There’s a digital clock in the gym of the USA Volleyball facility in Torrance, California, tracking down the years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds to the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. It serves as a reminder to every athlete who steps in for a workout, a perpetual countdown to exactly what they’re working for and it’s ever-approaching deadline.
But there could have been another clock, this one counting up, totaling the two years, 11 months and nine days since an American men’s team won a gold medal at a major event on the then-FIVB and now Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour, when Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb did so at the Chetumal four-star in November of 2019.
That clock, alas, can be reset.
On Tuesday evening in the Volleyball World Dubai Challenge, 20-year-old wunderkind Miles Partain and Andy Benesh continued their blitz through their second straight Challenge event, sweeping Brazil’s Pedro Salgado and Arthur Mariano in the semifinals before a second sweep over Ukraine’s Sergiy Popov and Eduard Reznik, 21-15, 21-17, claiming a long-awaited — and direly-needed — gold medal for the American men.
“Our women’s program has been dominating so consistently and us, the men, have been lagging, so we’re trying to find our way back on the map and make our federation and country proud to be the beach volleyball hub of the world,” said Benesh, the 27-year-old blocker who has now won two medals this season on the Beach Pro Tour.
“We believe in ourselves. We always have that hope. We talk about it a lot; we’ve been good at not expecting anything. We just take it moment by moment. We want to get to a certain level but that’s going to come over time. It’s cool we’ve been able to do it so quickly. We didn’t have low expectations, we had no expectations, and we just tried to match the intensity of the moment.”
No moment, it appears, is too intense, too big, too anything, for Partain, the 6-foot-2 defender who was playing in just the second international event of his promising career. He made six semifinals in eight events on the AVP with Paul Lotman this year, won his first event in Atlanta, and very nearly did so again at the Phoenix Gold Series Championships.
In two international tournaments, which includes this Dubai Challenge and last week’s Challenge in the Maldives, he and Benesh have amassed a staggering record of 12-1, winning 24 of 28 sets, and outscoring those 13 opponents by more than 130 total points. Their only loss on the Beach Pro Tour thus far? A 20-22, 20-22 battle in the Maldives quarterfinals with former world No. 1 — and eventual Maldives gold medalists — Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan of Qatar.
“He’s such a special player,” Benesh said. “I think we really vibe well on and off the court. We have a really good thing going and I feel like we’re just scratching the surface. We’re not going to be complacent. We’re going to try and push more.”
The question, at the moment, is how hard can Partain truly push? He is also supremely talented at the indoor version of this game, the reigning MPSF Player of the Year as the setter for UCLA.
Does he take a year off and make a run at Paris?
Or does he honor his commitment to the Bruins, stay in Westwood for the spring season, and hit the road after, as Sarah Sponcil did in her run to the Tokyo Olympics?
Those are questions that can wait at least one more weekend, however, for in just two days’ time, Partain and Benesh will be competing again, back in the qualifier where they began their scintillating run through the first event.
“It’s an adventure,” Partain said. “It’s a mystery and that’s what makes it fun.”
Fun was had by a number of American teams in Dubai. Also coming home with some hardware is the quickly thrown-together team of Julia Scoles and Katie Horton, another pair who emerged from the qualifier and fended off a talented Thai team, 26-24, 22-20, in the bronze medal match to win the first top-tier medals of their respective careers.
“With a new partnership, it’s such a cool opportunity to be here. There’s no expectations,” Scoles said. “I knew she’s an incredible athlete, incredible player and person. We were just excited to compete at a high level and to win a bronze is just incredible.”
Initially registered to play with Zana Muno, the two split after finishing 17th in the Maldives Challenge, which left Scoles in a bind to find a last-minute replacement. In came Horton, a former standout at Florida State who won a silver medal at the Turkey Futures with Brook Bauer — also out of the qualifier — in mid-June. Horton had lost in the qualifier in the Maldives alongside Violeta Slabakova, so she was, at the very least, on the right side of the world to get the call and change her flight. It worked out well enough, as they qualified, then swept Switzerland and Germany to make the semifinals, where the lost to eventual gold medalists Barbora Hermmanova and Marie-Sara Stochlova, 19-21, 17-21. A quick reset and a victory over Thailand, and the bronze was theirs.
“A week ago we weren’t partners, so there’s that,” Horton said with a laugh. “Coming into this, looking at it each game, each match, trying to enjoy each other, this place, it’s amazing.”
Even the Americans who didn’t medal enjoyed success. Jess Gaffney and Savvy Simo, and Hailey Harward and Xolani Hodel — rookies all — finished fifth, while Deahna Kraft and Allie Wheeler, and Maddie Anderson and Molly Turner both qualified, an unquestioned success for all.
On the men’s side, Evan Cory and Logan Webber logged a career-high fourth, while Taylor Crabb and emergency sub Paul Lotman finished fifth, falling to Cory and Webber in a well-fought quarterfinal. Chase Budinger and Troy Field, on the heels of a silver medal in the Maldives, failed to break pool, losing to Argentina and Crabb and Lotman.
In two days, however, Budinger and Field will have another shot, and the United States could very well continue its impressive medal haul from the previous two weeks.
“Life is a lot of hills and valleys and if you can steady that out, it’s a testament to one’s character,” Partain said. “We’ll try our best.”
“Really special that we were able to battle all the way through the qualifier to the end with a gold medal,” Benesh added. “I thought we did a really good job taking it one point at a time and we’re going to celebrate it for a couple hours then we’re back in the qualifier Thursday. We’re going to reset quickly but we’re going to enjoy it for a couple hours.”