The perfect Olympic beach volleyball storm of Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil

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Kelly Claes, left, and Sarah Sponcil after winning in Ostrava/FIVB photo

It is only days before Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes will begin their last push for the Tokyo Olympic Games. Six events remain on the schedule: Doha, three tournaments in Cancun, Sochi, and Ostrava. Six events left to claim the second American berth to Tokyo. They understand the magnitude of what needs to be done in order to qualify. They are just 24 and 25 years old, yet they must pass a five-time Olympian in Kerri Walsh Jennings, the greatest to ever play this game, the one whom they grew up watching on TV in Athens and Beijing and London and, just last quad, Rio de Janeiro.

They were kids then, in 2016, when Walsh Jennings and April Ross won bronze medals. Claes was 21, Sponcil 20.

Now they are peers. Rivals.

Now they must pass Walsh Jennings, and they must do so from the worst starting block possible: Beginning with the country quota, potentially for all six remaining events. Not only that, but in order to pass Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, they have to medal.

They haven’t medaled in nearly two years.

Yet Sponcil isn’t worried. Not outwardly, anyway, which is almost always exactly as she’s feeling inward, too, at least when she’s talking to her roommate, Katie Spieler.

“You think she is superwoman and doesn’t have a worry in the world about her play because in your mind she is a flawless baller,” says Spieler, a baller in her own right and a good friend of Sponcil’s. “But some of my favorite talks with Sarah, after a long day of training, were when we would talk volleyball and she would bring up parts of her game she was frustrated with and new things she was trying to work on. She is always striving to be better.”

Sponcil knows the work she has put in. For the better part of the last two years, her days have begun at 6:30 a.m. and usually end around 7, long hours filled with practice, lifting, film, physical therapy and recovery, more film, individual meetings.

As she does on the rare nights that both she and Spieler are home, Sponcil is sitting on the couch with Spieler, talking about the upcoming country quota against Sara Hughes and Emily Day, a match she must win just to earn the right to compete in the Doha qualifier. It’s a situation about which many might — and do — complain or gripe. Sponcil and Claes are the sixth-ranked team on the planet, and yet here they are, beginning each event on the lowest rung of the ladder.

Sponcil does not gripe or complain. She never gripes or complains.

“Her mindset on being in almost every country quota,” Spieler says, “was that it was going to make a fun story to write.”

A fun story, indeed.

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Kelly Claes, left, and Sarah Sponcil after winning in Ostrava/FIVB photo

Sponcil’s self-assurance is a quiet one. She does not boast or brag. She doesn’t post highlight after highlight on Instagram, though she has an endless bank of them. Nor is she the opposite, the type to brandish an image of false modesty that professional athletes are wont to do because, frankly, that’s what professional athletes are supposed to do.

She is, simply, Sarah Sponcil. That’s always been more than good enough.

Tom Black knew the moment he saw Sponcil. He knew despite Sponcil being just a freshman at Veritas Prep, in Phoenix, Arizona. He knew despite Sponcil being several courts down. He knew despite Sponcil not even being the object of his recruiting trip. Then the coach at Loyola Marymount, Black was in Arizona to take a final visit to see Betsi Metter, an All-Everything “golden child of Arizona,” as Black described her, a can’t-miss recruit if you were a self-respecting university on the West Coast.

“I remember recruiting her, we were there watching Betsi, and I saw Sarah three courts down,” Black said. “I said ‘I’ll offer her right now.’ ”

Metter was a senior; Sponcil a freshman. Black offered her the first night he was allowed to do so.

Sponcil seemed excited, flattered. Then she went silent.

“We thought we were just dead in the water,” Black said. He rationalized. Every school wanted Sponcil. It made sense that she might want to go somewhere bigger — UCLA, USC, one of the premier schools on the West Coast.

Then, with no warning or indication she was at all interested in resuming communication, “she called me in the middle of the day and she said ‘I’ve just decided I want to go to LMU,’ ” Black recalled, laughing. “I talked to her maybe five times total, but now that I know her I know that’s the way she is: She’s not attracted to bells and whistles and once she makes her mind up, that’s it. She doesn’t really need to keep talking about it.”

Black immediately called John Mayer, the new coach of the beach team, which was slowly climbing the ranks of the West Coast Conference after launching its program.

“We just landed the best recruit ever,” Black told Mayer.

