2021 Tokyo Olympic Qualification Recap

After a 1,016-day Olympic Qualification Period (OQP), the longest in history due to Covid-19, the teams are settling into the knowledge that they’ll represent their flag in the upcoming, highly-anticipated, relatively controversial Games in Tokyo. 

The OQP ran from September 1, 2018, to June 13, 2021. In that time, we have been watching, following, and calculating down to the last event, especially in these final six tournaments of 2021. 

The four American teams secured their Olympic spots in four different fashions. While April Ross and Alix Klineman had it in the bag for months, their counterparts Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes overtook their spot in the second to last tournament. And after all this time, all these potential point scenarios, our two Men’s representatives are headed to the Games with a tie in Olympic Ranking (OR). I mean really, what are the odds? 

Let’s take a look at each team’s unique path to the Olympics and which tournaments were crucial in their Race to Tokyo.

April Ross and Alix Klineman were the first to secure their spot in the Games. After their 1st-place finish in Doha in March, there was no mathematical way for any other American team to rival their Olympic spot. 

Here are the 12 events over the OQP that lent to their finishing OR. 

The chief reason for their early security is: LOOK AT THOSE BACK-TO-BACK MONSTER FINISHES! With a 2nd-place at the 2019 World Champs and a 1st in Gstaad, April and Alix secured the two highest single-event point totals of any American team, men or women. 

April and Alix’s highest point accrual came at the 2019 World Championships in Hamburg even though they earned 2nd place. World Champs happen every two years and offer more points than any other tournament, so finishing well there the year before the Olympics is always crucial. 

In the Finals of Hamburg, April and Alix lost 21-23, 21-23 to – you guessed it – Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes. The A-Team bounced back well, though, winning the 5-Star the following weekend and earning another hefty 1200 points.

After that, they were just battling Sarah and Mel for the #1 spot atop the OR. They traded numerous times in 2021 and one never quite eeked out the other. The A-Team and the Eh-Team finished in an OR tie. I love that. 

Though the other three teams mathematially guaranteed their spot in the Olympics until the final event in Ostrava, there were significant tournaments for all three that came before. 

Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb trailed Tri Bourne and Taylor’s brother Trevor for most of 2019. Tri and Trevor’s big World Champs finish and number of events played in 2019 afforded them the American lead in OR for a long time. It was at Jake and Taylor’s 12th tournament of the OQP that they overtook Tri and Trevor. With their Gold Medal in Chetumal in October 2019, they rocketed atop the OR and stayed there throughout the pandemic-induced hiatus, where we saw no tournaments for 12 months. 

Jake and Taylor added big points to their lead after a well-fought 3rd place in Doha 2021. After that 640-point finish (and 320-point gain increase in OR), they finished uncharacteristically middle of the pack for the rest of 2021, only adding 40 more points to their OR over five tournaments. They did have some incredibly impressive wins, though, like defeating the reigning World Champs from Russia, Stoyanovsky and Krasilnikov. Nobody doubts they are a force to be reckoned with. 

After their win in Chetumal, Jake and Taylor never lost top billing in the American standings. That is, until Phil and Nick tied them for it. 

Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena were the next team to take their spot in the Games and not lose it. With a 4th place in Doha 2021 (losing to Jake and Taylor in the Bronze Medal match), Phil and Nick overtook Tri and Trevor for the second quota spot. They then steadily added to their OR, creeping up on Jake and Taylor. In the end, Phil and Nick added 1200 points to their OR in 2021, the most of any USA team of either gender. 

Interestingly, Phil and Nick only made one FIVB Final during the OQP. They didn’t win it, either, losing to the Chilean Grimalt cousins. Even more interestingly (to a volley nerd like me), that Finals appearance happened at the Doha 2019 event. Their highest finish and their clinching finish occurred in the same city two years apart. Neat! They’re also the only team to include three Doha events (over three years) in their Top 12 OQP tourneys. Double neat! 

Apart from that 2nd place finish, Phil and Nick accrued a series of 4ths and 5ths that steadily advanced them. They haven’t had a big win on the FIVB Tour in awhile, but that doesn’t mean they’re slowing down. AVP fans know this team is capable of lots and lots of winning (Champions Cup, anyone?). I’m counting on big things from this pair of vets in Tokyo. 

And then there’s the last team to take their spot in the Games. Talk about a thrilling finish.

Youngsters Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes trailed veterans Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Brooke Sweat in OR for nearly two and a half years. They finally overtook the 2nd USA Olympic spot with their inaugural FIVB Gold Medal in Russia and sealed the deal a week later with another commanding 1st place finish in the Czech Republic.

At the beginning of the 2021 season, Team Slaes was 320 points behind Kerri and Brooke. They slowly chipped away, playing in the Country Quotas (CQ) and Qualifiers for the first four tournaments of 2021, earning three 5th places. Those 5th places got them within 160 points of the quota spot, secured their spot in the Main Draw for the final two events, and knocked Kerri and Brooke into the CQ and Quali. 

In Sochi,  Sarah and Kelly needed to make the Semifinals to add to their OR. They rose to the occasion and then some, steamrolling the competition to claim their first World Tour win, losing only one set in the entire tournament! Slaes went from 160 points behind to 160 points ahead. Three days later, they were officially into Tokyo when Kerri and Brooke lost early in Ostrava.

Even more telling for me than that first Gold Medal was their second, another undefeated roll through Ostrava. Sarah and Kelly have won their last 12 matches against 12 different teams. They’ve beaten two of the top four in the World Rankings (Agatha/Duda and April/Alix). They took down Russia on Russian turf and Czech on Czech turf. They’ve only dropped two sets in these 12 matches, and none were in the Semis and Finals. They’re officially the hottest team in beach volleyball.

Four teams all with different paths to the Olympics. Their stories are all different, and that’s what we’ll get into next time. 

So that’s the story of how these four teams got to the Olympics. But what’s their story before the OQP? Check back here over the coming weeks for team profiles and more Tokyo 2021 previews!