than 12,000 hometown fans, the largest crowd either team had ever experienced. Mol and Sorum rebounded to claim the bronze medal the next day over Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Bruno rebuffed multiple teams who approached him looking for the secret to beating Norway.

“I’ve never seen a player like Anders who is so powerful and so skilled at the same time,” said Bruno, the 2016 Olympic champion with former partner Alison. “Players like that raise the level of this sport.”

Much of their success can be attributed to their defensive scheme. Most teams play a “zone defense,” with each player defending half of the court. The Norwegians play a “read defense” that gives each player the freedom to react and move to where they think the attacking player will hit the ball.

NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong compared the Norwegians to “free safeties” in football.

“They are the most innovative defensive team we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

The pair is relatively unknown outside Norway — neither has a Wikipedia page in English — and even in Norway they claim they are nowhere near as famous as the Alpine skiers nicknamed the “Attacking Vikings.”

But that will change.

At worlds, the pair hired a videographer to capture content for their YouTube and Instagram channels. They launched a Beachvolley Vikings clothing line that includes a “Sleeping Christian” shirt. They patiently fulfilled each and every request for pictures and autographs after matches.

“They are like rock stars,” said American Taylor Crabb, talking extra loud to be heard over a crowd of teenage girls hoping to take a selfie with the tall, blonde Norwegians. “Fans can relate to them because they see guys around their age becoming the No. 1 team the world.”

It is not just fans who are lining up to see the Norwegians.

“I love to watch them play,” said 2016 Brazilian Olympian Pedro Solberg, who made his international debut when Mol was just 8. “Every chance I get to watch them I do, because I learn a lot from them.”

Whether Mol and Sorum struggle with anything is up for debate. When asked, Kare boasted about beating them at the card game “President and the bum.”

“They are really smart in beach volleyball,” he said, “but they are really stupid in card playing.”

But both players disputed their coach’s claim.

“It’s not true at all,” Sorum said. “He loses even when he has the best cards.”

The Beachvolley Vikings are just getting started. 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser pointed out that beach volleyball players typically do not peak until their late 20s or early 30s.

“In my book, they are already among the top teams to ever play,” he said. “There are no holes in their game. I don’t see why they can’t keep this going.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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MORE: Brazil Olympic beach volleyball champs form dangerous teams after split

Brazil Olympic beach volleyball champs form dangerous teams after split

Evandro, Bruno, Alvaro and Alison
FIVB
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HAMBURG, Germany — Rio Olympic champions Bruno Schmidt and Alison Cerutti are no longer partners.

But that is not necessarily good news for the competition.

“The teams they are with now make a lot of sense,” said NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong, “and they are dangerous.”

The Brazilians split in May 2018 after four years together. Bruno said he and Alison mutually agreed to part in a quick conversation after a morning practice.

“We shocked the world at the time, but it was a smart decision,” Bruno said in an interview at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships. “We couldn’t push each other more.”

They were coming off a 17th-place finish, their worst result in an international tournament since 2015.

“We accomplished everything we could together, so it got to a point where we needed new goals and motivations,” Alison said through a translator. “We decided to go different paths while respecting each other so much.”

Both are now competing with younger players.

Bruno, 32, who is nicknamed the “Magician” for his ability to dig balls that seem destined to hit the sand, joined forces with 28-year-old Evandro Goncalves.

Alison, 33, known as the “Mammoth” with a large tattoo of the animal on his side to prove it, teamed with 28-year-old Alvaro Filho.

“We both knew we needed to get younger to continue to play at a high level,” Bruno said.

Evandro, a reigning world champion, has been named the top server on the international tour every year since 2015.

“When Evandro serves, it’s like somebody is spiking down at you,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb, “whereas a normal serve has an upward trajectory.”

Evandro said his serve has been clocked as fast as 63 miles per hour, but he is confident that he has served faster in practice.

“There’s been several times where I’ve hit someone in the chest so hard that the ball bounces back over the net, but no bruises from my serve,” Evandro said through a translator. “That just happens when I attack the ball.”

Playing with a defender as talented as the “Magician,” who was named the international tour’s top defender four times, Evandro has had to adjust to blocking full time. Meaning after he unleashes a serve, he must run to the net to block, rather than remain in the back half of the sand to play defense.

The 6-foot-11 Evandro, the co-tallest player on the international tour, has the height to be an elite blocker.

His size also earned him a pair of NBA nicknames. U.S. Olympian Casey Patterson nicknamed Evandro the “Black Mamba,” a nod to Kobe Bryant. But Bruno, the nephew of the Olympics’ all-time leading basketball scorer Oscar Schmidt, jokingly refers to his lanky teammate as “Kevin Durant.”

To improve his blocking technique, Evandro studies film of Phil Dalhausser, the 2008 U.S. Olympic champion who has been named the international tour’s top blocker seven times.

“Evandro was already a pretty good blocker before, and now if he’s making moves, that’s scary,” Dalhausser said. “He has no holes in his game.”

The partnership between Alison and Alvaro was orchestrated by three-time Olympic medalist Ricardo Santos.

Alvaro was playing with Ricardo, a player he grew up idolizing and even once ditched school to watch practice.

