It was somewhere in the space between the Gstaad Major and the Espinho four-star when the façade came crashing down.
How long had it been since Sarah Sponcil had decompressed? Relaxed? Reflected on all that had happened in her life in the past six blurs of months?
In that span, she and Lily Justine, her partner at UCLA, established themselves as the best No. 2 NCAA beach pair in the country. In May, the Bruins repeated as NCAA champions. Days later, Sponcil was on a flight with Kelly Claes, her professional partner, to Itapema, Brazil, for an FIVB four-star where they’d play Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat in a country quota.
They lost in 28 minutes.
“It’s such a surreal fast-paced experience, national championship to pro in three days, trying to adjust my game to match the opponents, the best in the world,” Sponcil said when she and Claes joined us on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I’m just speechless when I’m asked that question. You’re never ready. You never know what you’re really doing and if I didn’t (go for the Olympics), I’d regret it for the rest of my life.”
On the outside, though, it very much appears as Sponcil is ready for all of this, as if she has keeping up with her rapidly-changing world, no problem. She and Claes rebounded from Itapema with four straight top-10 finishes, including a ninth at the FIVB World Championships.
They didn’t just look like they knew what they were doing. They made it look — dare we say? — easy.
On top of all of that, in Warsaw the week before, while the rest of Sponcil’s teammates and classmates at UCLA were walking across the stage back home, Sponcil and Claes put on a comical photo shoot of Sponcil “graduating,” cap and gown included, diving for a ball on the sand.
It can all look so glamorous sometimes — the world traveling, the funny Instagrams, the hilarious videos of them running through airports and Sponcil walking around the world doing handstands — that it’s easy to forget that she’s never done any of this before.
“Sometimes I can’t even wrap my head around how stressful this year has been for her,” Claes said. “I think back to my first season coming out of college. We finished the USA Pairs Championship and jumped on a flight to Rio. We jumped on the world tour and it was so stressful and we had so many new things coming at me and I felt like my head was spinning and on top of that it’s an Olympic qualifying year for her.”
And then, after dropping in the qualifier in Gstaad, now two months on the road with stops in Portugal, Tokyo, Vienna, and Moscow still looming, Sponcil let down her guard.
“Sarah sent me a text to come outside and she’s balling,” Claes said. “And I’m like ‘OK, we’re doing this.’”
They’re a fun-loving duo, Claes and Sponcil. They’re goofy and happy and wildly talented, two of the top players in the country despite being in diapers when Kerri Walsh Jennings, who they’re trying to beat out for the 2020 Olympics, was making her Olympic debut on the beach. But they are — in spite of how magnificently tailored their lives may look at times — human. Three months on the road is a monumental task for a human being, much less one who had never done any of this before. Full-time World Tour, Olympic race, figuring out flights and hotels and meals and how in the world to survive this thing.
“Honestly, I felt like I had nothing together,” Sponcil said. “I was missing home, I felt like I was trying to change so many different things in my game, and you can’t change a whole lot and still feel like you’re playing free. Everything was just crazy in my mind, and definitely had some teary moments, and I was just honest with Kelly and open and vulnerable and I was like ‘I am not OK right now.’
“To get closer you have to be vulnerable in those positions and it sucks to acknowledge that you don’t have it all together, especially coming off of college where you had everything. You did so well and now you’re being pushed in ways you didn’t think you could be pushed because you won a month ago, on cloud nine, and now it’s ‘Oh, shiz.’
“But Kelly had been in the same position and her listening to me means everything. It was a step in the right direction to know if we win, we lose, whatever, we’re still in this together, and that’s really powerful. That was a huge moment for us.”
Claes may be the perfect partner for Sponcil, old enough to have done this for three years now, young enough to still be able to fully empathize with where Sponcil is in life. Perhaps that explains why, once considered underdogs by many in this race, these two are eighth in the world in the Olympic ranks and third in the U.S. They trail only April Ross and Alix Klineman and Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, with another 12 or so events — depending on what they want to play — left in the qualification period.
Theirs is a chemistry wholly unique to them. Last October, Claes was still unsure with whom she was going to partner for this run. She and Walsh Jennings played a few events, and when Walsh Jennings turned to Sweat, Sponcil turned out to be an easy decision.
“Chemistry is huge for me. So that’s why when Sarah and I initially started talking I was leaning towards her,” she said. “Once we started talking and hanging out and training together, I was like ‘Shoot, we line up on so many things.’ I get that a lot of people see a partnership as more of a business but I think it’s important to have that chemistry. There’s so much time off the court.”
On flights, they write rap songs together, which they debuted, hilariously, terribly, on SANDCAST. How much fun they can have off the court allows them to play free and creative on it, allowing them to stretch their full skillsets without fear of making mistakes.
“We had a flight from Czech to LA, and literally the entire flight we wrote songs,” Sponcil said. “The lady was like ‘Do you want something?’ and we were like ‘No! We’re working on something!’”
Indeed they are. They’re working on an Olympic run. A full album of songs. How to get from one place to the next, be it in the air or on the ground. They’re figuring this thing out, Claes and Sponcil, and the first step to doing so is acknowledging that they have absolutely nothing figured out.
“You’re trying to force yourself to figure it out, whether it’s transportation or strategy in a game. It’s so different than in college and I think when you accept that you’re never going to have it all figured out and just accept it — moral of the story, we don’t have it figured out,” Sponcil said. “So don’t try to figure it out. Delayed flights, canceled flights — just smile and wave. We’ll somehow find our way to the next destination, we just don’t know how yet.”