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Kelly Claes, Sarah Sponcil want to be the youngest U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team ever

Kelly Claes, Sarah Sponcil

U.S. beach volleyball teammates Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil were all packed and minutes from driving separately to Los Angeles International Airport in mid-March when they received the notification.

An FIVB World Tour event in Sydney, Australia, their first of the Olympic year, was canceled due to the emerging coronavirus pandemic.

“We called each other,” Sponcil said. “We kind of were in that moment of now what? Like everyone else.”

Claes, 24, and Sponcil, 23, then spent nearly the entire spring apart. Sponcil drove to her native Arizona. Claes hunkered in Southern California, where stay-at-home measures were instituted. Beaches closed. Beach volleyball tournaments, in the U.S. and abroad, were wiped off the calendar. The Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It was heartbreaking, especially given Claes and Sponcil accepted the risk of flying abroad back in March. While other teams withdrew from the Sydney event, they were entered right up until the cancellation.

“We were prepared to go out and play and get quarantined out there,” Claes said. “We had friends in Australia. We’ll quarantine with them.”

Every tournament could be vital for Claes and Sponcil over the next year, starting with the AVP Champions Cup. The three-legged substitute for a season is being held in the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center parking lot with imported sand. Matches are the next three Saturdays and Sundays with coverage on NBC Sports.

Next year, Claes and Sponcil can become the youngest U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team in history. So every extra opportunity to play together is viewed as beneficial.

They’re also ranked third more than halfway through U.S. Olympic qualifying. The top two teams go to Tokyo. That’s why they were so intent on flying to Sydney. The No. 2 team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, plus others, withdrew before the event was canceled.

“We want to pursue the Olympics,” Sponcil said. “If our health is on the line, we’re going to risk it.”

The AVP is not part of Olympic qualifying. But Claes and Sponcil will continue to season a partnership that is not yet two years old. All of the other teams going for U.S. Olympic spots are in the AVP Champions Cup field, except for Walsh Jennings and Sweat, given the three-time gold medalist is no longer under AVP contract.

In U.S. Olympic qualifying, world silver medalists April Ross and Alix Klineman hold a substantial 1,800-point lead over Walsh Jennings and Sweat. Claes and Sponcil are another 320 points behind. When international play resumes, the standings can change in a week. A team can earn as many as 1,200 points for a top-level international title.

Walsh Jennings, who is 41, is trying to become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player ever. She has said this will be her last Olympic run. If Claes and Sponcil accomplish their goal of qualifying for Tokyo, they will also likely end the Olympic career of a legend.

“I haven’t thought about it all that much,” Claes said. “There’s so many different outside voices and pressures. We’ve been just trying to stay in our own little bubble and focus on what we need to focus on.”

Plenty has kept them busy since partnering in September 2018.

“We’ve gone to hell and back,” Claes said last year on the beach volleyball podcast Sandcast.

Claes won NCAA beach volleyball titles with USC in 2016 and 2017. She and fellow Trojan Sara Hughes began playing internationally with a pedigree to become the next great U.S. team. Their bond was so strong that Hughes turned down Walsh Jennings’ proposal to partner up in 2017.

But in 2018, Hughes decided to pair with Summer Ross for a Tokyo Olympic run (which ended after Ross suffered a 2019 back injury). Claes finished the 2018 season with veteran Brittany Hochevar, then had to decide about a Tokyo Olympic run.

Claes “interviewed” multiple potential partners. She reached out to Sponcil, a promising player who was still competing collegiately for UCLA.

Sponcil was a revelation during her summer break from the Bruins. She made her AVP main-draw debut with Rio Olympian Lauren Fendrick and reached a final, dropping two close sets to April Ross and Klineman. Sponcil and Fendrick trained together once or twice before the tournament, which took place two weeks after Sponcil and the Bruins won the NCAA beach title.

“Before that, I didn’t really have a future planned,” said Sponcil, a setter for UCLA’s indoor team after transferring from Loyola Marymount, where she was that school’s Female Athlete of the Year. “I kind of wanted to go the indoor, USA national team route, but after we did so well in that tournament, it kind of flipped a switch. I kind of wanted to pursue beach.”

