ITAPEMA, Brazil — You’d have to search far and wide to find a pair of athletes with more trying pro beach volleyball seasons in 2021 than Sara Hughes and Terese Cannon.
And you’d have to search far and wide to find a single individual — outside of their opponents in Sunday’s bronze medal match at the FIVB Beach Volleyball Tour Itapema Four Star — who wouldn’t be darn close to teary-eyed to see those trying seasons finish in the best of fashions, a bronze medal in hand.
Yes, every team and individual on the podium Sunday had their own share of obstacles.
Yes, silver medalists Brazilians Arthur Renato and Vitor Felipe had been bounced in the first round of the only two qualifiers they had played in this season.
Yes, winners Andre Loyola and George Wanderley had finished the Olympic qualifying period within the top 15 ranked teams in the world, only to be left out due to the country quota limiting federations to two teams per Olympic Games.
Yes, Austrians Alex Huber and Chris Dressler, bronze medalists over Italians Alex Ranghieri and Daniele Lupo, have been virtually irrelevant this year, with a best of ninth, at a two-star in Africa.
Yes, gold medalists Agatha and Duda, in their final tournament together, had been arguably the best pair of this Olympic quad but failed to make the Tokyo podium.
Yes, silver medalist Taiana Lima, now with rookie Hegeile Almeida, had finished outside of the quarterfinals in every tournament after her gold medal debut in Cancun, sinking all the way back into the qualifier.
But none of the other respective medalists in Itapema — or even any of the teams who were knocked out in the qualifier, or in pool, or before the medal rounds — had endured the mighty slog that Cannon and Hughes did in 2021.
Eleven country quotas they played this year — 11! Not once did either of them make it out. In the first three tournaments to begin this season — in Doha, then thrice in Cancun — Hughes knocked out Cannon. In the fourth, Cannon knocked out Hughes. Both went to Gstaad; neither of them won a match in Gstaad.
Cannon went from Europe to Rwanda. She did not win in Rwanda.
Neither appeared fazed. They simply went back to work.
“In the middle of the year, when I was just losing, losing, losing, I was thinking ‘I’m not getting better! This is the worst! Why am I doing this?’” Cannon said two weeks ago. “But when I took a step back, yes I was losing, but I was trying new things, working on a new arm swing, working on my passing, all this stuff, and something changed.”
She’s a model of persistence, Cannon. After that final country quota loss in Rwanda, she’d go on a torrid streak, finishing her international season with four consecutive top 10s and three straight medals. She took a third in the Atlanta AVP with Molly Turner, and finished the domestic season with a seventh in Chicago.
Hughes, too, never once wavered in her dedication to this sport, and her goals in it. A back injury to Summer Ross all but derailed any chances she had of qualifying for Tokyo. Yet there she was, every morning, putting in the hours with Jose Loiola.
Morale was certainly boosted in Rwanda, the two-star she won with Emily Day, but Hughes knows, as does anyone who understands her aspirations in this game, that gold medals in two-stars are not the goal.
Medals in four-stars, in majors, against the best competition in the world, are what Hughes wants. On Sunday, playing in just her second tournament with Cannon, that’s exactly what she got, beating a pair of Brazilians, in front of a Brazilian home crowd, to win a medal in the final four-star ever.
“It was so amazing ending the year on the podium,” Hughes said. “With all the Brazilian teams out here, we wanted to represent the USA to the best of our ability. So proud of how Terese and I fought and stuck with each other every step of the way. So lucky to be able to play and compete with one of my best friends.”
What happens now, nobody will know for months, possibly. A post-Olympic off-season begins, which means the onset of an off-season of partner shuffles. For now, though, all of that can wait. There are acai bowls to eat, caipirinhas to drink, and a 24-hour rule to don the sweetest of bronze medals around their necks.
“So many emotions, I don’t even know how to put it into words,” Cannon said. “Mostly I just feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this sport and all the people in it. Getting to end the season competing in Brazil against some amazing teams in front of the best fans was pretty surreal. Getting to do it next to one of my best friends with an incredible coach [Scott Davenport] by our side and feeling all the love and support from people at home was even better. Really proud of this medal. It was the cherry on top of a pretty cool season.”