There is little on the exterior about Sponcil that would indicate such lofty praise. She’s 5-foot-10. Athletic, for sure, but no immediately defining physical trait or ability that would differentiate her from the dozens of other 5-foot-10 athletic high school setters. Mayer was reserved. Black chuckled. Just wait.

“You see her play, and it was ‘Oh, I get it,’ ” Mayer said. “There was an indoor practice, and people were just messing around, doing hitting lines, and she’s just kind of standing around at middle back, and people were just hitting wherever they wanted, and she was running around — dig that, dig that.”

This is the unanimous review from every coach who has ever worked with Sponcil, from Black to Mayer to UCLA assistant Jenny Johnson Jordan to Tyler Hildebrand, the former Director of Beach National Teams for USA Volleyball. Sponcil, who also played indoors at LMU, transferred to UCLA to play two seasons on the beach.

“You could tell in the first five minutes of training, just how ridiculously athletic she is,” Johnson Jordan said. “It was pretty obvious at that point that she was just scratching the surface.”

It’s the intangibles that are the foundation of Sponcil’s greatness, which is what makes it so difficult for coaches to explain why she is so damn good.

How can you properly explain transcendence?

“She knows where the ball is going to be. She’s very good at reading the game. More than anything is her desire,” Mayer said. “She’s just a bulldog. Her feistiness. She’s tough. Gritty. She has really high standards for herself and she meets them, she strives to meet them every day at practice. She’s not super happy and playful with her partner but she’s self-driven. She wants to be the best at what she does. You just know she’s going to make plays.

“I just remember, anytime it was late in the third set, Sponcil’s going to figure it out. She’s going to make a play. She’s going to rise to the occasion. It all sounds cliché, but there’s something about her determination, her feistiness, it’s just rare. There’s just a will: ‘I’m not going to let this ball go down.’ That sort of attitude, when things get more pressure, most people might have more nerves or play it safe, but she’s just: ‘I’m not going to let this other side score.’

“If you have the video game player with all the technical skills and then the intangibles, her intangibles are off the chart. You can help someone develop them a little more but she’s starting with a high baseline.”

Mayer and Black have been around the game for a long time. They know how difficult it is to make the Olympics, a two-year qualification process that will take players around the globe more than once, a brutal rite of passage that is as mentally taxing as it is physical. It will require you to do things you haven’t, and do them over and over and over again.

They knew the land of hyperbole they were wading into when they said that for Sarah Sponcil, the Olympics were not a mere possibility.

They were an inevitability.

The question, then: Was it an inevitability for her partner?

Was it an inevitability for Kelly Claes?

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Sarah Sponcil, left, and Kelly Claes during FIVB Sochi play/FIVB photo

Anna Collier didn’t know.

It was clear as day that Kelly Claes could play. Whatever doubt there had been was removed when Claes competed in what could be considered her first real beach tournament, a youth FIVB in Porto, Portugal in 2013. It was the first time Claes left the country, the first of many tournaments in which she’d represent the United States of America. The first trip she’d return home with a medal, this one bronze, with Sara Hughes.

“Anna Collier came up to me after and said ‘Hey, do you want to play beach at USC?’ ” Claes recalled in a previous interview.

At the time, she was committed to play indoor at Long Beach State. An Orange County native, Claes was no stranger to the beach. She enjoyed it plenty, but indoor was her focus. Until beach took her to the sand in Portugal. Indoor had never taken her there.

“I never dreamed that my sport would take me to such amazing places,” Claes said. “Growing up, it didn’t seem like a realistic idea, but after that trip, and just being around the beach and the environment that it has, it seemed so much more possible that this is what we could do.”

While Sponcil had been the worst kept secret in the state of Arizona, Claes had been the prized recruit hiding in plain sight, the diamond who wasn’t anywhere near the rough. Collier swooped before the rest of the nation’s recruiters could descend.

Claes was going to be a USC Trojan, joining the most dominant program in the emerging NCAA sport of beach volleyball. She was talented and athletic, unusually smooth for a girl standing 6-foot-2, kudos to a background in virtually every other sport: track and field, basketball, softball, indoor volleyball. The variety of skills and movements required of her on other courts and fields built an impressive and coordinated skill-set. Yet in terms of beach volleyball, a game that demands a deft touch and power when necessary, Claes was, Collier admits, a bit raw.

