The 2021 Beach Volleyball season: A year without precedent


April Ross and Alix Klineman celebrate winning the gold medal in Tokyo/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

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HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — The beaches are empty now. Almost, anyway. There are still the enthusiasts, the weekend warriors. But save for the occasional game of no-jump, or some light reps here and there, mostly just an excuse to touch the sand and play some music and goof off, the professional beach volleyball players are elsewhere at the moment.

It isn’t any different from a year ago, yet it is also entirely different from a year ago.

At this point in 2020, you wouldn’t find players on the beach. Due to COVID restrictions, they weren’t really allowed on the beach. Now it is simply a matter of choice to stay off the sand: A season’s worth of work — to the international players, at least — has been completed. It is time to rest.

And yet, while COVID restrictions are no longer providing the upheaval to the beach volleyball schedule they did in 2020, there is certainly no shortage of change and uncertainty in the beach world. Both major tours, the FIVB and AVP, will be bearing new looks in 2022.

Volleyball World, with a $300 million investment from CVC Capital Partners, is putting a new digital face on international volleyball, beach and indoor alike. A new system has been created yet will not be tested until March. The grandest of plans has been laid out, though you are certainly forgiven if you remain skeptical; you’ve seen this movie before — new owner buys tour, garish and promising plans are announced, little changes. Maybe Volleyball World and its CEO, Finn Taylor, will be different; maybe it will be more of the same.

The AVP, too, bears a new owner: Bally’s, a casino entertainment company known far more for taking your money at the blackjack table than at a live sporting event. Neither the FIVB nor AVP schedule has been fully published, and the where and when and how often the AVP will hold events, much less the size of those events, remains a question mark.

But this wouldn’t be beach volleyball if it were devoid of question marks, would it?

Lord knows there were plenty heading into the 2021 season, which, upon review, may be one of the most successful and thrilling campaigns the United States has seen in some time.

Would there be an Olympic Games?

What would those Olympic Games look like?

How could the FIVB pull off hosting the final stretch of Olympic qualification, with COVID restrictions and bubbles and a volume of tests so high it’s a miracle the players have any material left in their noses for which to test?

And what about the AVP? Could fans return, Konas in hand, to watch the final season of Jake Gibb? To view the bedlam of the women’s brackets?

All the questions were answered

Somehow, those questions all found themselves answered, and answered well. The show went on. Cancun was the host for three consecutive events in a windy, rainy slopfest of beach volleyball, yet somehow, someway, it delivered and then some. Born was the greatest challenger Norwegians Anders Mol and Christian Sorum had faced, a pair of 26-year-olds from West Africa competing for Qatar named Ahmed Tijan and Cherif Samba.

Three straight finals did the Qataris make in Cancun, culminating in a gold medal in the final event (conveniently, Mol and Sorum were not in attendance). No longer was it a foregone conclusion that the Norwegians would win gold in Tokyo; with Qatar playing at a new altitude, there was a new contender in town.

Ahmed Tijan-Cherif Samba
Qatar’s Ahmed Tijan and Cherif Samba celebrate their country’s first medal in beach volleyball/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The same could be said about the women. How many people, at the end of 2019, would have predicted the inevitable medal clash between April Ross and Alix Klineman, and Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes? Rare was a final that didn’t feature one of the two North American giants throughout the Olympic quad. Yet in Cancun, only the Canadians made a final, and three different teams claimed gold.

Nobody in their right mind would have written either team off in Tokyo. But, then again, nobody in their right mind would have doubled down to bet on Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes to surpass Brooke Sweat and Kerri Walsh Jennings, either. Stuck in country quotas were Sponcil and Claes, which also meant they were stuck in qualifiers, too, nasty affairs that resulted in horrific draws on multiple occasions.

Cancun, once a beacon of hope, was not the launching pad it could have been; with just two events remaining on the schedule — in Sochi, Russia; and Ostrava, Czech Republic — Claes and Sponcil needed at least one medal to pass Sweat and Walsh Jennings.

