What a year it’s been for Tina Graudina and Latvian partner Anastasija Kravčenoka, who qualified for the Olympics last fall. Graudina, the two-time All-American at USC, had decided to redshirt this past NCAA beach volleyball season and prepare for what the pair hoped would have been a trip Tokyo 2020.
They might not have had the Olympics, but Graudina and Kravčenoka have still had quite a summer, capped last weekend by winning the 2020 ERGO Open tournament to claim the Latvian Championship. It is the third Latvian national title for the pair, who also won in 2017 and 2019.
Indeed, 2019 was big for them. They stunned the field when, as the No. 20 seed, won the CEV European Championships in Moscow. Then, as the 11th seed they punched their tickets to the Olympics by winning the Olympic Qualification tournament in Haiyang, China, becoming the first Latvians to qualify for the Olympics. Then they won gold in all four stops on the Latvian beach volleyball tour in Ventspils, Jurmala, Daugavpils and Cesis.
It’s no wonder they were the FIVB Most Improved pair in 2019. What’s more, the only other pairs qualified for what will now be the 2021 Olympics are Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes, who won the 2019 FIVB World Championship, and Spain’s Liliana Fernandez and Elsa Baquerizo, who also earned a berth in the qualifying tournament.
In retrospect, Graudina is even more grateful for the Olympic berth than when they clinched.
“If we had known at that moment how much more the ticket means, if we had known that this whole year would be canceled by coronavirus, I think it’s probably saving me at least five years of my life that I would have wasted stressing about whether or not I will go to Olympics,” Graudina said.
“Without this ticket we were on the line of going or not going, we were on the bubble, and all of the pressure and stress is gone. It’s worth millions and the peace of mind that I can go to sleep with every night.”
Next up for Graudina and Kravčenoka is the King of the Court tournament in Utrecht, the Netherlands, September 9-12, and then they try to defend their CEV Championships title September 15-19, which, luckily for them, is being held in Jurmala, Latvia.
Graudina, a 6-foot blocker, is dual citizen of both the United States and Latvia. The 22-year-old was born and raised in Jurmala, Latvia. She has two younger brothers, 20-year-old Miks and 7-year-old Maris.
“I guess my parents got bored after 13 years,” Graudina said with a laugh. “I’m half sister and half mom for my little brother.”
Graudina was a dual-sport athlete growing up, competing as a heptathlete for six years before her success in beach volleyball led her to give up track, although grandfather Arturs Graudiņš was a Latvian champion in the 100-meter hurdles and grandmother Staņislava Spruženieks was a Latvian champion in the high jump.
But her choice of beach volleyball obviously has paid off, especially with that Olympics berth. Although the Latvians lived life on the edge during the tournament they won.
The tournament format featured intermediate pools and they were only one loss away from elimination virtually the entire tournament.
“The last place team in the pool was kicked out, so we were always playing the deciding match to decide whether or not we’re going to stay or not,” Graudina said.
“So we didn’t really had other thoughts about winning the whole thing. We were always really focused on just that one game, because we didn’t want to leave. We wanted to stay in and somehow it ended up us being in the finals.”
And in that match, they pulled off an improbable victory over Czechs Marketa Slukova and Barbora Hermannova after being down 12-7 in the third set.
“The last game against the Czech girls was very outside of the box because the wind was extremely strong and we had never played against them, which I think was an advantage for us,” Graudina said.
Latvia’s service pressure then paid big dividends. After a sideout, three of Kravcenoka topspin aces on the good side brought them within range. Graudina and Kravcenoka then managed to stay with the Czechs on the bad side, with Graudina staving off two match points with option swings to go to the good side.
Graudina closed out their comeback with two aces, one that fell on the back line, and the second a jump-float that Hermannova couldn’t handle.
The 17-15 victory sent them to the Olympics.
“Sometimes it’s like I get these almost out-of-this-world heightened senses. I felt very calm and was very focused. It was a weird feeling,” Graudina said. “I’ve never felt like that on the court as I did then and I hope I will find the key of this success that I think we found at that moment and that I hope that we will be able to replicate it. I guess it comes with experience and we still have a lot to learn.”