“I absolutely saw the potential in her,” Collier said. “We were more concerned about if she had the discipline to do the work to get there. We all knew she had the talent, but how many times have we said that about players? They can get there, but do they have the mental fortitude, the mindset, to do the work, to be challenged, to be uncomfortable, and to get there?”

Collier pushed and pulled and tugged and yelled and routinely stretched Claes to her limits. When other parents and fans would gawk at Claes’ ability to hit a ball opposite-handed, to win with such maddening ease, Collier would fume. Fans would see ambidexterity; Collier saw laziness. How much more effective could Claes have been if she just kicked outside, like Collier had told her over and over again, to get her right hand on the ball?

“I would think in my head: ‘That’s not what we want to do,’ ” Collier said.

She’s a hard-headed one, Collier, an old school coach to the bones. Funny thing about elite athletes: They’re hard-headed cusses, too. When Claes saw an option to score, she was going to take it, right handed or left. When she had an opportunity to hand-set, a skill Collier encouraged ad nauseam, Claes was going to use her hands, whether it seemed a good idea or not. Collier didn’t fight it. She can appreciate an athlete with a headstrong mindset to develop. That was Claes.

“Kelly was a natural option. She wanted to option even when Sara could side out. We’d say ‘Kelly, we don’t need the option, Sara can side out.’ But that was Kelly,” Collier said. “She was going to do that. We said ‘OK, if she’s going to do this, let’s develop this, because it is a weapon.’ So we worked on her getting outside, seeing the pass, things she’s doing now, and that stuck out, how much she improved.

“And from day one, we said set with your hands, we don’t care if you chuck it. She took that challenge on immediately and has that set that she currently has. She did the work. We said the same thing to everyone. We would always practice setting, but a lot, when we got into matches, would revert to bump setting, but credit to Kelly, she didn’t. Sometimes we’d see her go to hand set and us coaches in the box would go ‘Ohhhhh’ because we’d seen it, we trained it. We’d go ‘Oh boy, here we go.’ And we’d see her going up on an option, and we’d go ‘Oh boy, here we go.’ But again: She did the work in both of those skills that we started working on at SC, which is so pleasing to see.

“She wanted to go where she is right away, and as you know, that doesn’t happen. So for me, I am so happy to see that she’s done the work. She did the work with us, but none of what she is now was there. That’s what so amazing to me is that she’s done the work. She knows the discipline of when to option, and when not to option.

“It’s exciting to have been a part of, I don’t know, one percent of the journey, and to see her come up from behind and do what she did.”

The work is one thing. As is the talent. Virtually every athlete at the top level, the Olympic level, is gifted. Virtually every athlete at the Olympic level will work. Claes’ work ethic was never a cause for concern for Brittany Hochevar, Claes’ first professional partner after a split with Sara Hughes, with whom she had won everything there was to win at the college level.

“When you come out of college and you’re the top dog and you’re an All-American, and then you step into the player tent, and it’s just ‘Yep, join the club. Get in line. We’re all All-Americans,’” Hochevar said. “You want her to enjoy it. Yeah, you’re a pro, this is cool, you’re right, you can be real dangerous, but there’s just a youth process of leveling up: Alright, I can’t get away with this anymore, because everyone can do this now.

“For me, it was just a youthfulness. If you look at every medal stand since beach volleyball became an Olympic sport, every medal stand, you’re looking at mid-20s to mid-30s, with that late-20s, early 30s being the prime. I thought there would be those inconsistencies in such a youthful game in such a mature World Tour atmosphere.”

Yet where were the inconsistencies? To the public eye, there were few, if any. Claes and Hochevar made six straight Sundays on the AVP Tour in 2018, narrowly losing one of the best finals in Manhattan Beach Open history, 25-27, 21-17, 15-17 to April Ross and Alix Klineman. They took a silver medal at the Xiamen four-star after coming out of the qualifier. Claes, just barely into her 20s, was on medal stands with women who had been doing this professionally for years.

“You just have to turn that corner as a young player. Kelly was clearly a dominating force in university, and once you hit that pro level, there’s a different physicality to it, and that was part of my role was to convince her that there’s a fifth gear to get you to the finals,” Hochevar said. “We played April and Alix real tight in the finals, but there’s that fifth gear. Now, Kelly always had the X factor, and that’s just who she is.”

