After introspective 2020, “gushy” Claes and partner Sponcil preparing for Olympic challenge

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Kelly Claes closes her quarterfinal win with a stuff block/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Kelly Claes was about to head for the airport. She and partner Sarah Sponcil were ranked eighth in the world, third in the USA in the Olympic qualification rankings. Claes went through one last mental checklist before their departure in three hours to an FIVB three-star pro beach event in Australia.

Then she got the call. The tournament, scheduled to begin March 14, was canceled.

“It was an abrupt stop and pretty much a shock to everybody,” Claes said. 

“It was so crazy.”

Indeed. Claes and Sponcil trailed Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat by a scant 320 points in the chase to capture one of the two USA bids to what were then the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but suddenly there were no points to be had.

“After that, it was just like a domino effect. Everything else got canceled, the Olympics got postponed, it was so crazy how it all went down going into full-on quarantine,” Claes recalled. “It was nice going on two weeks, it’s a change of pace, but then it was, OK, life needs to get back to normal.'”

With no volleyball on the horizon, the 25-year-old Claes turned inward to her relationship with God. Claes was raised Christian, having attended Friends Christian in Yorba Linda from the first through eighth grades. She had subsequently “fallen away from it a bit” in high school and college.

“I’ve spent a lot of time reading and journaling, and I’m diving into the Bible a little bit more, and this quarantine has given me a lot of time to dive into the word, and my relationship with him, and it’s been really fruitful,” Claes said. “I think my growth as a person has been really exciting. I’ve tried to use this time to grow in opportunities where I haven’t previously given the time to do so.” 

In particular, her newly renewed beliefs helped Claes at “trying to take advantage of the pieces in front of me instead of getting frustrated at the uncontrollable. Taking advantage of the circumstances and taking it from there.”

That, of course, is a message so many have learned during the time of COVID-19.

“This past year I’ve had the time, and I’m seeing the fruit, and I hope I remember these moments when things are getting hectic and crazy and I don’t feel like I have time to read the bible,” Claes said. “I hope I can fall back on these quarantine months. Sometimes during quarantine I felt alone, but I wasn’t alone because God was with me. I can lean back on those experiences when things get crazy again.”

The red-headed Claes grew up in Fullerton, California, the athletic one of four children. Her father Paul played basketball and baseball, while mother Quincy was a cheerleader. Paul, who pitched at San Diego State, introduced Kelly to basketball and softball. 

But it was volleyball that would ultimately capture Claes’ heart. At the age of 11, Impact volleyball club coach Craig Tefertiller walked into one of Claes’ basketball practices at Friends Christian, hoping to find a player interested in playing volleyball. He quickly identified the tallest parent in the gym, who happened to be the 6-foot-7 Paul Claes, and asked him if his daughter might be interested in volleyball.

Claes soon found herself at a week-long volleyball camp at Heritage Oak private school learning the basics. Claes doesn’t recall, but Tefertiller has told her that she was particularly intense, even at 11.

“I guess I was screaming at the other girls because I didn’t want to lose,” Kelly said. “I was learning the sport myself, I was on everybody’s case, trying to do everything myself,’ and Craig thought, ‘She’s going to be a setter.’ ”

Tefertiller was right. During a stellar prep career, the 6-2 Claes earned VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 accolades in 2014 and verbally committed as a sophomore to play indoors at Long Beach State.

The next year, she said, the Long Beach State coaches suggested she go to the USA Beach High Performance tryouts as the NCAA would soon sponsor beach volleyball.

So Claes headed to the beach, and her first coach was the late, legendary beach coach Bill Lovelace.

“So ‘Pajama Bill’ taught me the basics, and I had so much fun with him.”

Claes made the USA travel team and was paired with Sara Hughes for the 2013 Under 19 World Championships in Porto, Portugal. Not only did they win a bronze medal, but “A handful of beach coaches reached out to me about playing beach instead of indoors.” 

She had help making up her mind, she said, recalling a conversation with USA coach Jon Aharoni.

“I think it was after the quarterfinal match, we’re all about to head back to the hotel and Jon pulled me aside and said, ‘Can we stop, take a breath and look around?’

“It was kind of like an eye-opening moment of ‘Do I want to do this? This is the atmosphere, this is the culture for the rest of my life, or do I want to be in the gym for the rest of my life?’

