And so the Olympic partnership shuffle begins. For months, we’ve been asked on SANDCAST when the partnerships for the Paris Olympic Games would begin to solidify. And for months, the players have been, for obvious reasons, keeping quiet on the matter, finishing out their respective seasons with the partners they tested out this season, to see if an Olympic medal — not just qualifying, but a medal — could be in their future. The first major domino has fallen, as Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes announced to NBC that they are partnering for a run at the Paris Olympic Games in 2024.

The move, made public on Tuesday morning, has come as a surprise to many. Cheng and Betsi Flint were the most successful American team on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour this season, with a gold medal at the Hamburg Elite16 and a pair of fourths in Rosarito and Paris. Hughes and Kelley Kolinske, meanwhile, won gold at the Itapema Challenger and cemented their names onto the Manhattan Beach Pier with a victory over Cheng and Flint in the finals.

But were either giving themselves the best shot at winning an Olympic gold medal with their previous partners, or were they very good teams with chances at qualifying but still relative underdogs when it came to getting on the podium? Both, it appears, felt the latter.

“We want a gold medal in Paris,” Cheng told NBC. “So we’re kind of working backwards [from that]. In that regard, in our training, what are our strengths and our weaknesses? How can we kind of bring other things? How can we do that repeatedly well? Because I think the top teams in the world are consistent.”

Consistency was something lacked by all American teams both domestic and international in 2022. On the AVP, there wasn’t a repeat winner until Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth won in Chicago, the final event of the AVP’s regular season. Internationally, only Cheng and Flint won a medal in an Elite16. Sara Hughes and Kolinske made the medal rounds twice, in Itapema and Jurmala, Latvia. No American team made the semifinals of the World Championships, where the podium featured Brazil, Canada, and Germany.

Kelly Cheng-Betsi Flint-Hamburg Elite 16
Kelly Cheng gives Betsi Flint a post-championship lift/Volleyball World photo

Some of this, of course, was to be expected: Of the top six American teams — Flint and Cheng, Sara Hughes and Kolinske, Nuss and Kloth, Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon, Emily Stockman and Megan Kraft, Corinne Quiggle and Sarah Schermerhorn — only Nuss and Kloth had previously played together. A step back for each new team was all but inevitable.

Gradually, every team improved, with Flint and Cheng dominating in Hamburg and nearly making another final in Paris. Hughes and Kolinske made five semifinals in their final six AVP tournaments and won that gold in Brazil. Nuss and Kloth adjusted to the demands of the Beach Pro Tour and have risen to the point of being directly into the main draw of Elite16s. Sponcil and Cannon won a bronze medal in the Kusadasi Challenger — an event won by Nuss and Kloth — and won their pool at the World Championships, which included a victory over Tokyo silver medalists Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho of Australia. Stockman and Kraft recently made a semifinal in the Maldives Challenger. Quiggle and Schermerhorn made a final in Espinho and have three straight top-10 finishes on the Beach Pro Tour.

But now the dominoes must fall once more, and the trickle-down will go deep into the USA Volleyball ranks. Holding the cards at the moment are Flint and Kolinske, the free agent defender and blocker with the most points and accomplishments, respectively. Like Cheng and Hughes, they could reunite a previously successful partnership, when they debuted as professionals together. Or they could go separate routes, where the options are virtually endless.

Young blockers, such as Julia Scoles, Deahna Kraft, Torrey Van Winden, Jess Gaffney, Maddie Anderson, Allie Wheeler, and Xolani Hodel, among others, are making their way onto the Beach Pro Tour, as are young defenders, such as Zana Muno, Savvy Simo, Molly Turner, and Hailey Harward, among others. Both Kolinske and Flint could also attempt to split a partnership, such as Cannon and Sponcil, or Quiggle and Schermerhorn.

The wild card, at the moment, is the remaining question about the futures of April Ross and Alix Klineman, both of whom have seismic influence on the landscape of American beach volleyball. Neither of the Tokyo gold medalists have made any public announcement about whether or not they will attempt a run at Paris, be it together or separate.

There’s really no shortage of options and potential partnerships, although there is at least a small sense of urgency, with the 2023 Beach Pro Tour season, and Olympic qualifying, slated to begin in February.

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