Collier keeps track of all her former athletes’ successes. She can tell you virtually every match played by Sara Hughes, Allie Wheeler, Terese Cannon, and any other Trojan currently playing professionally. She watched Claes, too. Closely. She knew Claes was developing that fifth-gear, the enigmatic ‘X-factor’ Hochevar mentioned. But there’s another step to the professional game that’s different from college, in that you must assemble your own team — your own coach, trainer, partner, nutritionist.

Collier’s lone question about Claes was no longer about her work ethic or mentality, but the group with whom she would surround herself.

When the correct pieces of that team — partner, coach, trainer — fall into place, Collier said, “in a sense, it becomes a perfect storm.”

She had no idea.

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Kelly Claes, Jordan Cheng, Sarah Sponcil/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Tyler Hildebrand almost fell over when he heard the question.

The Director of Beach Teams for USA Volleyball had set up the meeting. He had been the one who recommended Jordan Cheng to coach Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil.

And here was Cheng, all of 27 years old, not doing the delicate dance many might when being presented with potentially the opportunity of a lifetime, instead going seven layers deep on the first question.

“I know this might sound like a dumb question,” Cheng asked Claes and Sponcil on their first meeting, “but why do you want to go to the Olympics? The reason I ask is because if you don’t know why, it’s going to be easy to get burned out, it’s going to be easy to lose direction, it’s going to be tough to enjoy the process.’”

Claes responded right away, something surface-level that Cheng didn’t fully buy but made a note to investigate further. He turned to Sponcil — badass, win at all costs, inevitable Olympian Sarah Sponcil.

The toughest girl in beach volleyball burst into tears.

“I’m like ‘Whoa, all I did was ask why!’ ” Cheng said, laughing. “Me, Tyler and Kelly were like whoa. Sarah was overwhelmed. She said ‘I don’t know why. I’ve never asked myself that. Everything’s just happening so fast, I graduated college, went on the World Tour, teams are figuring me out, and I need to be better.’ She had this moment of realization that there’s more to this than volleyball. Both the girls were just so burned out. They had two more tournaments (in 2019) and they were done. And that was a cue to me to invest in them as people, and I think I can do that better than anyone else.”

A journey to the Olympic Games requires more than passing and setting and siding out. It calls for more than tricky block moves and gritty defense, especially when that journey begins before half of your team has even graduated college and when the other half is still cutting her teeth as a full-time professional.

Cheng, despite his youth, had been around the highest level performers in volleyball for years. He’d coached at Pepperdine under the tutelage of the legendary Marv Dunphy. He coached for a national-championship contender at UC Irvine. His first coaching gig on the beach was with four-time Olympian Reid Priddy. He knew the critical importance of the personal and spiritual development side of the journey.

That meeting forever altered the way Sponcil and Claes approached the game, which isn’t just a sport to them, but a calling — far bigger than scoring 21 points faster than the other team.

Soon, the girls were traveling with journals. Claes was diving deeper into the Bible. Sponcil was unraveling the many layers of her why. In the first tournament Cheng traveled with the team, to Qinzhou, China, in 2019, they paused before they began warming up not to talk strategy or tactics, but to pray.

Small habits began to form: praying before matches, journaling, deep introspection about their motivations. This isn’t to say that Sponcil instantly had a burning bush moment, discovering why she was playing a game she had always played, why she was driven beyond all explanation. These things take time.

And slowly, surely, if you were paying close enough attention, you’d have noticed subtle differences — small, maybe indiscernible, to you and the millions of viewers watching the Olympic race, but borderline lifechanging to a team in need of a one percent improvement to make the jump from a mid-tier World Tour team to maybe the best on the planet.

“There is no perfect team, but the team she has right now is perfect for her,” said UCLA’s Johnson Jordan, who continues to serve as a mentor and older sister type to Sponcil. “It’s definitely working. Her and Kelly have a close relationship; there’s good balance there between working hard and having fun. It’s helpful to have a coach who helps with technique but also who helps off the court relationally, building connection and growing outside of your training too. Sarah is a fierce competitor but she also wants to be connected to who she’s training with and playing with. She has a very tender heart. She likes the connection to the people she cares about. It’s just going to make her a better player.”

That connection on the court is something Sponcil has needed reminding of on occasion. When she was at LMU, “both with Betsi and Savannah (Slattery), we had to push Betsi and push Savannah to have a hard conversation with Sarah because they were both scared of her,” Mayer said, laughing. “She’s so gnarly, and they had to tell her how they felt. It was never Sponcil getting defensive. She understood. She wants to win so bad that she’ll adjust and adapt.”

