|Sinjin Smith (L) and Randy Stoklos (R)|
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Kings of the Beach Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos have returned to Rio and Copacabana for the first time since 1993. The pair that won five titles on the esteemed sands reminisced about the early days of the beach tour and the upcoming 2016 Olympics.
The pair hasn't played together since 2006 and haven't been in Rio together since 1993 when they won their fifth Tour tournament in the city. Chatting with them on Copacabana Beach during the FIVB World Tour Rio Open, they seemed at home again.
"We came down to Brazil to do a four-man in San Palo in 2006. This is our first time back since the 90s," Stoklos said.
When they talked, high winds started to hit the beach but as they peppered, their skills were still sharp as if it wasn't three decades since they reigned the beach. On Saturday they'll play again on center court in a legends match. History coming full circle as the pair was here at the first World Tour event in 1987 and with the Games just around the corner less than one year away, the occasion is one to mark.
EVERYONE KNEW THIS WAS THE SPORT EVERYONE AROUND THE WORLD WAS GOING TO WATCH
"Back in the 70s and 80s the sport was very small except for in Southern California," Smith said. "When we first came to Brazil, that was when I knew this could be a big international sport.
"In 1993, that was when we really showcased the event for the Olympic Games. The IOC president was here in Brazil, they were really impressed and that's what led to the sport being in the Olympics. No one knew what beach volleyball inside the Olympics would be like. When we were one of the first sports to sell out the Olympic Games, the first time we were ever there, everyone knew this was the sport everyone around the world was going to watch and be very successful in the future years."
The first Games featuring beach volleyball was 1996, in Atlanta. That year Americans Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes won gold and Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh followed with silver. Smith qualified with Carl Henkel, they finished fifth at the Games. Just missing the bid, Stoklos lost in the first Olympic Trials in the finals to Kiraly/Steffes.
"We've seen some very successful Olympic Games, starting in 1996. Each time the Olympics became bigger, better, more fans and more international exposure. This time, in Brazil, 2016 has to be the biggest ever. This is the birthplace of international beach volleyball and the place where the best teams have been coming from. I expect this Olympic Games to be the biggest and best of all," added Smith.
Stoklos and Smith did get a taste of the Olympic Games in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Beach volleyball was played as a demonstration sport and the duo won the tournament, as well as U.S. women Karolyn Kirby and Nancy Reno. For a team that won five World Tour events in Rio, they know the area and the people well.
"Brazil will be ready to host the Olympics. Especially in beach volleyball. Copacabana and Ipanema have never changed, from the points that we played years ago until today." Stoklos added, "It will be the most exciting Olympic Games for beach volleyball yet."
Compared to London, the landscape couldn't be more different. Instead of a city landscape of the Horse Guards Parade, spectators and athletes will get the serene view of the Sugar Loaf Mountains on the left overlooking the light sands of Copacabana stretching for 2.2 miles to Copacabana Fort on the right.
"The opportunity for the athletes in 2016 to play on an actual beach, the most famous beach in the world, Copacabana, is going to be very exciting," said Smith. "We've played in incredible spots. The difference to coming to the beach in natural wind off the ocean, the natural sand, it's going to be a nice experience. Something I know the players are looking forward to."
"One of the most exciting things for all the players is to win in THAT location. If you have that under your resume, winning in Rio, that's going to mean a whole lot in the future," Stoklos added.
THE BOOK IS BEING WRITTEN AS WE SPEAK
When asked what the match would look like if they could play one of the teams today, Stoklos said, "The guys have gotten bigger, stronger, taller and longer. Not to say we couldn't compete with those guys at this point. I was a pretty good blocker and Sinjin was a pretty good defender. I think we could put a little pressure on those teams."
As of Aug. 31, after the Long Beach Grand Slam, the U.S. has two men's teams in the Top 15 of the provisional Olympic rankings. Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson at seventh and John Hyden and Tri Bourne at 12th. With only two tournaments in the books, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena are not far off in the 30s. For the women, Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat are 11th and right outside the bubble at 18th are Jennifer Kessy and Emily Day and 19th Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross. A silver in Long Beach and three consecutive Top 5 outings has helped them surge back to the top.
"It's important to understand the game itself. They've had to change their game in the last month because of the injury to Kerri," explained Stoklos. "They've done things in a more dynamic way in respect of what their game was before. They've opened doors because they're two really superb athletes and maybe the best two in the world. There is a term going around now that April is in 'beast mode.' They have turned up the game in quite a way."
The pair have two podium finishes in 2015 and been in the Top 25 at all six events they've played so far this year. Ross logged two additional appearances in the Top 25 with Whitney Pavlik (25th, St. Petersburg) and Jennifer Fopma (Yokohama, 4th). The time off for Walsh Jennings added extra practices for Ross who was practicing with two teams, but it's paying off.
"Kerri is doing some incredible stuff that's unmatched, truly. I've never seen anybody playing left handed, while being right-hand dominant. She's a freak," chuckled Stoklos. "April's done this [coverage] now for a few weeks and now she's comfortable about making the right judgement. When you see your partner, right handed or left, put the ball away, you're now a little more confident to go 1-2-3 on plays.
"Even though they're injured, Kerri is a freak of nature. If you haven't been around to see her, it takes a little while to understand how good of a volleyball player she is. Not only from her physical attributes, but it's her mental aspect of the game too. The stage is set for them. At this stage in the ballgame she's dislocated her shoulder and anybody in any sport that would go through something like that, I would say the party is over. But Kerri has something about her that is different. Ultimately that will show, next year she'll be healthier than she is now."
The pair is carrying an Olympic legacy with them and spectators and media are buzzing with Olympic chatter this week in Rio. How are they feeling? What it like to play here just one year away from the Games?
Ross commented after sweeping their pool, "We've had three major tournaments playing like this, it feels natural now. I'm confident in her playing with her left and shooting with her right."
"To come out and play as a team, in Copa, in the wind and inside the Olympic stadium, it was really fun," Walsh Jennings said.
From a legend's perspective, the future looks bright too.
"Kerri's taken it to the next level. Did we know she was going to win three Olympic gold medals? Of course not. The book is being written as we speak."
The Rio Open is the 13th stop on the 2015 FIVB World Tour and is a test event for the 2016 Olympic Games. There are seven events left on this year's schedule, with the FIVB World Tour Finals being hosted in Fort Lauderdale at the end of the month.
Next season's schedule is expected to have around 20 events. The FIVB staffers on site in Rio also announced the testing of a challenge replay system this week which would be used at the Games. The next chance for Americans to earn the U.S. a bid in the Games is to be in the Top 15 of the provisional Olympic rankings by the cutoff date of June 13, 2016. After that, there are two additional chances in the weeks before the Olympics to gain a last-chance spot for the country.
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