April Ross, Alix Klineman
FIVB World Tour

April Ross, Alix Klineman get early Olympic beach volleyball qualifying boost

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The U.S. Olympic qualifying chase in women’s beach volleyball figures to be among the most dramatic for the Tokyo Games.

Take last week’s Yangzhou Open, the biggest tournament so far in an Olympic qualification window that runs into June 2020.

April Ross, a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist and 2017 World silver medalist, and new partner Alix Klineman won the FIVB World Tour event in China, sweeping Brazilians Ana Patricia and Rebecca 21-19, 21-16 in Sunday’s final.

“Almost didnt get into China bc didnt realize visa was in my old passport, heroes helped, figured out a way,” was tweeted from Ross’ account. “We played terribly in pool, enlisted more help, believed. Called on more help to prepare for unknown teams, fought hard, won.”

The other top U.S. team from last season, Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, rallied for bronze in Yangzhou, 16-21, 23-21, 15-5 over Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes.

Those medal matches came after April Ross and Klineman eliminated triple Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings and Kelly Claes in the round of 16. Ross and Walsh Jennings earned bronze together at the Rio Games, then split last year.

Walsh Jennings’ partner for an Olympic run is not Claes but Brooke Sweat, which slightly lessened the impact of the Yangzhou defeat.

Walsh Jennings, a 40-year-old mother of three looking to become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player, and Sweat will play for the first time in this week’s FIVB World Tour event in Las Vegas, which doubles as a stop on Walsh Jennings’ new p1440 circuit. The event has the same amount of Olympic qualifying points as Yangzhou.

No more than two pairs per gender per nation can qualify for the Olympics, adding results from the next 18 months of international competitions.

That means at least one of Ross/Klineman, Hughes/Ross and Walsh Jennings/Sweat will not make Tokyo.

MORE: U.S. women’s volleyball has worst global result in 12 years

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Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat partner for 2020 Olympic run

Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
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Kerri Walsh Jennings has a new partner for her 2020 Olympic run — Rio Olympian Brooke Sweat.

“The times I’ve enjoyed the most success, consistent success, that was when there was a true defender behind me, that made me a big blocker,” Walsh Jennings said. “Brooke really sits in the same vein as [retired three-time Olympic champion partner] Misty [May-Treanor]. Brooke is her own athlete and has her own assets and strengths, but largely what Misty and Brooke share in common is their inherent knowledge in the game and the fact it’s in her blood. You can just tell she gets it.

“Brooke, literally, could be the best defender in the world.”

Walsh Jennings, a 40-year-old with three Olympic titles and three children, and Sweat, who went winless in Rio with Lauren Fendrick, are entered in two early Olympic qualifying tournaments this month in Las Vegas and Mexico. The Las Vegas event doubles as a stop on Walsh Jennings’ new p1440 tour.

Walsh Jennings is entered in an event in China this week with 23-year-old Kelly Claes, but 32-year-old Sweat will be her full-time partner for a potential sixth Olympic run.

“She called me, I forget, maybe two months ago, just asked if I’d be interested [in practicing together],” Sweat said, adding that Walsh Jennings was trying out one other player. “Eventually, she made her decision and asked me if I wanted to play and go for gold with her.

“It’s always nice to have one of the best players ever calling you. It was a good day.”

Olympic beach volleyball qualifying runs into 2020, with no more than two pairs per gender per nation earning Tokyo berths.

The best U.S. teams at the moment are Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, who won a top-level international event last month, and April Ross and Alix Klineman, the top team in the 2018 AVP season.

“The toughest thing about our journey right now with Brooke and I is we’re starting at the bottom,” Walsh Jennings said. “I respect all the teams on the American side. I’m not concerned about them. I always want to concern myself with my team and my team only.”

Earlier this year, Walsh Jennings played with fellow mom and 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh, while Sweat was with Summer Ross before Ross partnered with Hughes. Both Walsh Jennings and Sweat split from their Rio Olympic partners less than a year after the Games.

While Walsh Jennings has 55 career international titles (the last with April Ross in 2016 after their Olympic bronze medals), Sweat’s best finish in 58 starts was a runner-up in 2017.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh never found consistency in competition before breaking up in July, in part because Walsh Jennings’ 2017 season ended prematurely with her sixth right shoulder surgery (followed by an ankle surgery).

In 10 FIVB tournaments together, their best finish was fourth, and they had just one other quarterfinal. Walsh Jennings can become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player in history in Tokyo.

“I”m pretty sure that I would have retired had we won [gold in Rio],” Walsh Jennings said on the On Her Turf podcast. “For a year and a bit, I have lived in fear, in fear of regressing, in fear of being that player who showed up that [Rio Olympic] semifinal [loss] night. … I had this [bad] night, and I dragged April down with it, which will always bug me, because she deserves that gold.”

Walsh Jennings said before her 2018 season that the 2020 Olympics would be her last, assuming she qualifies.

“I want to finish on top. I want to go out with a fairytale ending,” she said.

Sweat hasn’t played since the first week of May due to season-ending surgery on a right shoulder that’s bothered her for three years. Sweat had a previous shoulder surgery Sept. 10, 2015, the same day as Walsh Jennings’ fifth right shoulder surgery.

Sweat first saw Walsh Jennings during her freshman year at Florida Gulf Coast University. Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor visited a Fort Myers Toyota dealership for an exhibition. FGCU players were invited to play against the Olympic champions, but Sweat sat out with a knee injury.

Sweat said she and Walsh Jennings had talked about playing together earlier in this Olympic cycle, but the timing was not right.

“It’s not about my shoulder or her shoulder,” Sweat said. “We’re in this for Tokyo gold. That’s my focus.”

MORE: New beach team nets biggest U.S. breakout in a decade

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Sara Hughes, Summer Ross net U.S. beach volleyball’s biggest breakout in a decade

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Sara Hughes and Summer Ross bagged the biggest title for a U.S. women’s beach volleyball team — not including Kerri Walsh Jennings or April Ross — in more than a decade on Sunday.

Hughes, 23, and Summer Ross, 25, beat formidable Brazilians Agatha and Duda 21-19, 12-21, 15-12 in the final of an FIVB World Tour event in Moscow. It’s the first international title for the team of Hughes and Ross, who partnered in March.

“Being in the finals meant everything, and I’m so happy I had this girl by my side,” Hughes said. “Brazil, they played great, and we just competed hard and came out with the win.”

It’s a welcome victory for U.S. beach volleyball, which is looking for young players to succeed Walsh Jennings, who is 39, and April Ross, who is 36.

Sunday marked the first FIVB senior-level tournament title for either player, Hughes’ first final and the first final for Summer Ross in five years. The duo also won both of their AVP starts this season, rolling into Olympic qualifying that starts later this year.

Hughes and Ross (no relation to April) previously showed potential with other partners. Hughes and Kelly Claes won four NCAA titles at USC, causing Walsh Jennings to court Hughes as a potential partner a year ago. Hughes declined.

Ross was an early 2016 U.S. Olympic hopeful with Emily Day, reaching four FIVB World Tour Grand Slam quarterfinals in 2013 and 2014. But they broke up at the end of the 2014 season, and Brooke Sweat and Lauren Fendrick ended up grabbing the second Olympic spot after Walsh Jennings and Ross.

Hughes and Ross and April Ross and Alix Klineman are the only U.S. women’s pairs to win top-level FIVB events since August 2016. Every top U.S. beach team has formed in the last year. Walsh Jennings is currently without a partner after breaking up with 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh.

MORE: Walsh Jennings narrows potential partner list

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