By Ray Glier for VolleyballMag.com
ATLANTA — Taylor Crabb’s spirit has been revived.
He darted around the sand and dove for digs on a practice court here Thursday as he prepared for the main draw of AVP Atlanta. Mentally, he seemed far away from the calamity of the Tokyo Olympics and some of the worst moments of his life. He bounced around the court with partner Jake Gibb and coach Rich Lambourne and Taylor’s girlfriend, Victoria Corcoran.
In those frolicking moments here in the late afternoon, the only thing that could have reminded Crabb of Tokyo was the heat (91) and the oppressive humidity.
Away from the sand, though, it is still hard for the 29-year old to let go of the accursed trip to Japan. He landed in Tokyo the weekend of July 24 and tested positive for COVID.
He had been vaccinated.
He had no symptoms.
What he had was dead virus and the Japanese shut him in a 12-foot by 8-foot room in quarantine. Crabb re-tested, but came back positive and he stayed in the room for 11 days and did not compete in the Olympics with Gibb.
“I’ll never be over what happened.” Crabb said in a quiet voice in the players lounge. “That was five years in the making for Jake and I.”
He had to pause a moment.
“I tear up every time I talk about it. He’s (Jake) retiring. This is our time. That was our time.”
Then he said, “I’m ready to compete again.”
Wouldn’t you as a professional athlete, like Crabb, come out on fire eager to show the world what it missed?
Crabb smiled and said, “I want to win, just like any tournament.”
Crabb and Gibb are seeded second behind the other USA Olympics teammates here, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, who advanced to the round of 16 in Tokyo and were bounced out by Qatar in three sets.
There should be extra juice for all the players here. It is the first time in two years AVP is back in front of fans, shut down because of the virus that won’t go away. It is an appropriate venue for a revival because the downtown stadium court has not only the city of Atlanta skyline as a backdrop, but it was here in 1996 where beach volleyball finally got on the world stage of the Olympics.
“So cool to be where beach in the Olympics started,” said another Olympian, Kelly Claes, who is here with Tokyo partner Sarah Sponcil.
The locals are excited.
“Atlanta is pretty iconic for the sport and it made a lot of sense for the city and AVP to have this event here,” said Colleen Craig, the founder/CEO of Rally Volleyball, a major player in the sport, especially in the southeast. “We aren’t Manhattan Beach and we aren’t Hermosa, but as the sport of beach volleyball grows having iconic locations is important. The sport is played inland where volleyball is big, like Atlanta.”
The Atlanta Open has the added bonus of being the first under the new ownership of Bally and Bally Sports, a new media powerhouse. Beach volleyball is about to be immersed in a new technology and sports culture as fans join the gamification of the sport on a personal level.
On Thursday, with qualifiers being played at Rally’s home base of Lake Point, north of the city, and things getting revved up downtown, the excitement of Bally and the Olympians on hand was tempered by sour news.
April Ross would not play. Her partner, Alix Klineman had already opted out, but then Ross withdrew from the tournament on Thursday. Her playing partner, Kelley Kolinske, received bad news on an MRI for an injury and it was too late in the game for Ross to find a suitable replacement.
The favorites for the women are now Olympians Claes, 25, and Sponcil, 24. They were the third-ranked team in the world headed into the Olympics and were cruising toward the quarterfinals in Tokyo when the bottom fell out in the round of 16.
Up a set against Canada’s Brandie Wilkerson and Heather Bansley in the Olympics round of 16, Claes-Sponcil led the second set, 10-4. Then they abruptly lost momentum, and they lost the second set 21-18. Then they dropped the third set, 15-13 and were eliminated.
The youngest American team ever to qualify for the Olympics beach volleyball tournament, Claes and Sponcil are certainly considered medal contenders for Paris in 2024. They hit the re-start button toward those Olympics here Thursday while hitting it around with Crabb and Gibb on a practice court.
“We really don’t look at rankings, it’s just an opportunity to get better,” Claes said. “I’m praying this stadium is full because we miss playing in front of fans.
“We’re going to out and focus on the things we need to get better because our eyes are focused on 2024 and Paris.”
In an interesting mix of international teammates, there will be stiff competition from Sara Hughes and Wilkerson. Hughes is Claes’ former partner at USC and then at the start of their pro careers, and Wilkerson, of course, is one of the Canadians who helped spoil Claes’ and Sponcil’s Olympics.
“The expectation is to win this,” Hughes said. “We’re looking to get our first (AVP) title this year.”
The other Olympian to watch is Tri Bourne, who flew in late to Tokyo to replace Crabb and team with Gibb and make it to the final 16. Bourne and Trevor Crabb are seeded sixth in the tournament.
“A big thing for me is having an impact on the sport, playing on that stage, performing, and doing it the right way,” Bourne said. “I had a week at home after the Olympics and that gives me no excuse to be tired.
“We’re sharp and ready to entertain this fan base.”
The volleyball community in the south will have one last chance to admire the skill and poise of Gibb, the four-time Olympian who is retiring after these three AVP events in 2021.
He talked about the heat and humidity and how it “lubricates this old man’s body”, but the 45-year old Gibb showed in Tokyo that he is still formidable. He and Crabb will be a tough out and perhaps crowd favorites, what with Gibb’s retirement and Crabb’s travails in Asia.
“I want to get a win in one of these three,” Gibb said. “After we get one, see if we can get two, after we get two, see if we can get three. That’s my goal, get one definitely.”