To watch Sponcil in a match, or even during practice, is a fascinating peek into how a world class athlete, a perpetual winner, ticks. For 20 straight minutes, she will be locked in, saying nary a word, repping repping repping. Driven. And then Cheng motions for a break, and suddenly there is the Sponcil you see on Instagram and YouTube, the goofy kid who dances and sings and makes music videos and has the most contagious laugh you’ve ever heard. She is able to turn it on and off quick as a hiccup — the killer competitor in balance with one of the coolest, silliest chicks on the planet.

With Claes, Sponcil has again adapted. They couldn’t be any more different, those two. Claes is a feeler, deeply in touch with her emotions. She is constantly, consciously aware of how everyone around her is feeling, and if anyone is feeling even the slightest bit of negativity, she wants to fix it. Claes likes it when the people around her are happy because she likes to be happy. She likes to be picked up, encouraged, and is therefore constantly picking up and encouraging others. There are times on the volleyball court when all she needs is for someone to hold her hand.

This, Sponcil is not.

Off the court, yes, Sponcil is as emotionally intelligent as anyone. There is a day in June when she’ll sit in a kitchen for 30 minutes with an AVP qualifier player and talk him through the temporary fifth-place plateau he’s hit. Sponcil relates, even though her temporary fifth-place plateau had once been at the World Tour level, not in AVP Nexts and CBVAs. Yet the conversation is so genuine, so endearing, so devoid of the monstrous ego a 24-year-old on top of the world might have, that you can’t help but take note of how very real it is.

“She has literally zero ego,” Johnson Jordan said. “Don’t get me wrong, she is competitive, but she really could have had a lot more of an ego. She’s extremely humble and she just wanted to win. That’s what made her such a great competitor: She worked her butt off. She was never satisfied. On the flip side of that, she has a great sense of humor, how she can laugh about things. I feel like I can make jokes with her when things got intense just to lighten the mood. That balance is special.”

With Claes, Sponcil is weaving that balance on the court now as well. The competitor in her is melding with the socially brilliant side of her. So if holding Claes’ hand if what her partner wants, she’ll hold her hand every point, if that’s what it takes to win. That’s the difference between being two phenomenal players and being a team. That’s how the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

Theirs is a partnership many describe with a simple math equation: Two plus two equals five.

So you’ll see Sponcil taking a moment to encourage Claes. You’ll see Claes giving Sponcil space when she needs it. You’ll see them becoming the best team in the world, through the physical skills, yes, but also the emotional ones.

Theirs is a greatness sowed in the immeasurables, the intangibles that have enamored Mayer and Collier and Black and Johnson Jordan and everyone who has ever worked with either of them.

But it is, make no mistake, the physical skills that have allowed them to tap into the metaphorical fifth gear.

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Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil are having a blast as pro partners/Michael Gomez photography

In order to accomplish something unprecedented, as Claes and Sponcil have done in becoming the youngest team in USA Olympic beach volleyball history, you must, of course, do something for which there is no precedent. And when you do something for which there is no precedent, there are occasions in which you look crazy.

Such is the strange alchemy for greatness.

Such is the nature of what Claes and Sponcil have done the past two years.

Tyler Hildebrand knew the offense they were implementing, one that featured a staggering load of option attacks, wasn’t crazy. He knew because he was seeing the trend before almost anyone in beach volleyball — certainly before any American — was able to recognize it.

“One of the big things is that everybody has an on-two pattern, women and men,” Hildebrand said in April of 2019. “And it’s glaring when you don’t. Everybody wants to discuss the difference between women and men, and whether people believe it or not, there isn’t in a lot of the ways that we want to look at the game differently. What I find is: What can I find that’s the same? If women are doing it and men are doing it, you can say whatever you want about it, but it’s happening and it’s working. You can’t disagree with that. That’s what we’re looking for. That’s what I push. One of those things is that everyone has an on-two pattern, and when you don’t, it’s glaring. The second is that people are creating more space, whether that be to a pin and giving more trajectory sets, whether that be running different routes, or just getting a bigger approach.”

