In our continued focus on the upcoming Olympic Games, I’m detailing the seven American teams still in the Race to Tokyo. Recently, I dove into the three Men’s teams in the running. Now it’s time for the Women.
From good friends to college rivals, these four Women’s teams boast eight very different individuals with the same exact goal: an Olympic Gold medal. Each duo has their own story – whether they’re the youngest or the oldest, at the top of the Olympic Ranking or holding onto hope for the second USA Olympic spot. Let’s get to know these women a little better.
April Ross & Alix Klineman
April Ross is considered one of the best players in the world. Her defense is next level, her serve award-winning. She’s consistent, powerful, and an incredibly hard worker. But what really sets April apart for me is her confidence; the kind you get from winning so much and for so long that you take losing out of the equation. In her 15-year career, April has won 39 AVPs and 26 FIVBs. She has two Olympic Medals (a 2012 Silver and 2016 Bronze). So in the fall of 2017 when April was looking for a new partner to make an Olympic run, she had her pick of any blocker in the country. Not a lot of people expected a newbie like Alix.
Alix Klineman, a Manhattan Beach native and highly-regarded indoor player, started slow on the beach. In her rookie season in 2017, she battled through qualifiers and earned mid-level finishes with a variety of partners. She improved lightning fast, though, ending the second half of the season with a 2nd and 3rd place. While Alix was steadily improving, her friend April noticed. The two had been friends for years, both a part of the same crowd of friends. April, after considering many options, took a chance on her friend Alix. April and coach Jen Kessy saw the raw potential in Alix. Her threshold was so high (literally), and she’d only scratched the surface of her beach skills.
While fans were excited about the prospects of this new team, nobody could have expected how quickly they’d come out of the gates. The A-Team won their very first FIVB tournament together and have been making 1st place a regular occurrence ever since. Alix has vastly and inordinately improved, going from spurts of greatness to one of the best blockers in the world. April has remained the unbelievably steady and impressive player she’s been for the last decade. They’re currently sitting atop the OR with only two tournaments left. Having secured their spot in the Olympics months ago, this top duo is a favorite to win the whole thing. This will be Alix’s first Olympics, while April is no stranger to the Games. She currently has a Bronze and Silver Medal. You can only imagine how much she wants that Gold to complete the trifecta.
Brooke Sweat & Kerri Walsh-Jennings
Most people know the name Kerri Walsh. Kerri medaled in beach volleyball in the last four Olympics – with three consecutive Golds followed by a Bronze in 2016 (with April). She’s one of the best to ever play the game, and she’s going for her sixth Olympics. That’s right – before her four Medals in beach, she played for the USA Indoor Team in 2000. She’s the most decorated player in volleyball history.
Her current partner Brooke Sweat, a 2016 Olympian, was considering retirement before Kerri called. She had a severe shoulder injury in Rio and was thinking of hanging up her bikini. But when Kerri calls, you pick up the phone. They hashed things out, talked about the future, and aligned their goals, both setting their sights on the Tokyo Olympics. They’ve now been together since the start of the qualification period in 2018 and currently hold the second USA spot.
During the pandemic, Kerri and Brooke both were able to heal nagging injuries and spend more time at home after years on the road. These two very different players have meshed well over their 23 international tournaments. No team in the USA has logged more FIVB’s since October 2018. They’re also the only USA Women’s team that has two former Olympians. Can they make it eight collective Games between them? Our next team is hoping to spoil that.
Kelly Claes & Sarah Sponcil
Close behind the veteran duo are two athletes at the dawn of their potential-filled careers. Kelly Claes & Sarah Sponcil, more often referred to as Sponcil and Claes due to the numerous Sarahs and Kellys in the beach volleyball world, are the youngest USA Olympic hopeful team and playing very well this year. Though they sit in third place in OR, they’ve finished better than both Kerri/Brooke and Emily/Kelly in 2021 with three 5th-place finishes in four tournaments.
Team Slaes is an unlikely partnership seeing as how they were college rivals. Claes, a USC Trojan, was part of the winningest duo in college beach volleyball history. She and partner Sara Hughes are also the youngest team to ever win an AVP, which they did in Chicago while still in college in 2017. With Claes at the helm, the Trojans claimed the first two National Championships after the sport was added to the NCAA catalog. Sponcil then led her UCLA Bruins to the National Championship the following two years. In the summer before her senior year at UCLA, Sponcil spontaneously teamed up with Lauren Fendrick and earned 2nd place at the 2018 AVP Austin Open.
Kelly had an impressive first full AVP year in 2018 with Brittany Hochevar, but she wasted no time after Sponcil graduated in 2019 to swoop her up. They had coffee and made a Sharks-versus-Jets-esque and highly promising partnership. Since their team’s genesis, the youngsters have proven themselves on the AVP and FIVB Tours with high finishes, but they’ve yet to win one. They’re going to need another high finish to overtake the second spot, a feat they’re more than willing to face.
Emily Stockman & Kelley Kolinske
Emily Stockman has been a consistent powerhouse since her official pro debut in 2014. After losing in the Qualifier during her first-ever AVP, Emily has made the Main Draw in every event she’s played. When Emily’s partner, Kim DiCello, got pregnant at the end of the 2017 season, she purposefully stayed partnerless in the offseason to work on her game. While training with then-coach Scott Davenport, Emily saw a lot of one of Scott’s other athletes at the time – Kelley Kolinske. Their work ethic and physicality matched up well, so when Emily was ready to settle with someone, she called Kelley.
At the time, Kelley was with Betsi Flint, and they were doing well. They’d won a few AVPs and carved out a spot on the leaderboards as one of the youngest and most successful pairs on Tour. So at first, Kelley denied Emily’s proposition. But a month later, she called back and sealed the deal. Their goals, hard-working attitude, and values lined up, and the two have been on a steady track ever since. They snagged their first AVP title at the 2019 AVP Seattle Open against Kelley’s former flame Betsi.
Emily and Kelley may be trailing in Olympic Ranking, but this duo has sat safely in the Main Draw for all 2021 Olympic Qualification tournaments. They earned 4th place in the Doha tourney back in March, and are looking for two podium finishes in the final two Qualifying tournaments to book their ticket to Tokyo. Very hard, but not impossible for these two.