The AVP Olympic Chase

You’re ready to make a run at the Olympics in beach volleyball and the endeavor can force your body to act and react, twist and turn you in every position, make your eyes bleary and your limbs ache.

And you haven’t even reached the beach yet. Merely reaching an understanding of the qualifying process can be a trying endeavor.

That’s what the AVP athletes are enduring now as they fight for one of the two spots allotted for United States men and women for the Tokyo 2020 Olympiad.

There are some familiar names involved, of course, with four American men and three women trying to return to the Olympics. Add to that some new names in the international race, and the U.S. will once again be represented.

“It’s a long process, that’s the hardest part,” said Brooke Sweat, a Rio de Janeiro 2016 participant with Lauren Fendrick. “It’s almost two years long. It’s easy to get caught up in ‘Oh, bad tournament here’ and lose sight that it’s a long journey.

“Doing anything a second time is usually easier. Just the expectations and how you can handle things, determining what’s important, what’s not important.”

Tri Bourne, now with Trevor Crabb, made a run in 2016 with John Hyden but fell short as Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena plus Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson grabbed the two American spots.

“There’s a lot of things I could say I would change for the last quad and we go to the Olympics maybe but it’s not necessarily true,” Bourne said, reflecting the perspective of the last go-round. “We just have to use that experience that I do have, make certain tweaks, and then commit to it. Whatever the plan is, trust the plan.”

The official FIVB qualification system needs seven pages of explanation from the world’s governing body of the sport.

The simplest way to qualify: Finish the qualification cycle ranked among the top 16 teams in the world. Or, if you’re in Hamburg, Germany this week, all a team has to do is win the FIVB World Championships for an automatic bid.

There are nuances. For one, teams that qualify are simply earning a spot for their country, and the Olympic committees or national federations can decide which team to send. Also, there are ways to qualify through a regional system if a team has not finished in the top 16, since the Olympic tournament is comprised of 24 teams for both men and women. 

Teams earn points based on their finishes on the World Tour, which means a mad dash and gazillions of frequent-flyer miles.

The qualifying cycle began in September of 2018 and ends on June 14, 2020. Here’s how the AVP currently stacks up via the rankings that preceded the World Championships:

USA women

This could turn out to be a fight to the finish among as many as six teams. Currently, the No. 1 team, April Ross and Alix Klineman, are ranked fifth in the world. Ross is trying to reach the Olympics for the third time after capturing a silver medal with Jen Kessy in London 2012 and a bronze with Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2016.

Ranked eighth are Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, but not far behind are Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman in the 11th spot, Sweat and Walsh Jennings at No. 12, Emily Day and Betsi Flint at No. 21 and Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil at No. 28.

They’ll all be traveling the world this summer trying to scoop up points, then they have to stop toward the end of the year before resuming when the FIVB announces the full 2020 schedule.

Teams will continually adjust their schedules based on their current point standings. It’s almost as if teams never really know where they stand until the entire chase shakes out.

“Just at the moment, that’s what you know,” Sweat said. “And you know a few tournaments in advance, so we know we’re in for the next few. You have to stay at that level, stay ahead, before you start taking tournaments off.”

USA men

This field is a little bit thinner. The leading Americans currently are Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, who are ranked 14th in the world. Gibb is trying to reach his fourth Olympiad after teaming up with Sean Rosenthal in Beijing 2008 and London 2012, then with Casey Patterson in Rio 2016.

Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, who reached Rio, have some ground to make up. They are ranked 18th in the world. Dalhausser (gold in 2008 with Todd Rogers) is aiming for his fourth Olympiad.

Just behind them are Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, who are ranked No. 20 (tied with Ben Saxton and Grant O’Gorman of Canada).

The wild cards in the race are Stafford Slick and Billy Allen (No. 73) plus Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger (No. 78). But with high-volume tournaments on the immediate horizon, they could pile up points in a hurry.

“Oh, man. It’s really difficult,” Bourne said. “You really have to know yourself well and know your team and what you’re trying to accomplish to figure out how to go about things, because there’s no right way and there’s no wrong way.

“The travel time is a bit intimidating. The good thing is most teams have to do it as well, but especially for me coming off the health stuff (that cost him virtually two years of play) and they make us go from Brazil to China. They don’t really care about our travel schedule and that’s a little frustrating, but everyone has to do it.”

The Olympian reward makes it worth it in the end.