The late summer/early fall of 2018 was the crucial time. Olympic qualifying was about to start. Partner switches were happening. April Ross and Klineman paired a year earlier. Hughes and Summer Ross (no relation) earlier that year.

When Claes and Sponcil molded their team over lunch at a Southern California burrito joint, Walsh Jennings was still on the lookout. Claes was one of the players who worked out with Walsh Jennings. All of the players flew to China in early autumn for tournaments.

“I think it was still a little open in my mind,” to consider a partnership with the triple gold medalist, Claes said. “I mean, Kerri Walsh Jennings, amazing athlete. Five Olympics under her belt. I felt like I could learn a lot from her.”

Claes and Sponcil, in their first tournament together, finished third in a mid-level event in Qinzhou. Claes had agreed the next week to play with Walsh Jennings, who then right before the tournament announced Sweat as her new partner for the upcoming Olympic run.

Claes and Walsh Jennings, both blockers at 6 feet and change, still played that one event together. They won their first two matches. In the third, they went a set up on April Ross and Klineman, who already established themselves as the top U.S. team. Ross and Klineman rallied to win in three. Claes hasn’t played with anyone other than Sponcil since.

"[Walsh Jennings] and Sarah were, like, top of my list,” said Claes, who also tried out with April Ross in 2017 before Ross teamed with Klineman. “Each one would have been such a unique journey to go down. I’m so thankful it worked out the way it has because I get to now experience life with Sarah. I get to experience this journey fresh with Sarah, and we get to do it together versus if I had decided to play with Kerri, so much experience on her end. It would be me, I kind of feel like, tailing along and figuring out things as I go in that regard versus getting to live it with my partner.”

Sponcil said she felt confident that Claes would not leave her for the most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player in history.

“There’s always those thoughts, but I don’t think it really rattled me too much,” Sponcil said. "[Claes] was looking for a partner that was younger that she could kind of grow with.”

Claes and Sponcil forged ahead. Sponcil came up with a team name -- Slaes. They write songs and perform them in videos.

“We’re both so goofy and dorky,” said Claes, a fan of Comic-Con, Dungeons & Dragons and the cartoon “Rick and Morty.” “We play off of each other so well.”

In competition, they opened the 2019 season in the hell that Claes mentioned. The U.S. was so deep in teams that Claes and Sponcil had to play an all-American qualifier just to get into the normal qualifying tournament for an FIVB World Tour main-draw event in Itapema, Brazil. It’s called a country quota.

This country quota came against Walsh Jennings and Sweat. That made it key, given the Olympic qualifying race. The veteran Olympians doused Claes and Sponcil 21-12, 21-14 in 28 minutes. Claes and Sponcil traveled all the way to Brazil for 28 minutes of competition. The early loss meant their travel expenses would not be reimbursed. Plus, they had to play in hurricane-like conditions.

“I was holding the ball out on my hand, and it was blowing out of my hand,” Claes said.

The early exit turned out to be a blessing. Claes and Sponcil used the extra time before their next tournament in China to train for a week straight. Before that, they were together on sand once or twice a week given Sponcil was finishing her last season with UCLA.

“That really changed the momentum for us for the rest of our season,” Claes said.

From there, Claes and Sponcil made the semifinals of all four of their AVP starts. They made the final of an FIVB World Tour event in Espinho, Portugal.

There is still room for growth. They have yet to beat April Ross and Klineman or Walsh Jennings and Sweat, according to BVBInfo, but should get plenty of opportunities before Olympic qualifying closes next year.

“I really feel like we’re going to qualify and go the distance here,” said Claes, who as a teenager fractured her spine and underwent a cardiac ablation to treat supraventricular tachycardia. “I honestly think we have the most to gain from this kind of pause time because we are the youngest team and we have the least experience together. I think we have all the advantages of this time to gain some more experience before this last push before the Olympics.”

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