As an indoor volleyball player growing up, Kelly Claes never dreamed of becoming a professional beach volleyball player.
That began to change when she picked up the beach game late in her high school career, and then it became a reality after teaming up with partner Sara Hughes to win the first two NCAA titles in the sport while competing for USC.
After winning their second NCAA title in 2017, Claes and Hughes teamed up to win the inaugural USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships, beating fellow USC Trojans Terese Cannon and Nicolette Martin for the title.
“The whole team aspect of collegiate volleyball is so fun, but having it just be you and your partner in a tournament is more realistic to how it is everywhere else,” said Claes, who is now in her full third season as a professional. “It was fun to experience a ‘normal’ tournament.”
The third edition of the Collegiate Beach Championships, which are part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, will be held later this week in Hermosa Beach, California. The women’s final will be broadcast live on NBCSN Saturday, May 11 at 6 p.m. ET.
This year’s contenders will no doubt be looking at Claes and Hughes as a model for how the event can serve as a springboard to the top level.
During their time together at USC, the duo put together a record 103-match winning streak while winning three national titles (one prior to NCAA sanctioning), then capping things off with the Collegiate Beach Championship. That propelled them onto the pro circuits full time in 2017, where that September they became the youngest team ever to win an AVP tournament.
Over seven years together, they thrived on just about every level, including winning two bronze medals at age-group world championships and the 2016 World University Games title.
After all that history together, the California natives became two of the brightest young stars in the sport — even if in 2018 they decided their futures were with new partners. Claes now competes with Sarah Sponcil, while Hughes is partnered with Summer Ross.
With women’s beach volleyball becoming an NCAA sport in 2016, the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team could be the first to include athletes who played beach in college.
The 6-foot-2 Claes, who is still just 23, started beach volleyball later than many of her competitors, spurred in part by the burgeoning opportunities such as NCAA beach volleyball. She said competing at the Collegiate Beach Championships helped her get some needed experience.
“It was really beneficial for me in regards to the touches I got,” she said. “I needed to be a fast learner. That learning curve needed to be real sharp. I'm really thankful for the coaching staff I had over the years.”
She must have learned something that worked as Claes has gone on to reach the podium in both AVP and FIVB World Tour events, including the silver at a 4-Star tournament in the Netherlands earlier this year.
This season, her focus is on qualifying for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Claes and Sponcil are currently ranked fifth out of the U.S. women’s teams, with Hughes and Ross in fifth. Up to two teams will make it to the Games.
Claes said she’s finally getting the flow of how the tournament season works.
“I love the travel. I love going to new places. And I love competing against the best,” Claes said. “I love the competition of it all, and the grind of playing professionally, and all these little nuances that go into this. I love every little bit of it. Playing against the best, because I want to be the best, and you've got to beat the best to be the best.”
While at USC, Claes worked with two Olympians who, between them, have four Olympic gold medals — Misty May-Treanor and Dain Blanton. They both continue to help her with her professional career.
“My freshman year, Misty May was our volunteer assistant coach, and it was so much fun and exciting to play under her,” Claes said. “She was maybe four or five months pregnant, she was pretty big, and she was still whooping up on all of us. It was amazing to watch.
“Learning from Dain Blanton was amazing. The two of them prepped me, and still are mentors to me to reach out, and help me with whatever I need. They prepped and helped a ton with this transition.”
Now on the pro level, Claes doesn’t have as many teammates and coaches supporting her, which is a huge difference.
“Everything is lined up for you, and you're just told, be here at this time, this is what we're going to do,” she said. “Professionally, I sign up for the all the tournaments. I book my own travel. I book my hotel. I get my own food. I take care of every little aspect. That was really challenging my first year. Still, I'm getting in the flow of things. And not having 14 girls crowding the court, in the same jersey as you, cheering you on. I really miss that, the whole camaraderie of collegiate beach volleyball.”
The AVP has stops all over the United States, and FIVB has tournaments all over the world. Though beach volleyball is often available to watch online, having her friends and family actually sit courtside to support her at the college level meant so much more.
“Being able to compete in southern California, when my friends and family come and support me. Not just see me on a screen, and I get texts from them later,” she said.
Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.