Kelly Cheng, Betsi Flint earn big win for U.S. beach volleyball as Olympic qualifying nears

Kelly Cheng, Betsi Flint

Olympian Kelly Cheng (née Claes) and new partner Betsi Flint won a top-level international beach volleyball tournament in Hamburg last week, the biggest title for an American pair since the Tokyo Olympics.

Cheng and Flint won the World Beach Pro Tour Elite 16 event in Hamburg, Germany. Elite 16 events debuted this year. They have smaller fields than other international events, limited to 16 teams based on world ranking points, and are similar in prestige to the previous Grand Slams and Majors.

Cheng and Flint won all six matches in Hamburg, including victories over Brazilians Talita and Rebecca and Germans Karla Borger and Julia Sude, all Olympians.

The world’s top teams from recent seasons — Olympic gold medalists April Ross and Alix Klineman of the U.S., Olympic silver medalists Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho del Solar of Australia, 2022 World champions Duda and Ana Patricia of Brazil and 2019 World champions Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes of Canada — were not entered in Hamburg.

Qualifying for 2024 Olympic beach volleyball starts Jan. 1. It is similar to past Olympics, with no more than two teams per gender per nation able to qualify.

Last year, Cheng and then-partner Sarah Sponcil rallied to take the second and last U.S. women’s Olympic spot from legend Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat. Cheng and Sponcil were eliminated in the round of 16 in Tokyo, then ended their partnership.

Walsh Jennings, who turned 44 on Monday, is expected to decide on a possible 2024 Olympic run later this year. Walsh Jennings said in April that she hoped to play with 2000 Olympic indoor teammate Logan Tom.

Ross and Klineman have not played together this year after Klineman underwent shoulder surgery in January.

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Olympic beach volleyball champion to end five-year international retirement

Kira Walkenhorst

German Kira Walkenhorst, a 2016 Olympic beach volleyball champion, will compete internationally for the first time in five years, receiving a wild card into August’s European Championships in Munich.

Walkenhorst, who won Rio Olympic gold with Laura Ludwig, quit the sport in January 2019 due to injuries. Six months later, she reportedly said she was pain-free.

Previously, hip and rib injuries and six shoulder operations left her unable to pick up her triplets when wife Maria gave birth in 2018.

Walkenhorst, 31, returned to domestic competition in Germany, playing seven tournaments so far since 2020.

Walkenhorst is paired with Louisa Lippmann for Europeans.

Her Olympic champion partner, Laura Ludwig, played at the Tokyo Games with Maggie Kozuch, reaching the quarterfinals.

Ludwig, 36, gave birth to her second child last month.

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Norway, Brazil win beach volleyball world titles; bronze match stopped due to injury

Anders Mol, Christian Sorum

Norwegians Anders Mol and Christian Sorum became the first men to follow an Olympic beach volleyball title with a world title the next year.

The Volley Vikings beat Brazilians Renato and Vitor Felipe 21-15, 21-16 in Sunday’s final in Rome to complete their collection of major titles — Olympics, world championships, European championships and World Tour Finals.

“We’re living a dream right now, and we’ve been dreaming about winning the world championship since we were little kids watching Stavanger [in 2009] for the first time,” Mol said, according to the FIVB. “Our partnership is still kind of recent. But now we have some titles under our belts and it’s still really hard to realize for us what it is that we’re living, because this is just a dream.”

In the women’s final, Duda and Ana Patricia beat Canadians Sophie Bukovec and Brandie Wilkerson 21-17, 21-19 to put Brazil back on the top step of the podium in one of its national sports after its worst Olympic showing ever.

Duda and Ana Patricia and Mol and Sorum each dropped one set in eight matches en route to gold medals.

In a bronze-medal match in Rome, Swiss Olympic bronze medalist Joana Heidrich screamed in pain after a serve, suffering a dislocated shoulder that caused her and partner Anouk Verge-Depre to forfeit while up 21-16, 10-7 over Germans Svenja Muller and Cinja Tillmann.

“After long clarifications in the hospital, the shoulder is back in,” Heidrich posted on social media. “I will report to you when I have recovered.”

Americans Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner dropped their bronze-medal match 15-21, 21-17, 15-11 to Brazilians Andre and George.

The U.S. won zero medals for the fourth time in 13 biennial world championships. The U.S. won at least one medal in all seven Olympics with beach volleyball.

April Ross and Alix Klineman, who took gold in Tokyo, did not compete at worlds. Klineman has been sidelined since January shoulder surgery. Ross originally entered worlds with Emily Day, then was replaced two weeks before the tournament began due to injury.

Brazil, the other longtime beach power, reasserted itself at these world championships by taking half of the available medals.

In Tokyo, the nation didn’t put a team in one of the Olympic beach volleyball finals for the first time in history. It didn’t put a team in a semifinal, either. At the last worlds in 2019, Brazil went medal-less at the biennial championships for the first time in history.

Brazil, known to change its teams to from Olympics to Olympics, did so again after Tokyo.

Duda, who played with 2016 Olympic silver medalist Agatha in Tokyo, teamed at worlds with Ana Patricia, who paired with Rebecca in Tokyo. Ana Patricia and Rebecca blew a one-set lead over Heidrich and Verge-Depre in the Olympic quarterfinals.

“I decided to have this ‘Believe’ tattoo on my arm after the Olympics last year because it was a difficult moment for me,” Ana Patricia said Sunday, according to the FIVB. “I wanted to have something that would always remind me that we need to believe in ourselves before anyone else does. Today, it couldn’t make any more sense.”

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