In just a few months since reuniting, Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes have become not just the best women’s beach volleyball team in the U.S., but also, arguably, the world.
Cheng and Hughes, former partners who got back together for a 2024 Olympic run, won the World Tour Finals for the biggest title for a U.S. pair since April Ross and Alix Klineman took gold in Tokyo.
The 27-year-old Californians swept reigning world champions Duda and Ana Patricia of Brazil 21-18, 21-16 in Sunday’s final in Doha.
Cheng and Hughes have entered four tournaments since reuniting last fall and won all of them — once on the domestic AVP tour and now three international events.
They are rolling into the start of the 2024 Olympic qualifying window next week. It’s likely that the top two U.S. women’s pairs across international events over the course of the next 18 months qualify for the Paris Games.
Cheng and Hughes were previously NCAA champion teammates at USC, then the most promising, young U.S. pro team before splitting in 2018. Cheng made the Tokyo Olympics with Sarah Sponcil (lost in the round of 16), while Hughes’ Tokyo bid flamed out when partner Summer Ross suffered a back injury in 2019.
“It was a lot of the unknown and being young and kind of immature and listening to maybe outside forces and not really knowing how to deal with things as well,” Hughes said in October of their past breakup. “We’ve pretty much moved past that in our relationship. Moving forward with one another, we’re completely different players, and we’re a lot more mature. It feels like the right time. The past is past. We’re just moving forward.”
Cheng and Hughes have taken over from April Ross and Klineman as the top U.S. team. After winning Olympic gold, Klineman underwent shoulder surgery in January 2022 and last week announced she is pregnant and may return from childbirth for a “last-second” 2024 Olympic qualifying bid.
April Ross, a 40-year-old with an Olympic medal of every color, last competed in March, then withdrew before June’s world championships, where she was entered with Emily Day, with an unspecified injury. She has not announced if or when she plans to return to competition.
The U.S. earned at least one beach volleyball medal at every Olympics that the sport has been on the program (since 1996), and a men’s or women’s gold at all but one Olympics. Eighteen months out from the Paris Games, Cheng and Hughes are the best hope to keep the podium streak going.
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