SANDCAST: Olympic beach volleyball madness, medal favorites, Bally’s buys AVP

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Cherif Samba and Anders Mol joust/FIVB photo

The Olympic beach volleyball field was set — until it wasn’t.

COVID continues to wreak its havoc on the sporting world, with both Taylor Crabb and Czech Republic defender Ondrej Perusic testing positive upon arrival in Tokyo (with another player rumored to have tested positive as well). At the moment, it’s unclear whether Crabb has been ruled out for the Olympics, or must simply quarantine until he tests negative. The Orange County Register reported that Perusic is only likely to miss his first match, not the entire Tokyo Olympic Games.

At the moment, however, Tri Bourne, a good friend of Crabb’s who narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympic Games with Trevor Crabb, is slotted as Taylor Crabb’s fill-in, should he be needed. He is already on the ground in Tokyo.

With those handful of unknowns, to break down the medal favorites for the Olympic Games remains a difficult and enigmatic task, as the field remains somewhat in flux — Perusic and his partner, David Schweiner, would absolutely be a contender if both are healthy — so what we’re going to do is assume the field will remain as it is until any official decision is made, either on Perusic or Taylor Crabb.

Women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball Medal Favorites

Gold medal: April Ross, Alix Klineman (USA)

Maybe there’s some homering going on here. If there are two teams I want to win medals, it’s Americans Ross and Klineman and Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil, whom you’ll also see below. There you have it: I’m transparently biased.

But, biased or not, I still consider Ross and Klineman to be the best team in the world. Sure, in six tournaments this year, they’ve only won one tournament — an unusually slow pace for them — but their overall body of work throughout this entire Olympic qualification process is inarguable. Since 2018, they’ve won 10 of 16 AVP tournaments, five of 26 FIVBs, and enter this tournament as the No. 1 seed.

Perhaps most important is the sluggish pace of the Olympic beach volleyball tournament: One match every other day. Ever since Klineman made the move from indoor to beach, she’s been hampered by injuries both minor and serious. They even withdrew from Ostrava despite sitting in the quarterfinals and playing some phenomenal volleyball. With just one match every other day, Klineman’s body should be in prime condition every match.

Ross will return from Tokyo with her third Olympic medal, completing the set for a medal of all three colors.

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April Ross digs a Russian cut shot/FIVB photo
Silver Medal: Agatha, Duda (Brazil)

If you’d like a glimpse into the future of beach volleyball, it looks very much like Eduarda “Duda” Lisboa, a 22-year-old Brazilian defender who has already twice been named the FIVB’s Most Outstanding Player. In the past two years, Agatha, an Olympic veteran who has a silver medal to her name, and Duda have made the semifinals in 12 of 20 tournaments. They are, bar none, the most consistent team in the world, with four golds, two silvers, and four bronze since 2019. An especially auspicious sign for the Brazilians is their brilliant play this year: seven tournaments played, five medals won, including a gold at the most recent event in Gstaad. Tournaments like the Olympic Games often go not to the best overall team, but to the hottest, and few are playing better this moment than Agatha and Duda.

Bronze Medal: Mariafe Artacho, Taliqua Clancy (Australia)

If you have not seen Australians Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy play beach volleyball, please, please, please take the time to do so during these next two weeks. They are positively delightful to watch, both in style of play and in personality. Clancy is one of the most dynamic blockers in the world, standing 6 feet tall but playing closer to 6-foot-5. She can put on performances as dominant as Alix Klineman and Sarah Pavan at the net, and relieve Artacho of a tremendous amount of side-out pressure, as she presents the second-most lethal option attack in the sport, behind only Kelly Claes. Only 13 times have we seen the Aussies compete in this Olympic qualification period, but in those 13 tournaments, they’ve won six medals, including three gold, the most recent of which came in the final event in Cancun.

Fourth place: Sarah Sponcil, Kelly Claes (USA)

The newest golden girls of beach volleyball: The laughing, dancing, goofy, medal-winning duo of Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil. At 25 and 24 years old, respectively, Claes and Sponcil are the youngest Olympic beach volleyball team in U.S. history.

Yet they’re no gimmick.

Claes and Sponcil pulled off one of the most thrilling finishes in the Olympic race, winning the final two events of the Olympic qualification period to surpass Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat. Everything they’ve been working on — option attacks, spread offense, dynamic block moves and shifty defense — is coming together at the perfect time.

Just in time to contend for an Olympic medal.

