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

Phil Dalhausser, Sean Rosenthal look forward after split

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LONG BEACH, Calif. — When Phil Dalhausser boarded a flight to Seattle in early August, bound for an AVP tournament, he found a familiar figure in the seat beside him: Sean Rosenthal.

It was the first time they’d seen each other since Dalhausser decided to end their two-year partnership and make a run for Rio with former partner Nick Lucena, with whom he started his career in 2003.

“It was a little awkward for the first two minutes, and then we got to talking about sports and video games,” Dalhausser said in advance of this week’s World Series of Beach Volleyball (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, semifinals) and Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET, finals)). “And then we started playing Monopoly on my phone, so it was all good after that.”

Dalhausser, a two-time Olympian who won gold in Beijing with Todd Rogers, suffered an oblique injury May 28 while playing in Moscow. After a week of rest and three more rebuilding his strength, Dalhausser returned to competition with Rosenthal in Yokohama, Japan. The duo was eliminated in the round of 16 on July 24.

When Dalhausser flew home to California after the tournament, he found an email from Lucena expressing his interest in playing together again. It had been on Dalhausser’s mind, too.

“I always envisioned finishing my career with Nick,” Dalhausser said. The two first met while attending college in Florida and lived together in South Carolina before moving to California to focus on their beach volleyball careers.

For Rosenthal, a 2008 and 2012 Olympian with Jake Gibb, the split was unexpected. He quickly teamed up with Lucena’s former partner, Theo Brunner.

“I mean, it’s beach volleyball, and it does happen,” Rosenthal said. “The only thing was the timing of it, and they didn’t give us any heads up.”

Dalhausser and Rosenthal, both 35, won three FIVB events in their first year together in 2013 and then three more in 2014, more than any other pair. They had not made the semifinals of an FIVB World Tour event since last August’s World Series of Beach Volleyball, which they won.

The switch means both pairs will start from scratch in the Olympic qualification process and must compete in 12 FIVB events before June 12, 2016. The weight of the swap falls hardest on Brunner, who was part of the second-ranked American team in Olympic qualifying with Lucena, behind Gibb and Casey Patterson.

Two AVP events in Seattle and Manhattan Beach served as warm-ups for both partnerships before this week’s FIVB World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach, where both will strive to earn points toward Olympic qualification.

Dalhausser and Lucena finished second in Seattle and first in Manhattan Beach, while Brunner and Rosenthal finished fifth and seventh. Though the results do not factor into Olympic qualification, it gave Rosenthal an idea of the workload that awaits.

“We’ve got a long, bumpy road ahead of us,” he said. “If we’d had a start at the beginning of the year, I think we’d be right there battling teams for first and second spots. [Those] weren’t the exact finishes we want, but it was good to maybe get those losses now.”

Dalhausser and Rosenthal could be on opposite sides of the net this week for the first time since their split.

“We were kind of hoping to get a shot in Seattle or Manhattan, but we didn’t match up in the brackets,” Rosenthal said. “But hopefully we match up here. It would be cool to knock them out.”

Kerri Walsh Jennings returns at World Series of Beach Volleyball