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Kelly Cheng, Sara Hughes, once U.S. beach volleyball’s future, reunite after 4 years apart

Kelly Cheng, Sara Hughes

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 03: Kelly Claes (L) and Sara Hughes pose for photos after winning the final round against Brooke Sweat and Summer Ross at the AVP Championships in Chicago - Day 4 on September 3, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

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It is about that time in the Olympic cycle for beach volleyball players to start forming long-term partnerships with eyes on the Paris Games.

The biggest early development in the U.S. is the reuniting of Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes, who at the start of the Tokyo Olympic cycle were the next big thing in American beach volleyball.

Cheng and Hughes, both now 27, are entered together in an international tournament in Australia on Thanksgiving weekend. It would be their first tournament as a team since March 2018.

Their second act began with a recent call from Cheng to Hughes.

“We came together and had a really great conversation,” Hughes said in a phone interview with both players on Monday. “I think Kelly and I both had pull towards each other, and kind of knew that it was just the right time again. And so it was a mutual decision of like, yes, we’re getting together, and we’re just really excited.”

Cheng (née Claes) and Hughes won NCAA beach volleyball titles with USC in 2016 and 2017. In between, they were the only pair to take a set off Olympic gold medalists Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross in AVP play leading up to the Rio Games.

Their bond was so strong that Hughes turned down Walsh Jennings’ proposal to partner up in 2017 before Tokyo Olympic qualifying began.

But in 2018, Hughes did pair with Summer Ross for a Tokyo Olympic run (which ended after Ross suffered a 2019 back injury). Cheng then teamed with Sarah Sponcil, caught fire to take the last U.S. Olympic spot over Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat and lost in the round of 16 at their first Games.

“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 of their past breakup. “We’ve pretty much moved past that in our relationship. Moving forward with one another, we’re completely different players, and we’re a lot more mature. It feels like the right time. The past is past. We’re just moving forward.”

Cheng and Sponcil split after last season. Cheng played all 14 of her domestic and international events this year with Betsi Flint, taking first and third in their two most recent international starts.

Hughes, after having four different partners in 2021, played exclusively with Kelley Kolinske in 2022. Their highlights: this viral point, plus winning August’s Manhattan Beach Open, the most prestigious domestic event, by beating Cheng and Flint in the final.

“We really respected our partners a lot and have nothing bad to say,” Hughes said.

They’ve only had a few practices together but agreed their chemistry already returned. Their coach is Cheng’s husband, Jordan, who also coached Cheng and Sponcil.

“For sure, it feels different than college,” Cheng said. “We’re all grown. I think we both came into our own athletes, separately.”

Cheng and Hughes instantly become contenders for one of up to two U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team spots in Paris. Tokyo gold medalists April Ross and Alix Klineman have not played together this year, with Klineman sidelined since January shoulder surgery.

Walsh Jennings, a 44-year-old who gets inducted into the International Volleyball Hall of Fame this week, is expected to decide on a possible 2024 Olympic run soon, if she has not already. Walsh Jennings said in April that she hoped to play with 2000 Olympic indoor teammate Logan Tom.

The Olympic qualifying window begins in January and runs to June 2024.

“We want a gold medal in Paris,” said Cheng, who noted she and Hughes have conversed over the book, “The Gap and The Gain: The High Achievers’ Guide to Happiness, Confidence, and Success.” “So we’re kind of working backwards [from that]. In that regard, in our training, what are our strengths and our weaknesses? How can we kind of bring other things? How can we do that repeatedly well? Because I think the top teams in the world are consistent.”

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