Other Olympic beach volleyball contenders

Sarah Pavan, Melissa Humana-Paredes (Canada)
Heather Bansley, Brandie Wilkerson (Canada)
Joana Heidrich, Anouk Verge-Depre (Switzerland)
Svetlana Kholomina, Nadezda Makroguzova (Russia)

Two Dark Horse picks to keep an eye on

Raisa Schoon, Katja Stam (Netherlands)
Tina Graudina, Anastasija Kravcenoka (Latvia)

Duda Lisboa
Eduarda Lisboa plays defense in pool play at the five-star FIVB Fort Lauderdale event/Stephen Burns

Mens Olympic Beach Volleyball Medal Favorites

Gold Medal: Ahmed Tijan, Cherif Samba (Qatar)

A year ago, I’d have slapped myself for writing anyone but Norway atop the medal favorites list. Even now, I can hardly believe I’m writing it. Throughout the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Norway wasn’t only the best team in the world — they were one of the best teams in the history of beach volleyball. Yet there’s a new hottest team in beach volleyball: Ahmed Tijan and Cherif Samba, of Qatar.

Prior to this season, Tijan and Samba, who are both natives of west Africa, hadn’t made an FIVB final. In eight tournaments this year, they’ve made six — six! They won two gold medals, in Doha and Cancun, and recently took a silver in Gstaad.

In two weeks, they’ll be bringing home Qatar’s first Olympic medal.

Silver Medal: Anders Mol, Christian Sorum (Norway)

No, Mol and Sorum haven’t quite been themselves of late, with three straight tournaments outside of medal contention. But for them to have continued being themselves would have been an impossible ask. No male team has ever won at the rate that Mol and Sorum did in 2019, which put them in the unenviable position of every team in the world digging deep to figure out how to beat the Norwegians. The extra homework has been paying off, as teams have shifted how they play Norway, putting most of the service pressure on Mol and removing Sorum from the equation as much as possible. The late adjustment hasn’t given Norway enough time yet to adapt and evolve — but that could very well change in Tokyo, where the schedule is slow, the film study will be abundant, and adjustments will be made.

To think Mol and Sorum, the best in the world at their respective positions, might not medal in Tokyo, after the run they’ve had in this quad, would be borderline lunacy.

Bronze Medal: Viacheslav Krasilnikov, Oleg Stoyanovskiy (Russia)

Had you asked me in 2019 who I thought would be playing for gold in Tokyo, the easy answer would be Norway vs. Russia’s Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy. They were, by a long shot, the two best teams in the world, and when they matched up on the bracket, it was can’t-miss theater.

For a full year, Russia seemed the only team who could regularly contend with Norway, and vice versa. Both teams were on a collision course to a gold medal bout in Tokyo. But then Qatar emerged from out of nowhere, the Czech Republic got hot, and a number of other teams adjusted and improved, to the point that the Russians have won just a single medal this year, a bronze in Gstaad.

In Gstaad, Krasilnikov played his best volleyball of the year, and Stoyanovskiy was his usual dominant self.

A bronze in Gstaad will pave the way for a medal in Tokyo.

Fourth Place: Ondrej Perusic, David Schweiner (Czech Republic)

As I mentioned above, we don’t know what the COVID situation is for the Czech Republic, only that Perusic, one of the most improved players in the world this year, tested positive. He might miss a match; he might miss the entire tournament. We don’t know. But I’d like to manifest that his first test was a false positive, and he’ll be cleared in no time, able to play the entirety of the tournament.

Similar to Qatar, the Czechs made one of the most surprising runs of this 2021 season, opening with a convincing gold medal in Doha and following it up with a bronze in Cancun and a silver at home in Ostrava. Perusic has been magnificent in defense, and has been virtually unservable on offense. Schweiner, too, has been tremendous, proving to be more than consistent enough in side-out and a formidable presence at the net.

Other Olympic beach volleyball contenders

Alison Cerutti, Alvaro Filho (Brazil)
Julius Thole, Clemens Wickler (Germany)
Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena (USA)
Piotr Kantor, Bartosz Losiak (Poland)

Two Dark Horse picks

Josue Gaxiola, Jose Rubio (Mexico)
Adrian Carambula, Enrico Rossi (Italy)

1 COMMENT

  1. Any idea how Tri was chosen? Did Jake have a say, or was it all USAV? I initially would have thought that a more traditional defender might be a better fit, but Tri has come a long way in that regard.

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