Four U.S. beach volleyball teams will be among the field of 20 top international pairs — 10 men's teams and 10 women's — competing in the Swatch FIVB World Tour Finals this week in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Two-time Olympian Jake Gibb and partner Casey Patterson lead the way as the fifth-ranked men’s team. Joining them are 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and partner Nick Lucena on the men's side and 2012 Olympic silver medalist April Ross and Lauren Fendrick plus fellow 2012 silver medalist Jennifer Kessy and Emily Day on the women’s side. Gibb and Patterson qualified for the event by merit of being among the top-eight men's teams in the FIVB World Tour Ranking, while the other three U.S. teams qualified as wild-card entrants.
Although 2016 Olympic seeding points are not on the line this week, the players have more than pride on the line as the winning men’s and women’s teach each win $100,000. It marks the biggest winner’s check in the history of international beach volleyball.
“This is very exciting for us,” Gibb said. “It is a big day at the office, and it is a day that we can really cash in on our talent and experience.”
While Ross downplayed the prize money as a motivating factor, she pointed out that the FIVB is one circuit where the men and the women play for equal prize pools.
“I never really looked at it like that, but I do not understand why men and women would be paid differently,” Ross said. “This is what they should be doing it, and all sports should be doing it. We are all professionals and we all train just as hard as one another at the top.”
That said, winning the cash, even on home sand, will be a challenge. There will be four days of pool play followed by elimination rounds that will determine the champions over the weekend.
“It is like a gold-medal grand slam. Every match in pool play is like a championship caliber match,” Gibb said. “It is exciting. To be the old guy (Gibb is 39 years old) on the tour and have to face these top players, it gets your blood pumping and the adrenaline moving, that is for sure. It’s a gnarly event.”
Gibb said that their top competition would be the top-ranked team of Alison Cerutti and Bruno Oscar Schmidt from Brazil. The Brazilians defeated Gibb and Patterson last month in the FIVB Grand Slam event in Olsztyn, Poland.
“They are the best team in the world,” Gibb said. “We have worked extremely hard since … last time and I am confident that we can play well and do what it takes to win.”
Gibb and Patterson are 6-8 against teams in their pool play domain and 13-16 against the field. The Brazilians, meanwhile, are 11-2 against their pool play companions and are a whopping 24-7 against the field.
“We are going to have our work cut out for us, no doubt about it,” Gibb said. “However, we are ready to go and we are getting better every day. We will show up and show out.”
Gibb and Patterson have been playing together since 2013. Ross and Fendrick don’t have quite as much history.
Ross, who along with former partner Kessy fell to fellow Americans Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings in the 2012 Olympic gold-medal game, had been playing with Walsh Jennings this season. However, Walsh Jennings is out of competition after having shoulder surgery. Fendrick’s partner, Brooke Sweat, is also out after having shoulder surgery.
Although they’ve never played an FIVB World Tour event together, Ross and Fendrick did win on the AVP tour and played a lot this summer together.
“We are working on our communication together and just learning how to mesh together,” Ross said. “We know that we have to play at a high level. I am looking at the fact that this is just a really high-level tournament, and we would love to win.”
Plus, despite their relative newness as partners, Ross and Fendrick have played against each other in high school, college and professionally.
“It makes it a little more nerve-wracking, but Lauren is a great player and I really respect her game,” Ross said. “There is very little about her as a player that I do not know, and I know that the same is true with her about me.
“I am planning on us being good enough to win, but it will be a little weird.”