Skip navigation
Sign up to follow your favorites on all your devices.
Sign up

Kelly Cheng, Sara Hughes reunited and are headed to Paris as world champions

About 18 months ago, Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes reunited as beach volleyball partners over a 90-minute heart-to-heart at a Starbucks in Long Beach, California.

Since, they quickly became the top U.S. team, then world champions.

Though there are still two months left in Olympic qualifying, they have mathematically clinched a spot in the Paris Games based on their results since the start of 2023. All athletes who earn Olympic spots must be approved by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Rewind to late in the 2022 season. Both Cheng and Hughes were thinking about it. Thinking about reaching out to the other to reform a partnership that had produced 103 consecutive match wins at USC.

But that college dominance was a long time ago. Cheng and Hughes started their professional careers together in 2017, then split in 2018 to pursue the Tokyo Olympics with different partners.

“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 in 2022 of that breakup.

Hughes missed qualifying for Tokyo after her new teammate, Summer Ross, got injured. Cheng did make it to the Games and lost in the round of 16 with Sarah Sponcil. Cheng and Sponcil parted ways after the 2021 season.

By late 2022, the top beach volleyball players needed to shore up long-term partner plans since Paris Olympic qualifying began at the start of 2023.

Cheng and Hughes had each other in mind. Cheng sent the first text message one morning. Want to meet up for coffee?

Hughes accepted right away (though neither drinks coffee).

Cheng lives in Huntington Beach. Hughes is in Hermosa Beach. So they found a midpoint: a Starbucks in Long Beach.

“We hadn’t played together for five years,” Hughes said. “We’ve seen each other. We’ve talked to each other, but we had to come to terms with a lot of things, apologize to each other, see what our goals were, so there was a lot going on.

Manganiello highlights Cheng and Hughes
Actor Joe Manganiello shares the story of beach volleyball's and Olympic medal hopefuls Kelly Cheng and Sarah Hughes.

“I knew exactly what Kelly was thinking because I was going to reach out to her a week later, and I was thinking all the same things. Will she want to play with me? Will I be embarrassed? I’m nervous. I’m also excited, but for the most part, I don’t know what she’s going to say.”

Cheng said she wanted to play with Hughes again. Hughes, out of respect for her own partner at the time, took time to think about it. Later that day, she picked up the phone and told Cheng, “Let’s win gold in Paris.”

Cheng and Hughes won their first four tournaments together in late 2022 and early 2023.

Then last October, they became the first U.S. team to win the biennial world championships since 2009.

In Paris, in a stadium at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, they can extend a run of American success in the sport that dates to its debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games. U.S. men’s and women’s pairs have won half of the Olympic beach volleyball gold medals thus far.

“Back together, we have all the fun, giggly, goofy things that we had in college,” Cheng said. “But now we have this high-level intensity and passion that we maybe didn’t have before. It’s all the good of before, plus we’re all grown up and we’re mature and we can have the hard conversations now, and we can look each other in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I got your back,’ and trust the other one’s got their back. So, it’s really special.”