He said this before he left for Nebraska, before Jordan Cheng took over as the team’s coach. He said this when he was the team’s de facto head coach, as Claes and Sponcil were in limbo, looking for a new one. So it is no wonder that Claes and Sponcil are currently using the option attack more than any team in beach volleyball history. It’s no wonder that they are spreading the court, creating space, Sponcil passing Claes out to the left for a potential option, dragging the blocker to one pin, while Sponcil makes her approach to the other pin.

As an opposing blocker, it’s an offense that is nearly impossible to consistently stop, for you must pick one: Do you go with Claes to defend her increasingly deadly option, leaving Sponcil out wide by herself? Or do you leave Claes open and stay square in front of Sponcil, putting Claes in a one-on-one situation with the defender?

The result? Claes is hitting on-two more than any player in the world. As a team, they option more than Australians Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy. They option more than Brandie Wilkerson and Heather Bansley. They option more than Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat.

They are pioneers. Trend setters. Groundbreakers.

And yet, when you are a pioneer, a trend setter, a groundbreaker, it comes with no small number of obstacles. It is an offense that requires an abundance of skill and touch to run. Sponcil could very well be the best passer in the world, which is what makes the offense possible. Claes, now thanks to a pair of intrepid hands, is one of the best setters in the world, which allows Sponcil to run such a wide set with the confidence that the ball will be exactly where she needs it.

“Kelly and Sarah have reintroduced the fifth gear, the hand-setting, the on-twos,” Brittany Hochevar said. “It’s just, wow. Kelly’s dangerous like Duda now. She’s dangerous. They’ve redefined that fifth gear in the new-school game.”

Redefining that fifth gear, revolutionizing the offense in the women’s game, has been anything but easy. It famously took Edison 10,000 tries to get the lightbulb right. It took nearly two years for Claes and Sponcil to perfect their option-heavy offense. Those two years were frustrating. Tense. It made it easy to question: Is this actually what we should be doing?

“Practices were hard. It seemed like each girl would take turns having an extremely frustrating practice,” Cheng said. “These girls are so stinkin’ hard on themselves that it’s hard to be process-oriented and not feel like you are letting themselves and the team down when trying to learn not only new skills but also new mindsets. I think being 24 and 25 years old, what made practices hard with me as a coach was I was asking for a lot of change out of them. Being absolutely dominant in college and relying on pure natural talent to win, it required a completely different attitude to learn, fail, fail again and sometimes even take a couple steps backwards with progress. And it made it difficult to buy in sometimes and resist the temptation to revert back to old habits.”

Hildebrand, who remained closely in touch with the team, even when he left to take his current post at Nebraska, continued to encourage Cheng.

“Every time I talked to Jordan, I told him ‘You’re doing all the right things. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You don’t have to get way better at this. You’re doing the right stuff,’ ” Hildebrand said. “The FIVB World Tour is a weird grind where you could be doing all the right things and you’re not winning, or you’re winning but not the matches you need to. And then you start winning the matches you need to, and you’re like ‘Whoa! How’d we ever lose these matches?’ It’s a weird thing. They were knocking on the door and knocking on the door and knocking on the door and just needed to get over the hump.”

Both Hildebrand and Cheng preached the same message, over and over and over again: The breakthrough is coming, the breakthrough is coming, the breakthrough is coming. But with the Cancun Bubble finished, and a medal still needed to pass Walsh Jennings and Sweat, with only two tournaments left to do so, it became harder to believe.

“It was so frustrating and discouraging not being able to get past that quarterfinal, especially since fifth place finishes did not help increase our point total,” Cheng said. “March through May were three extremely hard months for our team. All three of us definitely got pressed, which led to some tough team dynamics in both practice and competition. I just tried to keep bringing hope and encouragement. I thought we were training the right things and going about it the right way, so I truly believed it was just a matter of time before we broke through. I just didn’t know whether or not it was in Sochi or in six months or even a year.”

It would be easy, to outside observers, to see the inevitable breakthrough coming. To nod in agreement with Hildebrand: They had been doing all of the right things, doing the proper work, putting themselves in positions to succeed time and time again. But if the athletes themselves hadn’t been so process-oriented, as Cheng had preached so many times throughout the previous two years, it’s a very real possibility the breakthrough would have never come.

it almost didn’t.

Two tournaments remained: Sochi and Ostrava. One medal was needed.

Three times before Sochi, the team met. They hashed out all of the rising tensions the Olympic qualification period had built, a swelling tide about to breach.

