IT’S HAPPENING! EVERYONE STAY COOL!
We’ve been prepping and training for this, almost as hard as our AVP athletes. I’ve got my favorite sweatpants and snacks lined up. My parents’ TV on which I’ll be viewing the Games is adequately ginormous, the surround sound ready to blast the Star Spangled Banner on full volume.
Just want all my friends and family to know – unless you’re talking Tokyo from July 23rd – August 8th, I cannot hear your voice. Sorry to my nieces and nephews who won’t understand why Aunt Kimmy is comatose on their grandparents’ couch. Consider me dead and gone to Olympus.
But you people reading this – you’re my people. And it’s time to talk Tokyo.
Before we get into format and pools – let’s talk Covid-19. The pandemic is affecting a variety of sports in The Games, and beach volleyball is no exception. Our own Taylor Crabb tested positive for Covid and had to drop out of The Games. It’s a devastating blow for the Olympic rookie, but he’s handling it with grace. His longtime friend and fellow Hawaiian Tri Bourne flew to Tokyo to be Jake Gibb’s alternate.
Jake and Tri have never played together. Tri, who originally began his beach career as a blocker, has been split-blocking with his usual partner Trevor Crabb since the summer of 2018. His athleticism and knowledge of the game are impressive, and the new team has the weird benefit of no other teams being able to scout their game. More on them later.
Other than that, the athletes seem to be doing well. Their social media posts are positive, even though it looks hot as hell in Tokyo. Sarah Sponcil said it felt hotter than Cancun, with temps in the high 80s and low 90s, humidity up to 98%, and no wind to cool things down (and potential flash flooding at any moment). Athletes will be tested on their toughness.
The fact that they play every other day (or sometimes with two days between matches) is unlike any other tournament. Does that make it easier or harder? That probably depends on the athlete, but there is definitely something much “easier” about the Olympics than other tournaments.
- There are only 2 teams per country allowed. That leaves a lot of the top teams out.
- There are teams who are low on Olympic Ranking (OR) but qualified through Continental Cups – like the Women’s Kenyan team and the Men’s Argentinian and Moroccan teams.
- With only 24 teams instead of 32, there are 8 fewer foes.
The stakes are higher, but the competition is technically more manageable. At least in pool play.
The venue, though set to be empty, is stunning. The temporary Shiokaze Park Stadium holds 12,000 people and features views of Tokyo’s famed Rainbow Bridge. The athletes have played through it all over the last year, from no fans at the AVP Champions Cup Series last summer to nearly full stadiums in Europe over the past two months. Though they may be unfazed by the number of people in the stands, it’ll be interesting to see how different the viewing experience feels without the raucous party that it normally is. Rest assured though – with AVP DJ Roueche on-site, you’ll feel right at home watching.
Ok – now it’s time for the brass tacks (still don’t understand that idiom). As stated in a previous article, the Olympics features 24 teams per gender split into 6 pools of 4 teams. The pools were decided partially on OR and partially on a fun (but complex) snake draft-like drawing of lots situation. Check out the video on YouTube. Or, if you don’t care much like I don’t, just check out the pools here – women first, men second:
We’ll get into those in a second. First – let’s talk format really quickly. As stated in my previous article, the tournament format differs from AVP’s Double-Elim format quite a bit. For clarity, I’m repeating what we laid out there:
- Each team will play the 3 other teams in their pool.
- To rank the teams in pool play, you go by matches won and break ties with point ratios (not head-to-head victories).
- The 2 best teams from each pool advance automatically to the Round of 16, equalling 12 teams from 6 pools.
- Then, of the 6 third-ranked finishers, the top 2 teams based on matches won, set ratios, and point ratios during pool play advance automatically as well. For the 4 remaining third-ranked finishers, two “Lucky Loser” matches will take place. Stay with me here:
- Look at the 6 third-ranked finishers as seeded 1-6.
- Seeds 1 and 2 advance into the Round of 16.
- Seed 3 plays Seed 6; the winner advances..
- Seed 4 plays Seed 5; the winner advances.
- From the Round of 16, the tournament will follow a single-elimination format, with the seedings carried out based on a combination of the original pool each team started in, where they finished in pool, and a random drawing of lots (see the graphic below).
- Once we’re down to 4 teams in the Semifinals, the losers of the Semis will play each other in the Bronze Medal match (with the loser receiving nothing…that is if you consider 4th place in the Olympics “nothing”). The winners of the Semis will play each other in the Gold Medal match (with the loser receiving Silver).
If you’re a visual person, Mark Schuermann is here to help. While he’ll actually be the Announcer at the Indoor Volleyball venue in Tokyo, my brilliant boyfriend and the voice of the AVP is following the Beach tournament closely. He’s laid out the bracket for us starting from the Round of 16. Here’s what it will look like and how the teams will be seeded after Pool Play:
Honestly, the process of determining the third-place teams and Lucky Loser round are pretty confusing. I thought about configuring it, but I don’t want to lose you all to point differentials and set ratios. So we’ll only go into that if it ends up affecting one of our AVP teams.
