Tina Graudina still gets goosebumps. She even rolled up her sleeves a bit, just to show us, as she recalled watching her countrymen, Martins Plavins and Janis Smedins, stun the beach volleyball world at the 2012 Olympics, felling one giant after the next.
Seeded 17th at the London Games, Plavins and Smedins were the second Latvian team to ever qualify for an Olympics. The first, Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Plavins, did so in 2008, authoring what is still considered to be the greatest upset in Olympic beach volleyball history, shocking Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers in the first round of pool play (it worked out ok for Dalhausser and Rogers, who would go on to win gold).
But there were Plavins and Smedins, fighting for bronze against the Netherlands, after sending the No. 1 team in the world, Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal, packing in the quarterfinals. Graudina was watching at home, in Riga, Latvia, as Reinder Nummerdor’s serve fell short, into the net, sealing a 15-11 third set win and the first beach volleyball Olympic medal Latvia had ever won.
“After that medal,” Graudina said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, “that’s when the boom started.”
That’s when Tina Graudina’s quest to do the same began.
Hers is the most enviable position in beach volleyball, Graudina’s. She’s just 22 years old, the best player on the best college team in the country — she will not tell you this, though every other coach in the nation will — and is one of only three teams in the world with an Olympic ticket punched.
In 2019, Graudina began her Olympic race full-time with her Latvian partner, Anastasija Kravcenoka. They capped the season, as many did, at the Olympic Qualification Tournament in Haiyang, China, a one-off event where the top two teams would earn Olympic berths. It was a funky format, a four-day tournament that featured three days of pool play in which only the bottom team from each pool would be eliminated. The pools would change the next day, and they’d do the same, not unlike the format used in the King of the Court.
“It was three setters, three setters, and all of a sudden it was the semifinals on Sunday,” Graudina said. “You just try not to suck too much and that’s kind of what beach volleyball is about: It’s not about how great you can play on some little point in your life, it’s about how well you can play when you don’t play well. That’s why I really liked that tournament, it gave teams like us a chance.”
A chance was all they needed, winning their final three matches, including a white-knuckler of a final against the Czech Republic’s Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova, 21-17, 15-21, 17-15 in the finals. Adding to the celebration was the fact that Plavins and Edgars Tocs did the same, beating Russia in the finals to secure two Latvian Olympic spots for Tokyo.
“We had the best reception back home,” Graudina said. “We were received with an orchestra at the airport. It was insane. We truly didn’t think we could accomplish that at that moment.”
Graudina and Kravcenoka did far more than simply qualify for the Games: They became the first Latvian women’s team to ever qualify for an Olympics.
In a country where Samoilovs, Smedins, and Plavins are considered, as Graudina says, “the holy trio” of beach volleyball, she entered a similarly groundbreaking realm.
“That’s one of the things I really like about playing beach volleyball,” she said. “It’s a performance, you’re there to entertain and to play but you’re there to inspire and to make people want to have the same skills as you. To inspire is definitely one of the things that makes me love the sport and this is one of the ways I can do that.”
To hear others speak about Graudina, both of her talent on the court and character off it, is to know that she is well on her way to inspiring. When Jeff Alzina was still serving as an assistant at UCLA, he compared Graudina to a little-known player named Phil Dalhausser. It seemed, at first, a bit hyperbolic, considering Dalhausser’s name will be forever discussed as one of the greatest blockers of all time. But then you look at Graudina’s resume, and it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
In 2018, her first season on the FIVB, she was named Rookie of the Year; in her second, her and Kravcenoka earned the Most Improved, won the European Championships and followed it up a month later with an Olympic bid in Haiyang. In two years at USC, where she is a red shirt junior, she’s compiled a 64-4 record, has twice been named an All-American and once the Player of the Year.
All of that, meanwhile, has been accomplished against the advice of nearly everyone back home. The collegiate system in the United States doesn’t have the the greatest of reputations in Latvia (or most countries outside of North America, for that matter). Prior to Graudina’s arrival in Southern California, five or six Latvian athletes came to the U.S. to play in college, and five or six either got injured or gave up the game.
“Word spread in Latvia that if you go to the United States, that’s basically it, you’re not going to keep going afterwards because you’re going to be so burned out or you’re not going to be able to play,” she said. “That was a scary thought, and I remember having the thought in my head that I want to prove everyone wrong and I want to be an example that I will not disappear and still play for Latvia.”
She’s still playing, all right. And playing at a level no Latvian woman has ever played. In a few months, Graudina will be the one girls back home in Riga will be watching on the game’s biggest stage.
She’ll be the one delivering the goosebumps.