COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Beach volleyball came on the Olympic scene officially at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Since then, the U.S. has had a team medal in each Games for a total of nine medals and the most gold of any country in the sport.
Not only does Team USA have six gold medals, but the U.S. also owns the distinction of having two athletes with the most gold (three) for either gender, Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor. No one had two gold medals before the pair earned their second in Beijing (2008) and no woman had three medals of any color before London (2012). In 2016, Walsh Jennings is looking to rewrite the record books again.
Looking ahead to Aug. 17, 2016, the day of the women's gold medal match, if Walsh Jennings wins her fourth gold, with partner April Ross, she will become just the third American ever to win four golds in the same event for a team sport. If she earns a medal of any kind, she'll become the most decorated beach volleyball athlete in the history of the Games.
The road to the next Games is only half-way there for U.S. beach athletes though. The 2015 FIVB World Tour began the qualification process for the 2016 Games, but with Brazil winning the Beach World Championships and the first two quota spots, the U.S. won't be able to qualify its first teams until the rankings conclude on June 13, 2016. Even then, the quota spots are up for grabs because teams have to not only be in the Top 16 of rankings, but be in the top two of American teams.
If and when the U.S. qualifies, American athletes will be pitted against the biggest rival in the beach Olympic record books, the host country Brazil. USA has won three of five golds for both men and women, but Brazil has 11 medals total and as the host country in 2016, they've got the home court familiarity. Not to be taken lightly, the home court advantage saw USA finish with gold and silver at the '96 Games in Atlanta for the men. The U.S. pulled the 1-2 punch in London with the women and a gold and bronze in Athens. Other countries (Brazil, China) have also had two of the three teams on the podium, but several of the top teams heading into Rio are new partnerships for a few countries, which presents new expectations.
Karch Kiraly (our current Women's National Team head coach) successfully made the switch from medaling with our indoor Men's National Team to earning gold in 1996 with Kent Steffes following mostly a domestic tour schedule leading into Atlanta. Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor joined in 2001, making their gold in Athens monumental as a new partnership inside that quad. Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser preceded their '08 gold by teaming up just two years prior.
Fast forward to 2016 and the teams trying to put new ink in the Olympic books. Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson are going for their first Games as a team. They rank sixth in provisional Olympic rankings and are the top U.S. men's team. John Hyden and Tri Bourne, both relatively new on the World Tour, rank 11th. Hyden is a transplant from two Olympics with the indoor MNT, Bourne the fresh-faced 2014 FIVB Rookie of the Year. Dalhausser is trying for his third appearance, this time with hopeful Nick Lucena, a partnership that is just seven FIVB events deep in qualification.
Cue in the women's shuffle. Leading the race are Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat, who rank first among the U.S. and finished tied for 12th in rankings at the end of December. They've been together since 2014 and are both trying for their first Games. Walsh Jennings is hoping to qualify at the Olympics with Ross, who won silver in London with Jennifer Kessy. Returning from one year off in 2014, Kessy ranks 15th with new partner Emily Day.
USA has new teams and new faces in store for Rio. No matter the outcome, Team USA will be writing records in 2016.
|PROVISIONAL OLYMPIC RANKINGS|
|(as of Dec. 7, 2015)|
|6th||Jake Gibb/Casey Patterson||12th||Lauren Fendrick/Brooke Sweat|
|11th||John Hyden/Tri Bourne||15th||Jennifer Kessy/Emily Day|
|18th||Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena||22nd||Kerri Walsh Jennings/April Ross|