Tough choices for top players when AVP, FIVB conflict

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Sara Hughes-AVP-FIVB-beach volleyball
Sara Hughes serves against Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman at FIVB Gstaad/FIVB photo

It’s happening again this week. The AVP has a tour stop in Hermosa Beach. The FIVB is a three-star in Tokyo, which happens to be the site of the 2020 Olympics.

Hermosa or Tokyo?

Tokyo or Hermosa?

A three-star FIVB event, where plane tickets can run up to $800 round trip, or the second-biggest AVP of the season, in one of beach volleyball’s most hallowed grounds, where Betsi Flint and Emily Day could likely longboard to the site?

“Ah, I don’t want to talk about it,” Day said, laughing, two days before she and Flint would win their second AVP of the season, in San Francisco.

“Still hurts a little bit,” Flint agreed.

It is a hurt reserved only for the elite few. A problem, to be sure, but a good problem to have, for when one is wrestling between an FIVB or an AVP event, they are, at the same time, wrestling between a potential shot at the Olympics or racing up the AVP points standings. Waffling between playing in some of the most breathtaking sites in the world and, well, some of the most breathtaking sites in the world.

Itapema or Austin?

Ostrava and its iron jungle of a beach volleyball facility or Seattle?

Portugal or San Francisco?

Tokyo or Hermosa?

Hamburg or Manhattan Beach?

There are conflicts every year. A major one looms large, when the AVP has its Manhattan Beach Open August 16-19, the same week as the Beach World FIVB Tour Finals in Hamburg.

“The ultimate goal for us is the Olympics, so you have to make some sacrifices along the way,” Day said. “So, we’re off to Tokyo, and it’ll be awesome, just sad to miss an AVP.”

No American is ever thrilled to miss an AVP event, particularly those that take place in the Americans’ backyard. Like, say, Hermosa, stomping grounds of Sean Rosenthal, birthplace of the South Bay Superman–  and yet he will be amiss this week in Hermosa, as he and partner Chase Budinger are also off to Tokyo.

There are points to chase, standings to climb.

Olympic qualification may not begin for another three months, but the positioning for that race is vital for those who wish to make a genuine push for it. It’s difficult enough to skip an AVP for an FIVB main draw. It’s an entirely new element to skip an AVP for the most brutal of matches: a country quota across the world. One bad match and that’s it — no AVP, no FIVB, no points, no money.

Nothing.

Just a long, lonely flight home.

“This year, in the Czech Republic, Seattle was going on and we didn’t qualify,” Trevor Crabb said of he and partner John Mayer, who lost 15-13 in the third set of the final round of the qualifier. “That was like a stab through the heart. It’s the worst. It really is the worst.”

Had he qualified? “Different story,” Crabb said. “I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.”

But they did think twice about skipping San Francisco for Gstaad, a five-star tournament and widely considered to be the best stop in beach volleyball. They could either leave San Francisco early to play in a country quota, where they’d have to play a match against Americans that is roughly the equivalent of an AVP semifinal or sometimes even a final, with no guarantee of points or even a berth into the qualifier, let alone a main draw – or they could just stay home, buy a cheap ticket to San Francisco, play on home soil, take the guaranteed finish.

“If it was an Olympic qualification year it would be different,” Crabb said. “But this year, it was just stay and take the money.”

Such is the hinge point for the elite American beach volleyball players: the Olympics. It all comes down to the Olympics. In September, when China hosts a three-star event, the official points race for the Olympics is on.

Until then, it’s jockeying for position, for who gets to skip the country quotas and qualifiers, who can buy the round trip, four-digit price tickets across the world with a guaranteed paycheck in hand – and who gets that tight feeling in their throat when buying that same ticket to play in a country quota.

“One of the worst feelings I’ve had, volleyball-wise,” Crabb said. “But it’s good. You learn from that. I’m glad I got that out of the system and to feel what it’s like to skip an AVP and not do well in an FIVB.”

Which explains why Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, in little to no danger of being pushed into the country quota, have been world-travelers this season. It’s about points, yes, but it’s about much more than that: developing the team into a bona fide international threat that, come 2020, will be a gold medal contender.

“Summer and I are still a new team, as much as I wish we could build playing AVPs because I think they run some of the best tournaments, we have to get that international competition because these players are — it’s the top of the top, competing and playing at their best,” Hughes said.

“ … but you have to go get that experience, you have to go play Brazil. If you don’t, it’s a completely different ballgame internationally. Just looking at the tournaments, if there’s an FIVB, especially if it’s a four or five star, we’re going to have to go and we’re going to need to get those points and that experience.

“We’re waking up every morning, we’re practicing, we’re training, we’re lifting, and that’s exactly how it is internationally. They don’t have any other jobs besides volleyball. I wish all of these volleyball players could do this but we can’t really focus on anything else.

“It’s like eat, sleep, play volleyball. Internationally it’s the same. You’re surrounding yourself with these athletes who are doing the same thing — they’re waking up to lift, they’re stretching, they’re going to practice right before a tournament, they’re playing, they’re watching film with their coaches, they’re watching film individually, it’s like you don’t take days off, besides obviously having your respective days off. You’re constantly volleyball all the time and that’s what the international competition is. It truly is our job and what we have to do to be the best in the world.”

This week, in Hermosa, for just the second time this year, Hughes and Ross will be playing an AVP. They won their first, winning every match in straight sets en route to a New York City title. The experience against the Brazilians is paying off, in every way imaginable — money, points, development.

But there’s no place like home.

“Nothing beats being able to sleep in your own bed and playing on your home sand with friends and family there to watch,” Hughes admitted.

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