Ok, now that the format is ironed out, let’s get to the pools. I’ll offer a little insight but not a lot of technical analysis. We could analyze OR of each team and who’s highest-ranked, but let’s be honest – I just want to see them play now. Seeds definitely play a role, but once the field is set, teams have to bring it every match if they expect to win. Eric Fanoimoana and Dain Blanton were the 9-seed and had little fanfare around them, and they won Gold in 2000.
There’s only so much we can predict, and frankly, I can’t and don’t want to be unbiased toward my AVP teams. I’m more interested in the storylines and history of the pool compositions than predicting a winner.
Men’s Pool D
This is a heavy-hitting group. The fourth team in their pool, the Argentinians who won the South American Continental Cup (CSV) to qualify for the Games, are the only duo who doesn’t have an Olympic Medalist. Phil, of course, won Gold in Beijing with Todd Rogers. Most of you will remember Alison won Gold in Rio 2016, but with a different partner. And Brouwer and Meeuwsen won the Rio Bronze. We’ll have two Rio rematches in this pool. Loving that drama. On Alison’s way to Gold in Rio, he faced both the Americans and the Dutchies, obviously besting both.
Phil and Nick have had a mixed bag of FIVB finishes this year, from 3rd place in Cancun to not making playoffs in Ostrava. They’ve had a month off of competition, though. The last time they had four weeks to prepare for a tournament, they came to the AVP Champions Cup Series and whooped up on everyone. Hoping for more of that.
Women’s Pool B
There isn’t a ton of history between the A-Team and the teams in their pool. There have only been a handful of matches between them, and April and Alix haven’t always won. I’m not super worried about any of that though; April and Alix have proven they know how to win under pressure.
The A-Team finished tied for 1st in OR and are vastly ahead of most other teams in the world. This is April’s third Olympics, and she’s medaled in both of her previous showings (Silver with Jen Kessy in 2012; Bronze with Kerri Walsh-Jennings in 2016). Though this is Alix’s first Olympics, this duo of longtime friends has a history of winning big matches. In their first tournament as a team, with tons of eyes and pressure on them, they sailed through 10 matches to win it all. They made it to the World Champ Finals in 2019 and then won the coveted Gstaad 5-Star the weekend after. And they didn’t lose a single match in their only competition of 2020, the three-week AVP Champions Cup Series.
Women’s Pool D
All the NCAA Beach Volleyball in one pool? Woah! Sarah and Kelly, a Bruin and a Trojan, are set to play against Tina Graudina of USC in their first match. Ironically, this Latvian team is also who they last played in Gstaad. Though Team Slaes lost that match, I’m not counting them out in the rematch. In the month previous, Sarah and Kelly qualified for Tokyo, celebrated that achievement, did a weeklong heat and humidity training camp in Orlando, and then flew to Switzerland. They’re 24 and 25, but that’s a lot for anyone. I think their last loss lit a fire, and Team Slaes will come out with a little chip on their shoulder ready for revenge.
They also drew the Kenyan women who qualified via the African Continental Cup (CAVB). The Kenyans have never played an FIVB tournament, which may give Team Slaes an advantage through experience. The final team they’ll face is Brazil’s Ana Patricia and Rebecca. Sarah and Kelly haven’t played this team since 2019. The Brazilians are also a young team at 23 and 28, so both duos have grown exponentially since they last saw each other two years ago. That’ll be a good one.
Jake Gibb/Tri Bourne
Wow – it feels weird to type Jake Gibb and Tri Bourne together on the same team. But here we are. And I have to say – Jake and Tri could actually be really, really good. Jake is a straight-up beach volleyball legend in his fourth Olympics. Tri has been playing his whole life, and overcoming obstacles is kind of his brand (see: not being recruited, autoimmune disease, and broken hand). If anyone can pull off a miracle, it’s Jake the Great and Tri the Resilient (yes, I just gave them those Dungeons and Dragons names).
Coach Rich Lambourne definitely has his work cut out melding these two players together in just a few days. But, as I said before, no one knows what this team looks like or what they’ll be capable of doing (including them). A huge part of the game is scouting, and there’s no film to watch on Team GibBourne (we’ll see if that name sticks).
With that being said, their pool is not an easy one. Qatar’s Cherif and Ahmed are one of the hottest teams in beach volleyball, winning in front of a home crowd in Doha and making all three Cancun Hub Finals. Carambula, the Sky Ball King, and his partner Rossi are steady and scrappy. Heidrich and Gerson, though they qualified through the European Continental Cup (CEV), are still FIVB regulars and capable players. This will not be a breeze for GibBourne, but what about their last week has been breezy?