The Olympic beach volleyball race begins again at the Cancun Bubble

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FIVB Cancun preview 4/15/2021

Get your popcorn ready, high-speed internet cranking, couch properly cushioned, and oxygen tank nearby, just in case.

We’re in for one hell of a sprint.

By “we,” I mean anybody who cares about the sport of beach volleyball. Players? Oh, yes. They’re in for a sprint, all right. Beginning with Thursday’s country quota matches, if, say, Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes were to make every medal round over the next three weeks in Cancun for back-to-back-to-back four-star events, they could play 18 days in a row.

Eighteen!

After some teams have taken more than a year off — see: Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb — they’ve been hungry for beach volleyball. And beach volleyball is exactly what they’ll get in Cancun.

Before we get to the team-by-team breakdown, a few notes:

  • The entry points for each tournament will not change. On the FIVB, for whatever reason, points take 21 days to take effect. This means that the points from the first event will not actually impact the seeding of a tournament until the Sochi four-star at the end of May.
  • However, Olympic points do take effect immediately. This means that the Olympic rankings could shift every tournament. We will run a story after every tournament detailing these movements in the rankings.
  • Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger pulled out due to a knee injury. Patterson is fine, and the injury is not serious, but it’s enough to keep him out a few weeks.

Let’s take a look at what each team has on the line for this upcoming tournament in Cancun.

April Ross-Alix Klineman
April Ross and Alix Klineman after winning in Doha/FIVB photo

April Ross and Alix Klineman

Olympic qualification points: 9,080
Overall Olympic ranking: 1
USA Olympic ranking: 1
Next finish to drop: Ostrava, 480 points
What they have to do in Cancun: Nothing. Absolutely, positively nothing. They can use this as a Spring Break if they want. Drink some margs by the pool. Heckle. Read some books. Drink coffee and add to April Ross’s fantastic collection of coffee mugs. It doesn’t matter!

After winning the Doha four-star, Ross and Klineman became the first U.S. team to mathematically qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. They could skip every one of the next five Olympic qualification tournaments and still be in. At this point, it’s a matter of fine-tuning, working out whatever kinks they may have, building momentum, peaking at the right time, and staying healthy.

brooke sweat-Kerri walsh jennings
Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat won gold at FIVB Jinjiang in 2019/FIVB photo

Brooke Sweat and Kerri Walsh Jennings

Olympic qualification points: 6,960
Overall Olympic ranking: 5
USA Olympic ranking: 2
Next finish to drop: Espinho, 480 points
What they have to do in Cancun: Brooke Sweat and Kerri Walsh Jennings are exactly where a team would want to be with five events remaining in the Olympic qualification period: In the driver’s seat, and in total control of their destiny. They are the second-ranked American team in the race, holding onto that No. 2 spot by 240 points. It’s a narrow margin, yes, but still: It’s their spot, and they have every advantage a team in their position could reasonably have. They’ll begin all three of these tournaments safely in the main draw, out of the nasty country quota in which Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes find themselves.

It’s not safe, of course. Nothing will be safe until the final ball lands in Ostrava on June 6. In order to pad to their lead, Walsh Jennings and Sweat need a fourth or better. That’s no small task in fields as dense as these, but it’s almost the same situation for Sponcil and Claes, and they have a much longer route to get to those medal rounds.

At this point, it’s essentially medals or no movement. A fourth is worth 560, third 640, second 720, first 800.

A single gold medal would almost assuredly seal up their Olympic bid.

FIVB Doha 3/8/2021-Kelly Claes-Sarah Sponcil
Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil qualified at the Doha four-star/FIVB photo

Sarah Sponcil, Kelly Claes

Olympic qualification points: 6,720
Overall Olympic ranking: 6
USA Olympic ranking: 3
Next finish to drop: Yangzhou, 400 points
What they have to do in Cancun: Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes have the tallest task of them all. Because of the country quota system that limits each country to three teams being seeded automatically in the main draw, Sponcil and Claes, despite being ranked sixth in the Olympic rankings and No. 23 in the entry rankings, are stuck in the country quota for all three tournaments.

What does this mean? This means that they will begin competing on Thursday, against the winner of Sara Hughes and Emily Day and Kelly Reeves and Terese Cannon. The winner of that will then advance to Friday’s qualifier. Should they qualify, they’ll move onto main draw. If they make the medal rounds, they’ll get zero days off before going back into the country quota.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

It’s a lot of volleyball, but the FIVB is the slowest-moving tour in the world. Rare is the occasion in which an athlete will play more than two matches in a day. Sponcil is 24, Claes 25. They can handle that type of load. And if they are, indeed, playing every day of this Cancun trip, that means they’re making huge moves in the Olympic ranks. A fifth or better will improve their Olympic standing, and after that, they’ll need to make the medal rounds to move up.