“So I I had a decision to make and prayed a lot about it and very much leaned on my parents because I was just a junior, 16, maybe 17. It was a difficult decision, but I I decided to go to USC and play just beach.”

“I grew up as a gym rat and I still miss it and I still love it. Sometimes I think back and wonder how my life would be different if I had played indoor in college.”

Perhaps, but it worked out pretty well at USC.

Claes went 33-7 her freshman season, competing with with Alexa Strange. But then, beginning her sophomore year, she was paired with Hughes and they set a bar that will be difficult for any pair to reach.

They went 44-3 their sophomore year, undefeated 48-0 their junior season. As seniors, they sustained their only defeat, to St. Mary’s Lindsey Knudsen and Payton Rund. The loss capped an 103-win streak. But that didn’t keep them from winning a third national collegiate beach title as they ended the 2017 season 55-1.

Claes and Hughes were also turning heads on the pro circuit, coming out of the 2015 AVP New York qualifier to finish third. In 2016 they made their first final in AVP San Francisco. In 2017 they would win their first pro event together, winning AVP Chicago, the youngest team to do so. 

They split in 2018, with each partnering with tour veterans, Claes with Brittany Hochevar and Hughes with Summer Ross. Internationally, Claes and Hochevar played seven events, coming out of the qualifier to reach the final of an FIVB four-star event in Xiamen, China.

Domestically Claes and Hochevar played six events, earning five thirds and a loss in the 2019 AVP New York final to April Ross and Alix Klineman.

“It was fun to be on the court and strategizing with Britt. As a vet, she has so much experience, so little nuance things like picking up patterns of players and making adjustments in game was super fun. 

“She brought a perspective I hadn’t really thought about before. So it was so fun to just listen and soak it all up. ‘This person likes to do A, B, and C. Let’s take that away, or let’s show them the play that they want to do. And last second, take it away. Like kind of give-and-take plays, which I had not like really thought about all that much through college … It was really fun to defensively kind of dive in and take all of that to the next level, which was really fun. I think that my favorite part about playing with Britt is like how steady she was. 

“So I was able to just go out and be like a freak athlete and be creative and crazy. And I probably made too many errors, but Britt was so steady that it kind of evened things out.

“So many times she just said, ‘Kelly, you do you, I’m just going to be the rock and you go be a freak and you do your thing up there.’

“So that was really fun for me. Britt is also a really strong Christian. So that was really fun for me, diving in and having some really amazing conversations. I didn’t know she was a Christian until we started talking about a partnership. 

“There’s so there’s so much time off the court. So I think that chemistry in general is really important. You play, you go on tour and you arrive in a new country on Monday. You don’t play until maybe Thursday, but Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and then you’re off to the next place. It’s a lot of downtime, so it was fun to just hear life experiences and get her perspective on everything. I just tried to be a sponge and just soak it all up.”

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Sarah Sponcil extends the rally in a match last July/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Claes understood that eventually she would need a partner to help her focus on the Olympics. Her search stopped nearly immediately after chatting with Sponcil, then a recent UCLA grad and two-time NCAA beach champion. 

“Oh my gosh. Our chemistry is so good,” Claes said. “I was talking to a lot of different athletes when I was looking for my next partner. And I think through my partnership with Sara Hughes and my partnership with Britt, it really helped me figure out what I want and what I need out of a partnership. I took some time and journaled and figured that out.”

It was more to her than X’s and O’s and wins and losses.

“I think a big thing for me was to find someone that I could grow with and go on this journey together and make the most out of it together.”

Claes and Sponcil met for lunch at Brother’s Burritos in Hermosa Beach.

“We had great conversation and made each other laugh a ton.” But Claes knew “We have to get on the court and see how this all works.”

After a few training sessions, “I thought, ‘Dang, I think this could be something really special.’ And lo and behold it is. We make each other laugh, which I love. I think we’re both so, so, so different. We took some personality tests six months or a year ago. I think we knew before we took it that we were complete opposites, but we took the Myers-Briggs test and we were at absolutely opposite ends of the spectrum.

“And at first we were like laughing and then we were like, Oh shoot, we’re actually total opposites.”

And that works in their favor, they realized.

“We bring such different ideas to the table. And I think we both do a really good job seeing each other’s strengths and really working hard to emphasize those strengths. And we both really know our weaknesses and we both try to cover up each other’s weaknesses. 

