More than a year has gone by since this Olympic race, done via planes, trains, boats, cars, shuttles, buses, and all manner of travel, began. The men’s side has been whittled down to, essentially, three teams. We’ve learned a lot.
We know basically nothing still. Little has been figured out, aside from who resides at the top for one of the two American spots in Tokyo next summer: April Ross and Alix Klineman.
After that? The American race remains open, with three teams vying for that second spot, and a fourth still potentially in the running, though on the outside looking in, to be sure. Twelve events remain on the schedule that could still produce Olympic points — three-stars and above — with the final being the Rome Major on June 10-14. Then, and only then, will we have anything figured out on this wild Olympic race for the American women.
Here, however, is how the standings break down at the moment.
No.1 April Ross, Alix Klineman
Average finish: 730
You will never hear this from either Ross or Klineman or their coach, Jen Kessy, who was recently inducted into the CBVA Hall of Fame, but rest assured: Unless something goes terribly wrong — or absurdly right for two other American teams — Klineman and Ross will be competing in the 2020 Olympic Games (wood has been knocked many times over).
They played in 11 FIVBs in 2019 and didn’t finish outside of the top 10 a single time. The only other Olympic qualifying event they played in, the NORCECA Continental Championships in 2018, they won. They added three FIVB golds (Yangzhou, Itapema, Gstaad), took silver in two (World Championships, Tokyo) and made a bronze medal match in another (The Hague). They are one of three teams – Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan of Canada, Agatha Bednarczuk and Eduarda Duda of Brazil being the other two — who can make a case for title of Best Team in the World.
The frightening part is that the growth of this team is just getting steeper and steeper. Klineman gets better seemingly by the tournament, and Ross, well, she’s April Ross. At 37 years old, she’s still improving upon a skillset that has put her at the top of the world for the better part of a decade.
2. Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
Average finish: 580
Forty-one years old? Doesn’t matter. Kerri Walsh Jennings is still going to get in 19 – 19! – finishes in a single Olympic qualifying year. That is absolutely, totally, bananas, insane, absurd. For reference, the next closest American team in terms of miles traveled is Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil, who have competed in 15 tournaments. That is a lot and they’re still four shy of Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat. Four more events is a month’s worth of time away from home, on the road, traveling, training in unfamiliar countries, lifting in unfamiliar gyms, eating unfamiliar food. Unless, of course, you’re Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who have done this for a living for quite some time now, and it’s possible that the road is as much of a home as home is.
All those miles and tournaments are paying off, too. Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who entered this race considered — can anyone legitimately say this about Kerri Walsh Jennings? — underdogs, are now second in the Olympic race, in complete control of their Olympic destiny. So long as they stay atop the American teams below them — no easy feat — Walsh Jennings will be in her sixth Olympics and Sweat in her second.
3. Kelly Claes, Sarah Sponcil
Average finish: 553.33
Few, if any, had a busier, crazier, wilder year than Sponcil. She won a second straight national championship at UCLA, hopped on a flight to Itapema, Brazil, and then didn’t come home for three months. She held a hilarious graduation ceremony at the Warsaw four-star, wrote rap songs with Claes — their music video debuted on Instagram recently — and jumped up to the top-10 in the world rankings and third in the United States Olympic race, behind only two of the greatest players of all-time in Ross and Walsh Jennings.
And now it’s time for a long, long off-season’s nap for the two, who have been going, going, going non-stop.
Claes and Sponcil are knocking at the door, showing their high ceiling with podium finishes in Qinzhou, The Hague, and Espinho. Mixed in, of course, were some not-so-great finishes — failing to make it out of the Gstaad qualifier, for one — that will happen with young teams, but this is certainly one who could make a run and qualify for Tokyo without a doubt.
4. Kelley Larsen, Emily Stockman
Average finish: 506.67
It’s not often the seventh-ranked team on the planet is the fourth-ranked team in its own country. And yet that’s exactly where Larsen and Stockman sit: One of the best teams in any tournament they enter, needing to jump two spots in the U.S. to qualify for the Olympics. It’s a sign of growth from the United States that there are that many talented teams, illuminating the brutal side of the country quota imposed by the International Olympic Committee on how many teams from one country can compete in the Games.
This team is similar to Claes and Sponcil in a lot of ways: Their highs are high, and lows are sometimes confusingly low. They’ll win silver in Warsaw one week and then drop to a streaky Russian team the next. Should they consistently play at the level they displayed in Warsaw, where they beat Humana-Paredes and Pavan, Ross and Klineman, Margareta Kozuch and Laura Ludwig, and Agatha and Duda, this is a team that might not just make the Olympics, but could very well podium.
Consistency is key in a long Olympic race, and consistent top-fives in 2020 are what Larsen and Stockman will need in the early goings to move up the ladder.
5. Sara Hughes, Summer Ross
Average finish: 486.67
One of the most brutal elements of an Olympic race that covers such a long period of time is that injuries, whether the serious type or the nagging aches and pains and nicks here and there, are nearly inevitable. Hughes and Ross, one of the most promising teams at the beginning of this race, have been set back by a tough one to Ross’s back that has kept them mostly out of competition since July, when they fell in the Gstaad country quota to Betsi Flint and Emily Day. Such is life as an athlete in team sports, however, and now Hughes and Ross, should they get healthy for 2020, have an uphill climb that is improbable but not impossible. There are still so many events remaining that there is still time to put together an Olympic-caliber resume.