Team Slaes — Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil — capped a spectacular week for the young Americans in Sochi, Russia, by not only winning the four-star FIVB pro beach volleyball event Saturday, but also putting themselves in the strongest position to clinch the last USA spot in the Tokyo Olympics.
Because of their victory over the Swiss pair Nina Betschart and Tanja Huberli and the early exit from the tournament by Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, 25-year-old Claes and 24-year-old Sponcil leapfrogged from third place into second in the USA race for just two Olympic spots. The first spot will go to April Ross and Alix Klineman, whom Team Slaes beat Friday in the quarterfinals.
Now, Claes and Sponcil hold a 160-point lead over Walsh Jennings and Sweat heading into next week’s FIVB 4-star event in Ostrava, Czech Republic, which is the last tournament to gain Olympic qualifying points. Walsh Jennings need to win at least the bronze medal in Ostrava to regain second place by pulling even with Team Slaes. KWJ and Sweat would win in that case via a tiebreaker. And that’s provided that Claes and Sponcil don’t advance into the semifinals.
(Get to know Team Slaes from their appearance on SANDCAST)
On the men’s side, the lone American team remaining, Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, lost in the quarterfinals Saturday and saw their Olympics hopes dwindle to almost nil. For that matter, Bourne and Crabb now need to not only win gold in Ostrava, but get some help from their opponents along the way.
Claes and Sponcil, the No. 14 seeds who won $20,000 for their first FIVB victory, opened play Saturday with a 23-21, 21-17 victory over top-seeded Russians Svetlana Kholomina and Nadezda Makroguzova 23-21, 21-17. Claes and Sponcil swept both their pool-play matches, knocked fellow Americans Emily Stockman and Kelley Kolinske out of the Olympics race in two sets, and then ousted Ross and Klineman in three.
Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who had to win a country-quota match and then win a match to make it through the qualifier, lost both their pool-play matches and were eliminated.
In the other semifinal Saturday, 15th-seeded Betschart and Huberli of Switzerland defeated 10th-seeded Latvians Anastasija Kravcenoka and Tina Graudina 21-18, 21-16.
In the championship match, Claes, the former NCAA champion for USC, and Sponcil, the former NCAA champion for UCLA, beat Betschart and Huberli 21-19, 21-17. After a moment to let it sink in, Claes bear-hugged Sponcil and lifted her above the sand in celebration.
In the bronze-medal match, Kholomina and Makroguzova beat Kravcenoka and Graudina, who won the NCAA championship earlier this month with USC, 21-18, 21-11.
Bourne and Crabb, seeds 16th, lost to 14th-seeded Steven van de Velde and Christiaan Varenhorst of the Netherlands 21-19, 21-12 in just 32 minutes.
Right now, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, who tied for ninth, and Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, who tied for 17th, lead in the USA men’s race for the two Olympics spots.
Dalhausser and Lucena and Gibb and Taylor Crabb made no improvement in the race and are still tied. Bourne and Trevor Crabb picked up 80 points and trail the other two by 360 points. But Bourne-Crabb must win the gold in Ostrava and have the others finish ninth or worse.
If both Dalhausser-Lucena and Gibb-Crabb make the quarterfinals in Ostrava, Bourne-Crabb are mathematically eliminated.
van de Velde and Varenhorst will play Qatar’s Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan, the fourth seed that knocked out seventh-seeded Brazilians Alison Cerutti and Alvaro Filho 21-18, 21-16.
In the other quarterfinals, 18th-seeded Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak of Poland beat 21st-seeded Latvians Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins 23-21, 21-14; and 11th-seeded Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi of Italy ousted their 13th-seeded compatriots Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai 21-16, 21-18.
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