“We want to dive in and get better as volleyball players and as people. So it’s been fun, being very similar ages (Claes is 25, Sponcil 24) and being in very similar walks of life and get to go on this journey together.”

They call themselves Team Slaes and rely on advice from older players but are very much writing their own story.

“Something that Sarah and I have talked about a lot is that we really wish that when we were younger, we could have had real conversations with those Olympic athletes. Maybe not be mentored by them, but to feel connected and ask questions.

“We’ve been doing clinics here and there and we’ve done some fun interviews with college teams and at the end of everything at the end of all of these like events we’ve really enjoyed answering questions and then like telling them to DM us if you have any other questions and it’s been so fulfilling for both of us to go on our DM’s and answer questions from high schoolers and college students about volleyball and life.”

Sponcil, a 5-10 defender from Phoenix, Arizona, acknowledges their chemistry and their differences.

“I think the best thing about us is that we allow us to be ourselves,” Sponcil said. “That’s so awesome to have in a partnership, and life in general. You want to be accepted, and we both accept each other for our weirdness, and we’re so opposite in so many things. 

“It’s our willingness to be unique in a partnership, and yes, we have a lot of chemistry on the court, but when you’re off the court, which is 99% of the time, you’re not afraid to open up and be who you are as a person. We balance each other really well.”

And they’ve had tremendous success.

The pair made it to two FIVB four-star finals in 2019, at The Hague and Espinho. Also that year they made it to the AVP New York final and last year took second in the AVP Porsche Cup.

“I think Kelly is the most fiery, competitive person that I’ve ever come across,” Sponcil said. “She’s always in a competitive mind-set. That’s the best thing to have in a partner, it doesn’t matter what the score is, she’s going to give me 110% of everything that she’s got to win the game.

“To know, that if you’re down, just by a little, it’s not over. It’s comforting to play with someone like that. That impacts me the most, her passion, her fiery spirit, and she’s going to do whatever it takes. I love playing every second that I’ve had to play with her, and amazing to see how we’ve grown as people being with each other.”

The feeling is mutual.

“I think she has so much potential and I think she’s already so good,” Claes said of Sponcil. “And I think she has so much to learn. She’s just so blessed. God has given her some, you know, crazy gifts. We’re just starting to tap into all of them. I think it’s really cool to see.”

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

The third member of their team is their coach, Jordan Cheng, who said of Claes, “She has what it takes to be the best volleyball player in the world. I think we’ll see her dominate and sprout.”

“Sarah and I sat down and decided that we want a coach who not just cares about us as volleyball players, but cares about us as people and like wants to see us succeed. Not just because he’s our coach. We found that in Jordan.”

Jordan is a former assistant at the men’s programs at UC Irvine and Concordia Irvine.

“One of Jordan’s greatest gifts is his ability to invest in people,” Claes said. “When he started with us, we were both really gassed and tired from the season. Sarah had zero break from college and then the off season was coming around and she was really mentally and physically exhausted. 

“Jordan has done such an amazing job diving into us as people and asking us questions that nobody’s really asked us before. We’ve read a ton of books and invested in ourselves because healthy partnerships are made up of healthy individuals. 

“He started doing like bi-weekly one-on-ones with us and just sitting us down and asking us a ton of questions and getting us to start journaling.

“I hardly read before we started working with Jordan and now Sarah’s gone book crazy. I’ve probably read only half the books Sarah read, but we’re learning a lot more and we’re able to ask ourselves why are we doing A, B and C. We’re having ownership over the skills that we’re doing on the court because we’re well equipped off the court, if that makes sense.

Early on, Cheng found that he had to break through Claes’ personal defenses.

“Kelly is kind of like an eggshell. She’s kind of tough and hard on the outside, but once you get inside she’s soft and gushy,” Chang said. “It was hard to get to know her at first, there’s almost like a protective wall. 

“Once you get to know her, you realize that she has this incredible capacity to love others. She has the energy that when she walks into a room, she can change the atmosphere. She brings that infectious joy to the table. She loves laughing, she’s very goofy.”

Cheng’s job is made easier by the chemistry that Claes and Sponcil share.

“I want to treat beach partnerships as a marriage,” he said, recalling that he’s been told “that one of the best indicators of a long, healthy, lasting relationship is the ability to laugh well. Kelly has shown that she is an easy person to laugh well with.

