Two days after leading USC to its second straight NCAA women’s beach volleyball title, and just minutes after finishing her last college final exam, all Kelly Claes wanted to talk about on Tuesday night was her new video game, “Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.”
She couldn’t wait to “blaze through it,” just like she and beach partner Sara Hughes have been blazing through their opponents tournament after tournament the last three seasons at USC.
Having already been deemed Team USA’s next beach volleyball superstars, the dominant duo just led USC to a 38-1 record on the sand en route to the school’s second title in as many years as the sport has been sanctioned by the NCAA.
But there’s little time to rest, let alone for Claes to finish her new video game.
Claes and Hughes are already finding themselves at California’s Hermosa Beach, ranked No. 1 among the 24 women’s teams at this weekend’s USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships. The event is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast, and the winning duos will earn spots on USA Volleyball’s collegiate beach national team.
After a 2-0 start in pool play on Thursday, Claes and Hughes are aiming for Saturday evening’s final, which will air from 6-7:30 p.m. EST on NBC Sports Network. The men’s final is scheduled to be aired immediately after.
“It’s exciting to be the team to beat,” Claes said. “I feel like we’ve been that team for a few years now, so we’re used to that limelight. But I really like it because teams play their best against us.”
Hughes and Claes have played together for nearly six years, including the past three seasons at USC. They won bronze at the 2013 U19 world championships, silver at the 2014 U21 world championships and gold at the 2016 World University Games.
They’re favorites to leap into the senior-level circuit next year.
Claes can be quiet and Hughes can be boisterous, but together, they’re yin and yang. The two cherish their hours spent together in airport layovers just as much as they do their hours on the sand.
“We just clicked right at the start when we began playing together,” Claes said. “We’re both competitive as hell, and we feed off each other in matches, and I think that’s a really good dynamic that we have.
“She’s always pushing me to be better, to be the best version of myself. I wouldn’t want to be playing with anyone else.”
But women’s beach volleyball didn’t become NCAA sanctioned until the two entered college, meaning their path to the top of the sport hasn’t been so clear cut. Claes played indoor volleyball throughout high school in Placentia, California; Hughes, despite starting out on the sand, grew up constantly looking at how three-time Olympic champion Misty-May Treanor — another short defender — would approach her opponents on the court.
“The pathway wasn’t so clear when I was being recruited, because I was one of the first ones ever to recruit only to beach volleyball,” said Hughes, who is from Costa Mesa, California. “It was such a new sport that people almost thought I was a little crazy because they didn’t necessarily think it was going to pick up. So it’s fun to say, ‘Look at where it is now.’”
With a clear athlete development pathway now in place, women’s beach volleyball is exploding in the United States, with a lot of new pairings popping up across the country nearly every month now.
“Awareness is just skyrocketing, and it’s improving both the USA Volleyball and NCAA pipeline for beach volleyball players coming up,” Hughes said. “It’s growing tremendously. It’s actually the fastest growing NCAA sport in history. Girls who are 10 to 12 years old are now quitting indoor volleyball because they’re so passionate about the beach volleyball game, and they’re able to do that now because we have these beach volleyball opportunities in college.”
Claes and Hughes are expected to jump to the senior circuit after graduation, with the ultimate goal of qualifying for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. If they do, they could become the first U.S. Olympic team to have played beach, instead of indoor, in college.
“It would mean the world to me,” Hughes said of competing on the Olympic stage. “I have been dreaming of this since I was 8 years old. That’s exactly when I fell in love with the sport, and I’ve been working to achieve this goal since that young of an age.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.