But first: The country quota must be won.

Emily Stockman
Emily Stockman and partner Kelley Kolinske made the biggest Olympic qualification gains Thursday/FIVB photo

Emily Stockman, Kelley Kolinske

Olympic qualification points: 6,320
Overall Olympic ranking: 7
USA Olympic ranking: 4
Next finish to drop: Qinzhou, 360 points

What they have to do in Cancun: Big moves were made in Doha by Emily Stockman and
Kelley Kolinske. Their fourth-place finish brought in a whopping 560 points, adding nearly 300 points to their Olympic total and closing the gap between them and Walsh Jennings and Sweat. At this point, it doesn’t really matter if they pass Sponcil and Claes; in the Olympic race, it’s either you’re in the top-two or you’re out. There is no bronze medal in the race itself.

What’s fascinating is that they took that fourth in Doha with a new wrinkle: Stockman is now playing on the left, Kolinske on the right. It’s something they experimented with all throughout COVID — when they were allowed to practice — and it paid immediate dividends in the first big tournament.

Can they do it again in Cancun? Likely. They have the unofficial record for worst draws in a single season throughout the 2019 year. Finally, in Doha, they caught a break, with Brazilians Agatha and Duda getting upset in pool play. It made it significantly easier for Stockman and Kolinske to win their pool and get a coveted first round bye in the elimination phase.

They have the advantage of dropping a subpar finish as well. Replacing a 360-point finish from Qinzhou will not be difficult, especially if they can add another fourth-place finish or better. This is a team that can close what was once a seemingly large gap fairly quickly.

Jake Gibb-Taylor Crabb
Jake Gibb, left, and TaylorCrabb talk things over during a Doha timeout/FIVB photo

Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb

Olympic qualification points: 7,000
Overall Olympic ranking: 8
USA Olympic ranking: 1
Next finish to drop: Sydney, 360 points
What they have to do in Cancun: In back-to-back events, Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb have medaled, adding an 800-point gold medal in Chetumal and a 640-point bronze in Doha to all but cement their place in the Tokyo Olympics. They aren’t quite to the level of Ross and Klineman, who are assured an Olympic spot, but Gibb and Crabb are certainly comfortable.

Adding to that comfort is the fact that they’re still dropping a 360-point finish in Sydney, which will take only a ninth or better to improve upon. Essentially: If they win their pool, they add points. If they break pool and win one match in playoffs, they add points. At the rate they’re playing, this should be no issue at all over the next three weeks in Mexico.

Nick Lucena-FIVB Doha 3/11/2021
Nick Lucena and partner Phil Dalhausser jumped into second place in Olympic qualification Thursday/FIVB photo

Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena

Olympic qualification points: 6,400
Overall Olympic ranking: 13
USA Olympic ranking: 2
Next finish to drop: Espinho, 240 points
What they have to do in Cancun: After trailing the entire Olympic race, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena resumed a familiar position: In line to qualify. This is what they do. In 2016, they surpassed Tri Bourne and John Hyden in the final few tournaments to qualify for Rio de Janeiro. They could very well do the same to Bourne and Trevor Crabb again in 2021. Dalhausser and Lucena’s fourth in Doha gave them a 40-point lead over Bourne and Crabb, which is virtually no lead at all. Boding well, however, for the Thin Beast and Nick The Quick is the fact that they have not one, not two, but three rough finishes to drop: two 240-point 25th-place finishes and one 320-point 17th-place finish.

Cancun could be a huge points bump for Dalhausser and Lucena. Even if they were to finish 17th twice and ninth once, they’d improve in all three tournaments. The only direction they can really go is up.

tri bourne-trevor crabb
Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb fell to Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum Saturday/FIVB photo

Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb

Olympic qualification points: 6,360
Overall Olympic ranking: 15
USA Olympic ranking: 3
Next finish to drop: Doha, 320 points
What they have to do in Cancun: Bourne and Crabb could not have written up a much worse start to 2021 than what happened a month ago. First, they lost a country quota match to Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner, knocking them out of competing in Doha at all. Then Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb padded their lead in the race with a bronze medal, and Dalhausser and Lucena jumped them with a fourth-place finish, putting Bourne and Crabb on the outside looking in for the first time since this Olympic race began.

They have, however, received a few breaks since. Patterson’s knee injury bumped Bourne and Crabb out of the country quota and into the qualifier, where they are the No. 1 seed. All they have to do is win a single match and they’ll be into main draw. From there, replacing a 320-point finish from Doha a year ago is relatively easy. A single-digit finish will do, though medals are certainly the goal.

It’s possible, and likely, even, that Bourne and Crabb flip flop positions with Dalhausser and Lucena every tournament in Cancun. But, like Claes and Sponcil, their competition begins before everyone else’s, with Friday’s qualifier.

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