A 33-month (!) journey is finally (mercifully?) coming to a close in a little over a month’s time as the beach volleyball fields for the men’s and women’s Olympic tournaments get sorted out.
The penultimate FIVB Olympic qualifier is scheduled to start in less than a week at a 4-star event in in Sochi, Russia (May 26-30). Many of the key protagonists will be there, especially on the men’s side, including the few teams that have already qualified but are looking to get tournament sharp.
And, somewhat like the FIVB’s Cancun Hub in April, Sochi will be followed immediately a week later by a 4-Star in Ostrava, Czech Republic. Call it the Eastern European Hub, if you will.
While probably nowhere near as windy as it was in Cancun, which was played on the beach in the Mexican resort city, Sochi this time of year can be cold and wet, which is not what athletes will be facing in two months time in hot and humid Tokyo.
To recap quickly, three men’s and three women’s teams have booked their passage to Japan, plus the host country gets an automatic qualifier. That leaves 15 berths up for grabs, with no more than two eligible teams for each country. That gets the field up to a total of 19. Which leaves five spots to fill following Sochi and Ostrava.
After that, the final opportunities to qualify for Tokyo will be through the Continental Cups, which will add five teams per gender to round out the 24-team Olympic field. The catch is that the additional teams cannot exceed the limit of two per country. So, for instance there is a NORCECA tournament scheduled from June 21-27, but Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb and Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes, both currently in third in the respective USA standings, will not be able to get into the Olympics through this “back door.”
However, beware of these Continental Cup qualifying teams, as they can be contenders for future Olympic medals. Look no further than in 2016 when Nivaldo Diaz and Sergio Gonzalez of Cuba, the 21st seed, won their pool and fell one round short of playing for a medal before losing 18-16 to Russians Viacheslav Krasilnikov and his then-partner Konstantin Semenov in the Rio quarterfinals.
Much of the attention in the next two weeks will be on how the USA situation plays out on both sides.
Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb and Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena are tied for the first position with 7,040 points, which places them in ninth and 10th in the overall provisional Olympic ranking (Gibb and Crabb own the tiebreaker, since they have played in 17 Olympic qualifying tournaments as compared to 15 for Dalhausser and Lucena).
Bourne, hoping to avoid just missing an Olympics for the second straight quadrennial, and partner Trevor Crabb need to at least get two bronze medals, a gold and a fifth, or a silver and a fourth in the next two weeks. Also, both teams ahead of them would need to finish worse than fifth. It’s a tough road.
On the USA women’s side, it is much tighter with more variables for the second spot.
Alix Klineman and April Ross are No. 1 overall globally in the provisional qualifying rank and in line for the top Olympic seed.
Claes and Sponcil are just 160 points behind Brooke Sweat and Kerri Walsh Jennings for the second and final spot. However, Claes and Sponcil can only move up with fourth-place finishes or better. Two fourths would tie, and they can pass the veteran Americans with a gold, silver or a bronze medal. Sweat and KWJ can only add to their point totals by finishing fourth or better. By virtue of playing four more Olympic qualifying tournaments, Sweat and KWJ own the tiebreaker.
Kelley Kolinske and Emily Stockman are also still in the race, 600 points behind Walsh Jennings and Sweat. They need to medal in both Sochi and Ostrava to be in position to pass, and hope that Walsh Jennings-Sweat or Sponcil-Claes don’t move up themselves.
So, what is the likelihood of any change in positioning happening?
Every single top men’s team in the world will be in Sochi. There will be a spirited battle for that last automatic 15th qualifier. Realistically four teams currently outside the bubble have an opportunity to fight their way in.
There are also some compelling storylines internationally as well.
On the men’s side there are seven teams battling for the three final Olympic qualifying spots in both Sochi and Ostrava. The Grimalt cousins from Chile, the entertaining Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi of Italy, and Aleksandrs Samoilovs and his 2012 Olympic bronze-medal winning-partner Janis Smedins of Latvia hold down the last three positions, in that order. They are being chased hard by Poland’s dangerous Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak (100 points behind the Latvians), Switzerland’s Mirco Gerson and Adrian Heidrich (240 points in arrears), Canada’s “Sam’s” — Pedlow and Schachter (340 points), and Germany’s Nils Ehlers and Lars Fluggen (also 340).
After their performances in Cancun, Carambula and Rossi (5th, 4th and 4th) appear to be in fine form and would be a team you would not want to face in your Olympic pool, given their likely relatively low current ranking. Smedins is attempting to go to his third Olympics and Samoilovs his fourth. The Grimalts qualified in 2016 for Rio.