And then there was the celebration.
“It’s just blank. I don’t think anything. I don’t have any coherent thoughts. It’s just emotions. It’s just this elevated sense of strong happiness, this euphoria that just hits you,” Graudina said. “It’s like you have a final, you write an exam, it’s a huge relief and and happiness.
“I’m a crier. In the post-game match interview, I was sobbing and I couldn’t even say a word.”
Normally after a big victory like that, a player will receive an onslaught of congratulatory texts and emails, but Graudina couldn’t receive them due to the Great Firewall of China.
“WhatsApp didn’t work, and my VPN app also had trouble, so I was actually without Wi-Fi there, with no internet. Some messages got through, but that only made the like relish the moment much more because I didn’t need to answer everyone immediately. I was just laying in bed and trying to wrap my head around the win.”
She gave a lot of credit to her partner.
“Her personality is the most important thing that makes her such a good player. When she was a little kid, she didn’t even like sports. She wasn’t from a naturally athletic family,” Graudina said.
“Her persistence, her ambition, her ability to work hard are the characteristics that enabled her to learn this game and to perform at such a high level. Her work ethic is the most amazing I’ve ever seen in my life for anyone, and that’s why even if somebody offered me a 2-meter blocker or a partner who is physically more endowed, I wouldn’t take that because I see that with Anastasija the most important things are the character, the mental toughness that she exhibits on every point. It’s exactly what you need in a partner.”
Now, Graudina and Kravčenoka have nearly two years to prepare for Tokyo 2021.
“I can’t even picture an event that’s going to happen next year because in my head I still have to finish this summer,” Graudina said. “It’s too much for me to think about now. I hope my coaches have a clearer picture of what’s going to come.
Speaking of their coach, they made a coaching change in February, now working with a new but old coach in Andris Krūmiņš.
“Andris was my first coach, the first coach I ever trained with, and now we’ve come full circle back to him, and I’m very happy,” Graudina said. “We’re very satisfied and excited to go with him on the World Tour.
“He brings a fresh eye. We were starting to stagnate. We weren’t progressing anymore. He brings a very well-organized empathetic atmosphere to the court, because our last coach was all about technique. It was just simple mechanical cold technique, and what we lacked was a little bit of the Brazilian feel of the game, the mentality, the flow, all these things that aren’t as mechanical and that’s what he brings.”
Of course, none of this would have happened if Graudina hadn’t taken a break from the USC beach program to pursue her Olympic dream.
“The decision to take the gap year was horribly hard to make because I had to make it during my sophomore winter semester and it’s so early at that point,” Graudina said. “I was actually split up with Anastasija. We weren’t even together and we weren’t even in FIVB qualification.”
So the political science major asked former USC coach Anna Collier for a year off.
“Sometimes I wonder myself why the hell did I even do that, but it did really pay off,” Graudina said.
Graudina plans return to USC next year with an eye on juggling coursework, USC beach and her Olympic preparation.
When Graudina last competed for USC in 2019, the Trojans were the top seed going into the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship, having defeated defending champion UCLA twice at the Pac-12 championships.
But in Gulf Shores they were swept by UCLA in the national-title match.
Last season was wiped out of course, but she’d really like to take that NCAA crown in 2021.
“One of the characteristics for myself is ambition. I really do want that title of national champion. And I don’t care about the past. I just want to win. I don’t care what year it will happen as long as I do it,” Graudina said.
“This coronavirus has really messed up my plans, because it would have been perfect if we had played in the Olympics this summer and then I could have come back to USC to study and finish my diploma.
“And now I haven’t studied and I haven’t trained with the team this year. So it was a complete gap year for everything and in every sense, but, yes, I would like to come back. And I will have to work really hard and manage everything very well. My studies, USC beach volleyball and preparing for the Olympic games with Anastasija.
“I’ve already talked with the coaches to see how they see how that might happen in this next year. And of course everyone is very forthcoming and and they understand that the Olympics is such a big thing. I think that we will be able to figure something out. But, yes, I plan to be back next year.”