After the duo won the Brazilian national title in April, the 44-year-old Ricardo told Alvaro that he would be better off playing with Alison.

“I’ve never heard of a partner telling a partner to go play with another one,” Alvaro said. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Ricardo even called Alison to recommend Alvaro.

“Now I see why,” Alison said. “[Alvaro’s] such a great player … we are meshing really well.”

Alvaro is nicknamed the “Goat,” although he is quick to point out that the animal is common in his native Brazilian state of Paraiba and he is not actually the “greatest of all time.”

The 6-foot-1 Alvaro was named the international tour’s top rookie in 2013, the same year he finished second at worlds with Ricardo.

“Alvaro is deceptively big,” American Stafford Slick said shortly after losing to the Brazilian duo in three sets at the world championships. Brazilian men’s and women’s pairs won their first 19 pool-play matches in Hamburg, with the knockout rounds starting Tuesday. “If he was walking through the crowd, you wouldn’t think much of him, but that guy flies and has a whip of an arm. He’s tough to block.”

Evandro and Bruno are the top Brazilian pair in the Olympic qualification rankings, followed by Alison and Alvaro. A maximum of two Brazilian teams can go to Tokyo.

Evandro and Bruno won their last tournament before worlds. In the final, they ended the 23-match win streak of the top-ranked team in the world, Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum.

“I am not sure we are in our best shape yet, but we will get there,” Bruno said. “Evandro has pushed me to a level I almost forgot I could get to.”

Guilherme Torres and Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report

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MORE: Beach Volleyball Worlds TV/Stream Schedule

How April Ross, Alix Klineman became beach volleyball’s A-Team

Robert Beck/AVP
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NEW YORK — Two-time Olympic medalist April Ross approached Alix Klineman, a rookie, in summer 2017.

Ross mentioned she would be looking for a new partner after splitting with Kerri Walsh Jennings.

“I said, ‘OK let me know,’” Klineman recalled. “And she said, ‘No, you need to get better first.’”

Additional motivation for Klineman, who had recently transitioned to the sand after a decorated indoor career in which she was named the Volleyball Magazine National Player of the Year for her senior season at Stanford.

Klineman adapted to beach volleyball quickly and was named the top rookie on the domestic AVP Tour.

When the 2017 season ended, Ross invited Klineman to a three-day tryout. After it wrapped, Klineman delivered an impassioned pitch to Ross.

She expressed her desire to go to the Olympics and win a beach volleyball gold medal, after sacrificing a six-figure salary playing indoors in 2016 to make less than 10 percent as much on the sand in 2017.

“It was pretty out of character, because normally I’m more reserved,” Klineman said. “But I didn’t want her to have a reason not to pick me.”

Klineman anxiously waited about a week while Ross traveled abroad. When Ross returned, she asked Klineman to be her partner.

“Our mentalities are so similar,” Ross said about the 6-foot-5 Klineman, the co-tallest woman on the international tour. “That was the deciding factor for me, but it doesn’t hurt that she’s so physical and has so much potential.”

They just needed a team nickname.

Ross solicited ideas from her fans on social media. After combing through hundreds of submissions, she awarded Instagram user tammyjzhao a signed volleyball for suggesting “The A-Team.”

“I know it’s super obvious because of April and Alix,” said Ross, who warms up with nunchucks. “But then you think of the correlations with Mr. T and ‘I pity the fool’ and the missions they went on. We liked how that sounded.”

Success came immediately.

They won their first tournament together in the Netherlands in January 2018. Klineman became just the third woman to win her international debut.

“We saw winning the first tournament as a sign,” Ross said. “We can do this, we have that potential, so let’s keep working towards it.”

“The A-Team” is coached by Jen Kessy, Ross’ 2012 Olympic silver medal teammate.

“Jen brings a nice lightness to our team,” Klineman said in an interview at the AVP New York City Open, which she and Ross won for their fifth straight title on the domestic tour. “April and I can be really intense sometimes. So Jen will say, ‘This is getting really heavy. You guys need to chill out and laugh a little bit.’”

Kessy has influenced everything from preparation to celebration.

Players have just 12 seconds to serve after a point is scored on the international tour, but the clock does not start until the players finish celebrating. Kessy therefore instructed Klineman and Ross to hug after points to maximize rest, earning them a second nickname: “Team Hugs.”

“They’ve taken team hugs to a different level,” Kessy said. “I was thinking after long rallies, but they hug after every single play.”

Klineman and Ross are collecting Olympic qualification points. The top two U.S. pairs come June 15, 2020 go to Tokyo, provided they’re ranked high enough internationally.

Fellow Americans Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat have a higher aggregation of Olympic qualification points, but a lower per-tournament average since they have played in three more events than the A-Team. The final standings will only include each pair’s 12 best results together.

“You don’t necessarily need to play in every event because someone else might get ahead,” Kessy said. “We need to look strategically where we can do the best.”

Ross will be 38 years old during the 2020 Games. She will be the third-oldest woman at this summer’s world championships.

“She doesn’t look like she’s slowing down at all,” said the 29-year-old Klineman. “That’s got to be a little scary for the volleyball world and her opponents.”

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