Alix Klineman and April Ross look on in the final of the Wilson Cup on July 26, 2020 in Long Beach, Calif. Handout image provided by AVP.
Next month’s Olympic qualifying event in Doha, Qatar, could prove crucial for beach volleyball teams seeking to represent the United States at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
A total of six U.S. teams — four women’s and two men’s pairs — will compete at the Katara Cup, an FIVB World Tour 4-star event taking place March 8-12. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has increased its importance.
“Every top international team is entered in this event because it’s the only event. It’s going to be a killer competition if everybody stays healthy and can get in,” said B.J. Hoeptner Evans, USA Volleyball communications manager. “Right now, it is the only event on the FIVB schedule … that offers Olympic ranking points. As of now, it’s the only way for any of our teams to gain Olympic ranking points and improve their standings.
As Hoeptner Evans pointed out, FIVB provisional Olympic ranking points are based on a team’s 12 best event finishes during the qualification period.
“After you get your 12 events out of the way, you’re trying to improve on the events where maybe you had a poor finish,” Hoeptner Evans explained. “So, that makes it a little bit more difficult to tell where everyone stands, because you have to go back and see what events they might be replacing with a better finish.”
The No. 1 U.S. women’s team is the pair of April Ross and Alix Klineman, who stand second overall in Olympic ranking points. Ross is a two-time Olympic medalist.
“They basically have enough points to have secured their Olympic qualification,” Hoeptner Evans said. “They finished second at the world championships in 2019, and they won a couple other significant tournaments. Obviously, the (U.S. Olympic) team hasn’t been announced yet, but they have enough points that they don’t have to worry too much.”
The second-ranked U.S. pair includes Kerri Walsh Jennings — a three-time Olympic gold medalist — and Olympian Brooke Sweat. More than 300 points behind them are Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil. The fourth U.S. team heading to Doha includes Kelley Kolinske and Emily Stockman.
“So right now, it’s basically a chase for that second-place spot,” said Hoeptner Evans, “to be the second U.S. team.”
Among the U.S. men, Olympian Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb rank first and stand eighth overall in FIVB Olympic points. They are followed by Trevor Crabb and Tri Bourne and then Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena. The Crabb/Bourne team will not be going to Doha, however.
“They did not qualify for this event,” Hoeptner Evans said. “They tried, and they lost to another U.S. team in the country qualifier. So, they are not going.”
Hoeptner Evans noted that this creates a potential opening for Dalhausser and Lucena.
“They only have 11 events, so this is going to be … their 12th event,” Hoeptner Evans said. “And with Crabb and Bourne not going, if Dalhausser and Lucena can finish top four, they could pull ahead and be the second (U.S. Olympic) team, because they have a couple of really low finishes to replace, as well. So, this is a huge event for Lucena and Dalhausser.”
Dalhausser’s gold medal won in 2008 is the most recent medal for U.S. men at the Games. Walsh Jennings won three gold medals in a row with partner Misty May-Treanor from 2004 to 2012 before earning bronze in 2016 with Ross. 2016 marked the first time since beach volleyball was added to the Olympic program in 1996 that no U.S. team won a gold medal.
But before U.S. teams can try and turn that Olympic history around, they’ve got to get there. And it’s been a long wait. Like U.S. teams in other sports, beach volleyball has had to adapt to the pandemic over the past year.
“We had teams in Sydney, Australia, waiting to compete when they called everything off in March of 2020,” Hoeptner Evans said. “Then California closed the beaches, so our teams couldn’t practice on the beach like they’re used to doing, and we had to close our indoor training facility for a while.
“Now the biggest concern is being able to hold events again so we can get the qualifying done.”
A successful Katara Cup would provide a big step in the right direction.