With two events remaining, Claes and Sponcil would have to do something unprecedented.

This season just happened to be the Year of the Unprecedented.

There Claes and Sponcil went, storming through Sochi to win their first gold medal as a team, in their 200th international match.

In doing so, the kids who would become the youngest American team to qualify for an Olympic Games leaped over the one with a combined five Olympic appearances.

Unprecedented.

They didn’t even need to win a single match the next week, in Ostrava. Walsh Jennings and Sweat fell in the qualifier, guaranteeing Claes and Sponcil’s berth to Tokyo. Olympic qualification in hand, there was another motivator for Claes and Sponcil: the burden of proof that Sochi was no fluke.

It wasn’t.

Six straight matches were won in Ostrava, finishing with a convincing victory over Swiss Olympians Joana Heidrich and Anouk Verge-Depre. After 20 events without winning a gold medal, Claes and Sponcil were returning home with two.

Unprecedented.

Indeed, history was made by Claes and Sponcil, and many other Americans, but it was also authored all over the globe.

Kelly Claes-Sarah Sponcil-Ostrava beach volleyball
Kelly Claes, left, and Sarah Sponcil after winning in Ostrava/FIVB photo

While Claes and Sponcil would become the youngest Americans to qualify for an Olympic Games, Verge-Depre and Heidrich would eventually claim Switzerland’s first Olympic medal, a bronze. The men’s podium, too, was full of accomplishments with no precedent: Norway, Russia, and Qatar all earned the first medals for their country.

Even off the podium, history was being written. Latvians Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka made it before they stepped foot in Tokyo. They made it before COVID became the most recognizable five-letter acronym in our lexicon. In winning the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Haiyang, China, they became the first Latvian women to qualify for an Olympics. So proud was their home country that when they returned to Latvia, they were met at the airport with a full orchestra.

They’d continue making Latvia beam with pride, stunning their way to the semifinals in Tokyo, proving that their berth, like Claes’ and Sponcil’s, was certainly no fluke, and while it may have been unprecedented, they were simply setting the new norm.

April Ross solidifies her greatness

Amid the chaos, the Cinderellas, the power shifts and underdog stories, there was one aspect of this season that remained totally, positively normal: April Ross is one of the greatest beach volleyball players who has ever lived.

Her eventual gold in Tokyo was far from guaranteed, but when she and Alix Klineman won it, as momentous as it was, it was maybe the least surprising result of the 2021 season, the final accomplishment needed to assure her place in the GOAT pasture.

In fact, it was damn near prophetic.

“It was really hard to figure out what to do, and there weren’t many chances to compete and try people out or whatever,” Ross said in 2017, when she selected Klineman as her partner for the Tokyo quad. “It came down to really intangible things, and I decided to go with Alix Klineman to take a shot at Tokyo with her.

“I could just tell from training with her. She comes from an indoor background, which not many players have that indoor background anymore. She just has the really disciplined mentality. The way she trains is very focused and intense. She understands the importance of practice and coming to win in practice. I think her mentality in practice and wanting to get better and how she’s going to go about that and always coming with that competitive mentality was a big intangible for me.

“I feel like in my career, I’ve gotten some victories purely out of my determination to win. You get to this point and it stops being about doing things right or making the perfect shot and more about your determination to win and refusal to lose and I see a lot of that in her.”

What does 2022 have in store?

Some accurate prophesying as this next quad begins would be convenient for the men’s side of things. Many of those on Tour will not be able to recall a time when Phil Dalhausser and Jake Gibb were not the best blockers in the United States.

With both retired from international play, who will take their place?

The obvious answer, if 2021 was any indicator, is Tri Bourne, though it is worth noting these past two years have been replete with anything but obvious answers. Bourne knows that well enough: After missing two Olympics, both due to death by country quota, the 32-year-old took the side door into Tokyo … as a defender…subbing in for one of his best childhood friends … to play alongside the man who had been his top rival for the entirety of his beach career.