“You’ll see her and Sarah on the court, and they’ll make a goofy play in the middle of the game, and then they’ll start laughing and share a big hug. She’s able to make others feel really loved. She’ll give Sarah the biggest bear hug.”

Cheng sees both Claes’ perfectionism and talent.

“Kelly is that she’s extremely, extremely hard on herself,” Cheng said, “as many high-level athletes are. We’ve been working on giving herself grace and permission to not be perfect. Making an error to her sometimes feels like the end of the world.”

Claes and Sponcil were recently scrimmaging a team from China when one of her shots went untouched to the sand.

“Kelly is visibly frustrated. I ask her what’s going on? You got a kill,” Cheng said. “And she says, ‘Oh, April Ross or Laura Ludwig would be able to get that.’ 

“I told her, ‘Woah, that’s insane. You got a kill, no one was within 10 feet of it, nobody dove for it, it was a really good shot.

“The very next play, she gets another option kill, no one dives for it, and she turns around even more frustrated. So I asked her again, ‘Hey Kelly, what’s going on?’

“And she replied, ‘I showed it too early. Good teams would have been able to see it, and I gave it away too early.’

“She’s really hard on herself and has this perfectionist mindset. We’re trying to change her mindset to stray away from perfection, because I think that perfectionism is what limits her from being at her best. 

“She can get in these modes where she’s not able to be free and be herself. I think a lot of these high-level players struggle with high standards, it sums up Kelly a lot. We’re trying to give her permission to not be perfect, because that’s when the infectious joy and that ability to change the atmosphere around her occurs more often when she’s playing free.”

Where she might be the most free is when she sings with Sponcil. They have achieved social media fame through their dancing and singing videos. Claes has written two songs, Sponcil 15. 

For an example, see their recent video “Beach Rules”.

“Sarah and I are working on our next song, a music video that we’re going to release soon,” said Claes, who is sponsored by adidas, Stamina Pro (exercise equipment) and Ready Fit Go (a meal prep company in Hermosa). “We’re working with a choreographer from Arizona, and neither of us are good at dancing, but it’s so fun to dive into an area where I feel super-awkward and uncomfortable, but I’m slowly figuring it out. 

Claes and Sponcil will spoof the song “Bye, Bye, Bye” by NSync. 

“It’s kind of about losing a match and waving that game ‘Bye, bye.’ Getting over it and not dwelling too much on that loss and moving on,” Claes said. “We’ll have a special guest dancing with them on the music video, I can’t tell you who it is yet. I have to keep everybody on their toes.”

Claes, an avid video gamer and anime enthusiast, loves gaming. These days, she mostly plays on the Nintendo Switch platform, playing Animal Crossing and Overcooked on the Switch, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout on PC and Among Us on iPhone. 

Entertainment aside, there’s the upcoming 2021 season and the chase for an Olympic bid.

“We’ve been working hard to put ourselves in good positions,” Claes said. “It’s being consistent and executing and sticking to our game plan. And sometimes we make young or bonehead or immature mistakes, but I think I’d rather have those mistakes than, ‘We’re not as physical as another team’.

“I think the maturity is going to come and us learning the nuances of the game is. I don’t know where we’re at right now. I think we’re on our way on our way to big things. That’s what I think.”

Claes said she has been working expanding her game during this extended offseason. 

‘I have to be patient and aggressive when I’m optioning and I’m really working on my vision and that space of ‘Have I sold that blocker to come with me and block me? Does she have nobody up or has the blocker bailed and now I have nobody up?’

“So vision has been really big for me, that’s one of the biggest things that I’m working on. I’m also like really diving into blocking, timing and really like selling what I want to sell. 

“I’m trying to be consistent up there at the net, so Sarah can be free and be her creative self back there because I think she’s such an amazing defender. 

“I’ve also been working on my serve. I want to serve like April. I want to be one of the best servers in the world and be a threat back there. Working on precision and accuracy and consistency and repeatability, all those fun things. There are so many things to work on in this game.”

Claes feels that they have matured as a team and are ready for 2021. 

“We’ve put in such good consistent work in, and, yeah, I think we’re going to beat Kerri and Brooke. I think they’re amazing athletes and I know they’re working hard, too, but I just know if we get head to head, we’re beating them and we’re taking the spot to the Olympics.”

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