It’s official – the Race to Tokyo is over.
The stage is set, and Team USA is packed to the gills (still not sure what this expression means) with decades of experience and promising new talent. Some are seeing their first games, others their fourth, and everything in between. Four athletes are Olympic rookies; four are seasoned veterans. The American outfit includes the youngest-ever USA Olympic duo and the oldest beach volleyball athlete to ever make the Games. I am so excited for these Olympics.
After all the craziness of the scenarios and what had to happen or not happen for teams to qualify for the last few months, we can now do away with the points standings and just enjoy looking at the names of the qualified teams. So here you go, the two Women’s and two Men’s teams who will proudly represent the USA in Tokyo this Summer:
USA! USA! USA! Ahhhh I’m so excited!
While Ross/Klineman were locked in months ago, the other three teams officially booked their tickets in the final event of this almost three-year-long qualification saga. We’ll get into all the details of that harrowing period in a future article. For now, let’s wrap up the dramatic finish to the Race to Tokyo as seen in the final Olympic qualifying event in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb
Tied in Olympic Ranking (OR) with Dalhausser/Lucena heading into this final event, Gibb/Crabb’s greater number of events played put them ahead of their Floridian rivals. In Ostrava, they essentially had two routes to the Olympics. They either needed to finish better than Dalhausser/Lucena, or Taylor’s big brother Trevor and partner Tri Bourne had to get anything but 1st place. Once Dalhausser/Lucena uncharacteristically did not pool out, Crabb/Gibb breathed a sigh of relief, knowing they would be Tokyo Olympians.
Interestingly, Gibb/Crabb’s bracket draw would have led them up against Bourne/Crabb in the Round of 16. That would’ve made for the most EPIC Crabb Boil in history, with Trevor playing to keep his Olympic dream alive. Unfortunately for us fans, Crabb/Gibb lost in the first round to Brazil’s Andre/George.
Since their Gold Medal in Chetumal, Mexico, in late 2019, Crabb/Gibb have sat atop the USA OR leaderboard. They’ve had blessed assurance most of the way as their lead seemed nearly impossible to catch. I’m sure they blustered a bit watching Dalhausser/Lucena gain on them. But their hundreds of points lead over Bourne/Crabb offered a nice cushion on the way to Tokyo. Crabb/Gibb are capable of great things, with some of the gnarliest defensive moments from Crabb and amazingly consistent transition setting and blocking from Gibb. This will be Crabb’s first Olympics and Gibb’s fourth; the 45-and-a-half-year-old will compete as the oldest beach volleyball Olympian in history. Though their experience levels couldn’t be much more different, they have strong team chemistry, completed by the presence of coach Rich Lambourne.
Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena
Though this classic veteran team of best friends has been steadily performing well in 2021, Ostrava proved their worst event of 2021. The Floridians were eliminated from the tournament after dropping their first two matches. As such, they were forced to hope that Bourne/Crabb didn’t win the tourney and snake their Olympic bid by 40 points.
Bourne/Crabb had everything they needed to pull it off. Gibb/Crabb and Dalhuasser/Lucena lost early, and the Hawaiians started strong by winning their pool and getting a bye to the Round of 16. However, a loss to Brazil’s Andre/George ended their run. The sun setting on their Race to Tokyo solidified in Dalhausser/Lucena’s fourth and second Olympic bid, respectively.
These buds will finish their illustrious international careers in Tokyo, and they’re more than capable of a podium finish. The Olympics favors a team like Dalhausser/Lucena, with ample scouting and rest time in between matches (teams play one match every two days in pool play, and never play two matches in the same day, even in playoffs). Don’t forget how dominant this duo was during the AVP Champions Cup when both athletes alluded to rest and relaxation contributing to their success. Lucky for AVP fans, even though this is their last Olympic run, these two plan to play on the AVP for years to come, gracing our beach with their impeccable play and entertaining yin/yang attitudes.
Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes
With a Gold Medal in the penultimate event in Sochi, Sponcil/Claes overtook Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Brooke Sweat for the second USA Olympic spot. Heading into Ostrava, Team Slaes needed either another finals appearance or a 4th place or worse from Walsh-Jennings/Sweat to lock it in and become the youngest ever duo to represent the USA at the Olympics. Their dream came true much sooner than anticipated. Walsh-Jennings/Sweat lost to a very talented young Dutch team in the Qualifier, putting Sponcil/Claes in a celebratory mood before they even stepped foot on the Czech sand.
With all of the odds stacked against them, Team Slaes pulled it out. This team was down 320 points and playing through the Country Quota and Qualifier at the beginning of the year. Most people would have put money on Kerri, one of the best to play our sport, in making her fifth Olympics. But Team Slaes kept on keeping on, slowing chipping away at their deficit and finally pulling ahead in the nick of time. With the albatross of qualification off their back, Team Slaes could have relaxed for the first time in nearly three years heading into the Main Draw.
But they didn’t. Team Slaes stepped on the gas. The youngsters dominated their pool and swiftly made their way to the top of the podium for the second week in a row, only losing 2 sets the entire tournament. Slaes won 12 straight matches in Sochi and Ostrava against 12 different teams. Just over a week ago, they were on the outside looking in. Now, these dynamic Olympic rookies are the hottest team in the world and an underdog to nobody.
April Ross and Alix Klineman
This powerhouse duo was first to clinch their Olympic bid in what feels like ages ago. Before the Cancun Hub began in early April (coincidence?), Ross/Klineman’s consistently stellar finishes put them so far ahead that other American team would be able to catch them. But even with the certainty of Tokyo, the A-Team hasn’t backed off. They earned two Bronzes in the grueling Cancun Hub and were on their way to more hardware in Ostrava.
Unfortunately, their tourney ended in a withdrawal in the quarterfinals for unknown reasons. They have about a month before heading to Tokyo, so here’s hoping it’s nothing serious. It looks like the A-Team will be a top 3 seed when the flame is lit next month. This will be April’s third Olympics, and she’s never left without a Medal. Alix, in her first Games, is keen on being the partner that finally claims Gold with April Ross.
And there we have it.
Eight athletes boasting nine previous Olympic appearances and three Olympic Medals. The balance of veteran knowledge and new, raw talent is so exciting. With one pair of vets, two newbie/vet duos, and a very young Olympic rookie team – I can hardly wait to see what Team USA will do in Tokyo.
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