Hometown Hopefuls: Kelly Cheng/Sara Hughes, California
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
The Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes beach volleyball partnership is like something out of a Hollywood script.
Both born in 1995, they were raised in Southern California, the sport’s spiritual home, amid the backdrop of Olympic beach volleyball debuting at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Now, they are the premier American beach team, tasked with extending a streak dating to 1996. The U.S. won at least one beach volleyball medal at all seven Olympics, including gold at six of those Games.
It’s not a stretch to envision Cheng and Hughes reaching the podium in Paris next year, then carrying that momentum into the 2028 Los Angeles Games. At the first Summer Games in the U.S. since 1996, beach volleyball will be one of the hottest events, both in popularity and temperature -- held in a 12,000-person stadium on Santa Monica Beach.
Hughes, older than Cheng by seven months and shorter by four inches, grew up playing on Huntington Beach. Three-time Olympic champion Misty May-Treanor often practiced a few courts over.
“My older coach said, ‘If you want to be the best, you have to watch the best,’” said Hughes, who put a poster of May-Treanor on her bedroom wall. “So he would sit me down and watch her play.”
May-Treanor became a mentor -- briefly a coach of Cheng and Hughes’ college team -- and continues to support them with post-match text messages.
Cheng (née Claes), from Placentia a little more inland, kept her focus on the hardcourts (indoor volleyball, basketball) until midway through high school. She verbally committed to play indoors for Long Beach State, but a coach suggested she try hitting balls on the sand because the NCAA was in the process of beginning to sponsor the sport.
Around that time, Cheng met Hughes. “She very much took me under her wing,” Cheng said.
They played youth tournaments together and in 2013 placed third in the under-19 world championships in Porto, Portugal. Cheng had an epiphany. Their coach took her aside, told her to freeze and take in the atmosphere.
Do you want to be a gym rat for the rest of your life, he asked her.
“I thought that was my game plan,” said Cheng, who as a teenager fractured her spine and underwent a cardiac ablation to treat supraventricular tachycardia.
After prayers and conversations with her parents, Cheng signed to play beach volleyball for USC, joining Hughes. They were nicknamed “Cardinal and Gold” after the colors of the school and their hair.
“I don’t know if my body would have held up if I played indoor, but I think on the beach, I’m going on a very, very long career,” Cheng said. “And I love that this is a two-person sport. There’s no subbing. There’s no hiding. You have to be able to do everything.”
Cheng and Hughes filled a need for U.S. beach volleyball when there was an opening for new talent. May-Treanor retired after the 2012 Olympics, and Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross were in their 30s in the mid-2010s.
In between winning NCAA beach titles with USC in 2016 and 2017, they were the only team to take a set off Walsh Jennings and Ross in AVP play leading up to the Rio Games. Hughes even turned down Walsh Jennings’ offer to partner up.
But as with any script, there must be an obstacle.
Cheng and Hughes broke up in 2018.
“It was a lot of the unknown and being young and kind of immature and listening to maybe outside forces and not really knowing how to deal with things as well,” Hughes said last October.
Hughes paired with Summer Ross for a Tokyo Olympic bid that ended after Ross’ 2019 back injury. Cheng then teamed with UCLA Bruin Sarah Sponcil, beat out Walsh Jennings for the final U.S. Olympic spot and lost in the round of 16.
Then last year, Cheng reached out to Hughes to ask about reuniting.
“Kelly and I both had pull towards each other, and kind of knew that it was just the right time again,” Hughes said in October.
When Cheng and Hughes announced their reformed partnership last fall, they instantly became favorites to grab one of two U.S. spots for the Paris Games.
April Ross and Alix Klineman, the Tokyo gold medalists, are unlikely to play together again. Ross, 40, is now coaching and due with her first child in October, though she hasn’t closed the door on a competition return. Klineman, 33, is also due with her first child this year. Either could return for a last-second Olympic bid, though the window to earn qualifying points has already started.
Cheng and Hughes won their first four tournaments together last fall between the domestic AVP and international FIVB tours. One of their goals is to become the first Americans to win the world championships since 2009. Worlds are in Mexico in October.
In Paris, beach volleyball will be played at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Then for LA in 2028, both the sport and Cheng and Hughes will come back home to where the modern game began nearly 100 years ago.
Cheng and Hughes train on what they call “a hidden pocket” on Hermosa Beach, yet they can always find women or men to play against. On the Strand, people will often stop them and offer congratulations on a recent victory.
“It’s just deeply embedded in our culture,” Hughes said.
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