Olympic Profile: Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes

From the oldest player in international Olympic Beach Volleyball history to the youngest team in USA Olympic Beach Volleyball history…it’s time to talk about Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes. 

Team Slaes – a UCLA Bruin and a USC Trojan – partnered up at the end of 2018. They’re the first and only Olympic team of two NCAA Beach Volleyball athletes. And not only are they NCAA Beach athletes, but they also come from the two dominant schools in the sport. Kelly won two National Championships while at USC, Sarah won the next two at UCLA, and USC just took back the title in May of 2021. 

Kelly is the older of the two, at a whopping 25 years old. Growing up in Fullerton, CA, an Orange County suburb, Kelly spent plenty of time on the beach growing up. In 2013, she and future college partner Sara Hughes earned 3rd place at the Under 19 World Champs. Kelly was one of the top recruits heading into college, and she more than lived up to the hype. Kelly and former partner Sara Hughes will go down as one of the best college teams ever, with a perfect 48-0 season and Kelly earning two All-American honors. They’re the winningest college duo ever, with no team even remotely close on their heels. 

After Kelly and Sara Hughes graduated in 2017, they played their first professional year together. They became the youngest team to win an AVP in Chicago, and they still hold that record. In 2018, the longtime partnership dissipated, and Kelly partnered with Brittany Hochevar. The pair had a solid first year, advancing to six of six AVP Semifinals and earning 2nd place at an FIVB 4-Star event. Kelly and Brittany did pretty well, but it didn’t stop Kelly from knocking on Sarah’s door at the end of the 2018 season.

Sarah has been a beach volleyball enthusiast since girlhood. She spent mornings peppering and setting into basketball hoops with her dad and weekends driving from her hometown in Phoenix, Arizona to California for beach tournaments. When she made a USA development team as an adolescent, her family made her a cake with the Olympic rings drawn in icing. As a high schooler, she made a massive beach volleyball collage for a school project, complete with pictures of Misty May and Kerri Walsh. It still adorns her childhood bedroom wall with another set of Olympic rings above.

Sarah started college at LMU and then transferred to UCLA. As a Bruin, she led her team to two National Championships in 2018 and 2019, playing alongside Lily Justine. In the summer of 2018, Sarah earned 2nd place in her first AVP Main Draw with Lauren Fendrick, a veteran and Rio Olympian. Later in that season, Sarah partnered with another Trojan, Terese Cannon, for the Chicago AVP. The brand-new team advanced through the Qualifier on Thursday to the Semifinals on Sunday. 

And then Kelly Claes called. Sarah had one more year at UCLA, but Kelly saw enormous potential in their future partnership. They had coffee in late 2018, talked goals, and made a plan to begin training even while Sarah was still at UCLA. In this article, Sarah talks about her schedule in that last season and how taxing it was. But it paid off. The youngsters quickly became an international powerhouse and an AVP threat. Since their genesis, Team Slaes hasn’t dropped an AVP match to a team seeded worse than 4th. And their FIVB success in 2019 secured them the third spot in USA Olympic Ranking. 

However great third was, it meant that Sarah and Kelly spent the entirety of the pandemic out of reach of their Olympic dream. That’s a lot of pressure and anxiety on two young adults, just 24 (Sarah) and 25 (Kelly). Many would crumble under that uncertainty.

Full disclosure – Sarah and I were roommates from January 2020 to June 2021. I saw all the ups and downs of their Olympic Run, from being so-close-yet-so-far from qualifying to actually securing their spot in Tokyo. Oddly enough, the very last thing I did in our apartment before the movers came was watch the match in which Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Brooke Sweat lost, officially putting Sarah and Kelly in the Games. Crazy town. 

I mention this because being roommates with a potential Olympian meant I witnessed first-hand the work that Sarah and Kelly put in, and it impressed the hell out of me. Not just the physical labor of practice, lifting, rehab, and film (which they often watched in my living room). But also the mental work – reading books on mindset and courage, journaling daily, and having candid and challenging conversations as a team. I feel like I watched these two become different, more mature people during the hiatus. That newfound mental fortitude powered them through the grueling task of surpassing their childhood idols one tournament at a time.

So people can talk about how young this team is, sure. It’s a cool element of their partnership. But it’s not a disadvantage. Their combined eight years of NCAA beach volleyball afforded them high-pressure competitive situations. They know how to win (or should I say slay?), first NCAA Championships and now FIVB Gold Medal matches. They’re also a burgeoning girl band, so you can definitely consider them multitalented.