“There were many things we had to address,” Cheng said. “Losing magnifies a lot of things and makes it bigger than what it really feels like; it exposes a lot of things. Thus putting a big damper on our team chemistry. In Sochi, Sarah and Kelly made a commitment to believe the best in each other and the team. That goes a long way.”

The result: They went longer than they had ever been before. Twice. They won every match in Sochi. In the quarterfinals, for the first time in eight meetings, they beat April Ross and Alix Klineman. They beat Brazilians Agatha and Duda. They beat everyone they needed to beat. Though they didn’t directly beat Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, their gold in Sochi boosted them in the Olympic ranks to the coveted second spot.

That would have been enough. That win in Sochi covered them. But then they did it again. The next week, in Ostrava, Claes and Sponcil strung together another six wins in a row. Another gold. Before Sochi, they had gone 973 days as partners without a win. They had played 99 FIVB matches without a gold medal.

In 14 days and 12 matches, they won two gold medals. They made the breakthrough everyone saw coming.

The perfect storm had arrived.

Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil were going to the Olympic Games.

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Sarah Sponcil bump sets Kelly Claes in elimination play in Gstaad Friday/FIVB photo

Brittany Hochevar had a dream about Kelly Claes the other day.

“I just picked her up and hugged her and said ‘I’m so proud of you, so proud so proud so proud.’ Because she did it. She did the work,” Hochevar said. “As a professional, I could tell her to get in the weight room, get with a physio. And we had a great relationship, and she could give shit back to me, and it was great. But it has to come from inside. It has to be internal. And she’s done it. She’s put in the work.”

Claes is now an Olympian because of it. No, she’s far more than that. She and Sponcil are the new faces of American beach volleyball. Not just because they’re talented, but because they’re everything a young girl could one day want to become: Divinely gifted yet humble to the core, driven yet compassionate, supremely confident yet devoid of ego. They’re goofy and fun yet capable of ripping off 12 straight matches and two gold medals when the pressure was highest. Anna Collier sees all this and shakes her head: Her former pupil has more than surpassed anything she thought possible, at just 25 years old. Cheng sees all of this and beams. Hildebrand shrugs a knowing shrug.

“I remember sitting in the office with Sarah and saying ‘You could be an Olympian in 2020’ and I think she was surprised,” he said. “But if you’re good enough, and you put the work in, and take a chance and go for it — the qualification is a meritocracy. You get your 12 finishes, you go out, perform, and win.”

Winning is one thing. It’s what elite athletes do. The title of Olympian is the biggest in the sport of beach volleyball. Claes and Sponcil have accomplished far more than that.

Ever since Cheng asked that perilous question — why are you playing this game? — they’ve sought something much bigger.

“Miraculous, just how much these two have transformed and grown since I first met them,” Cheng said. “Being away from home was hard and with so much going on, it was definitely overwhelming. She never created space to reflect or process all the changes in her life and was already experiencing burn out and an unhealthy amount of pressure to perform in year one. I admire Sarah with how all in she was to new things like journaling, reading, meetings, whiteboard sessions, etcetera.

“She was super courageous in opening up right away about many of the struggles she had been going through. I think that coachable ability and vulnerability kick-started her growth and will continue to help mold her in the coming years. Sarah’s just beginning to see, own, and thrive in her gifts and strengths as a person… I am hoping that these two FIVB gold medals will fan into flame that spark of self-belief. There is a bible verse that says ‘perfect loves casts out fear.’ My hope for Sarah is that her love for herself, who she is and what she brings to the table, will cast out all fear so that she may overcome any doubt and tap into that gritty competitor that fans from across the world are in love with.”

As for Claes, her “biggest battle was learning how to love herself and give herself permission to be human; failing, making mistakes, struggling with learning new skills, changing mindset,” Cheng said. “I am a firm believer that in order to serve and love others and the team well, you need to first serve and love yourself well. When I first met Kelly, I thought she was one of the best teammates I’ve gotten to work with, but I believed she was only operating out of a ten percent capacity.

“These girls complement each other so well. They are also very different and are continuing to work out how to best lean on each other in different aspects. As they continue to grow in confidence in themselves and discover who they are, they will each be able to carry a tremendous amount of weight for the team in very different ways.

“This is just the first inning for Team Slaes. They as volleyball players have the potential to dominate the World Tour. They as people, have the potential to change the culture of beach volleyball and the community within it.”

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