Unprecedented is putting it lightly.

So maybe it portends well, then, that there are no obvious answers moving forward. Perhaps it’ll be time for Theo Brunner to make the leap to the upper-echelons of the World Tour that he is so very capable. He and Chaim Schalk, after all, began the year as the sixth-ranked American team, scrapping it out in country quotas, only to finish as the No. 2, behind only Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Chase Budinger, too, made quite a case this year. Back-to-back-to-back AVP finals he made, alongside the forever-youthful Casey Patterson. They won two of those finals, in Atlanta and Chicago, and were a swing away from pushing the Manhattan Beach Open final to a third set.

Whether he and Patterson will remain together is yet to be determined, but internationally, Budinger will need to pick up someone new. Who that is, no formal announcement has been made, though Troy Field is the obvious front-runner. In four international tournaments, Field made three finals — silver in Rwanda with Budinger; silver and gold in Italy and The Netherlands with Miles Evans — and took a top-10 at the season-ending Itapema four-star with Budinger.

Certainly not to be forgotten is young Andy Benesh, he of the biggest breakout on the AVP this year. Three AVPs he played with Billy Allen, and three finishes he claimed that either matched or topped his career-high.

And if all of this upheaval and uncertainty gives you pause for optimism, it’s vital to recall that it was the American women who were in this very scenario after the 2016 Olympic Games. While Ross and Walsh Jennings won bronze in Rio, Sweat and Lauren Fendrick failed to break pool, and there weren’t exactly a host of world-beating American teams on their heels.

Where are we now?

America has reasserted itself as the global powerhouse it has long been. The FIVB rankings has essentially become an inventory of the embarrassment of riches the U.S. has become in terms of young talent. In the five years since Rio, with 2021 becoming the exclamation point that underscored the quad, the world saw the development of Ross and Klineman, Walsh Jennings and Sweat, Sponcil and Claes, Kelley Kolinske and Emily Stockman, Betsi Flint and Emily Day, Allie Wheeler and Corinne Quiggle, Terese Cannon and Molly Turner, Zana Muno and Crissy Jones, Sarah Schermerhorn and Delaney Mewhirter.

Those 18 American women combined for 30 medals during this COVID-shortened season, and that doesn’t even include a host of ebullient talents in the pipeline. It is almost unforgivable that we could we make it this far in a story recapping the 2021 season without mentioning the year’s golden girls: Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth. For five years at LSU, Nuss and her Tigers were annually mislabeled as the plucky underdogs who could.

Record after record fell before Nuss in college, including that of most wins in NCAA history. It helped, of course, to go undefeated with Kloth in their senior seasons, a stretch of victories they extended into AVP Next Golds in New Orleans and Atlantic City and then, shockingly, AVP Atlanta. They snuffed Olympians and veterans, AVP champions and rookies alike en route to their first AVP crown, in their first AVP tournament. Just four times would they lose on the AVP Tour this season: thrice to Ross and Klineman, once to Claes and Sponcil.

And to think: The world has no idea what’s coming when Nuss and Kloth make their FIVB debut.

Or maybe they do.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the widespread success of the American women in 2021. Without the country quota limiting federations’ entries, the World Tour could very well become a nightmarish and never-ending game of whack-a-yank.

It made for a fitting end to this season when, just a few weeks ago, a pair of American teenagers named Megan Kraft and Delaynie Maple traveled to Phuket, Thailand, for the U-19 World Championships. In a fashion that has been befitting of the American women since Claes and Sponcil stunned the field in Sochi, they emerged from the qualifier and promptly conquered, vanquishing eight straight opponents, a World Championship finish to cap a World Championship caliber season.

So yes, the beaches may be empty of the American professionals for now. Uncertainty reigns, as always. But when question marks abound, it leaves room for the remarkable.

The unprecedented.

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