Perhaps the most dangerous team chasing them are the Germans. Fluggen, known for his “sartorial” hats, was a 2016 Olympian with Marcus Bockermann. Although currently 18th in the standings, Ehlers and Fluggen have the lowest finish to drop among all of the legitimate contenders, a 300-point dud that can be erased at a 4-star by a finish of 17th or better. Gerson and Heidrich, can improve with a ninth or better. Kantor and Losiak and the Sams need fifth-place finishes or better to improve.
The depth on the men’s side is just fearsome. The reigning Olympic silver (Italy’s Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai) and bronze medalists from Rio (Netherlands’ Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen) are the 13th and 12th highest points scorers on the provisional list. Keep in mind there are only six Olympic pools, and with the host country Japanese team likely getting a sixth seed, the Italians and/or the Dutch could end up being a third-seeded team in a pool in Tokyo. It will be a given that there will be at least one “pool of death” in Tokyo this summer.
On the international women’s side, things are a bit different.
Brazil’s Rebecca Cavalcanti and Ana Patricia Silva, fourth on the provisional Olympic ranking, are not competing following some desultory performances in Cancun (5th, 5th and 17th). And, Australia’s Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy, fifth on the Olympic provisional ranking after winning the last Cancun event, are taking a pass as well.
All of that leaves some real opportunities for any of the American teams to move up. The more contenders that go by the wayside the more point-scoring opportunities abound.
There are fewer women’s teams in contention below 15th place, which is currently held down by Italy’s Marta Menegatti and Viktoria Orsi Toth. Realistically, only the Austrian team of Lena Plesiutschnig and Katharina Schutzenhofer have an outside shot, and they are down a substantial 680 points. But given the depletion of the women’s field in Sochi and the fact that they can drop a 240-point finish (they can improve with a 17th or better), the Austrians cannot be counted out yet.
There are some other stories that bear watching in Sochi.
One of the bigger ones surrounds Krasilinkov and his current partner Oleg Stoyanovskiy. They had an epic run to both the gold medal at the 2019 World Championships in Hamburg, Germany, and then a victory two months later in the World Tour Finals in Rome, Italy. Those placed them in the same echelon of rarified air with Norway’s Mol and Sorum as presumptive Olympic medalists. Since then, the Russians have hit the skids. Fifths in Doha to end the truncated 2020 season and the start of the 2021 season, were followed by a ninth, and a 17th in Cancun, and then they did not show for the third Hub event at all. They are already Olympic qualified through their World Championship title, but it would seem they would consider Sochi a mission-critical tournament in that it is in their own backyard. They need to get their groove back.
Another enormous question mark on the men’s side concerns Brazilians Bruno Oscar Schmidt, the Rio gold medalist (with Alison Cerutti) and the 2017 World Champion Evandro Goncalves. Bruno caught a bad case of COVID this past winter and has not been able to shake off the effects. A 17th and a 25th in Cancun and then a no-show in the third event in the Hub does not auger well. Moreover, there were rumblings coming out of Brazil that Evandro wanted to dump Bruno and get back with Andre Loyola, with whom he won the 2017 world gold medal. Of course that was not going to happen the way qualifying is currently configured.
And, what to make of Qatar’s Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan?
Are they for real after their sensational performance in Cancun (2nd, 2nd, 1st) or did they just catch smoke in a bottle? Samba competed in the 2016 Olympics as a 21-year-old with Jefferson Santos Pereira, and they took ninth, which included a win over Spain’s Adrian Gavira and Pablo Herrera (the silver medalist in ’04). Samba first came to the forefront a year before that, finishing fifth in the 2015 Worlds with Pereira. His results with Tijan (26 years old) have been better as a whole, but we should learn a lot more about these two after the Eastern European Hub.
Finally, what to make of Laura Ludwig and Maggie Kozuch of Germany? Ludwig has always been a “big game hunter,” with Olympic gold in 2016, a world championship title in ’17 and world tour finals wins in ’16, ’17 and ’19, the last one with current partner Kozuch when they were the No. 20 seed. However, in Cancun they could do no better than two ninths and a 17th, so these next two events will certainly be important in and of themselves to gauge what their potential prospects could be.
As we move closer to the actual staging of the Games themselves in Tokyo, a key date to circle on your calendar will be Monday July 5 in Moscow when the draw will be unveiled and a lot more will come into sharper focus.
As we know in beach volleyball, much of a team’s success or failure will lie with how they match up with the teams they draw in their pool, and how the draw unfolds in the subsequent rounds. The Olympic schedule is unlike any tournament, with one match just about every other day. That would seem to favor the veterans who have been there before and who will not be tired out from the excessive heat and humidity that Tokyo features at that time of year.
It has seemed like forever since the last Olympics in Rio and finally the light at the end of a long tunnel is here.
A bronze medal for Claes/Sponcil would result in a tie which would still leave the tiebreaker to Walsh/Sweat. A 1st or 2nd or 3rd + 4th place finish by Claes/Sponcil is needed to pass Walsh/Sweat.