Women’s beach comes down to three teams

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The women’s Olympic beach volleyball competition is a three-team race.

Brazil’s Larissa Franca/Talita Antunes, the USA’s Kerri Walsh Jennings/April Ross, and Germans Laura Ludwig/Kira Walkenhorst (that’s Ludwig in the photo above) have dominated the field this year. Larissa/Talita have two gold, two silver, and one bronze medal in eight events. Jennings/Ross have four gold, two silver, and one bronze medal also in eight events, and Ludwig/Walkenhorst have five gold and one bronze l in 11 events.

That’s not to say that the Olympics will be business as usual, because the women’s field is deep enough that we can definitely expect upsets.

Brazil’s Agatha Bednarczuk/Barbara Seixas, the 2015 world champions, have had a less than stellar 2016, with only a silver and bronze medal in seven events. Nevertheless, this is a team with no significant weaknesses and will be playing at home in a stadium packed with rabid Brazilian fans.

The USA’s Lauren Fendrick/Brooke Sweat have played well lately, with an upset over Walsh/Ross in Gstaad, where they finished fifth. Canada’s Heather Bansley/Sarah Pavan combine Pavan’s 6-foot-5 presence and lefty swing with Bansley’s defensive speed to be one of the most difficult teams to score against. China’s Fan Wang/Yuan Yue, although they have not had great success this year, have proven their ability to take out top-ranked opponents. Germany’s Karla Borger/Britta Buthe are an offensive force not to be taken lightly. Italians Marta Menegatti/Viktoria Orsi Toth, seeded eighth, might have affected things, but Orsi Toth has been banned for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

Even so, the field is strong and fraught with danger and is the deepest Olympic beach volleyball field ever. So the top teams should definitely be concerned.

Brazilians Larissa/Talita dominated the Olympic qualification process. They finished with 7,700 points, 470 over Agatha/Barbara and 1,030 over Walsh/Ross. Larissa is arguably the best right-side player in the world, named the FIVB Best Defensive player in 2009, 2012, 2014, Best Hitter in 2008, 2010, Best Offensive player in 2015, Best Setter from 2006-2012 and 2014, and Most Outstanding in 2006 and 2015. Larissa is a ridiculously skilled player that makes the game look easy. Her only weakness is that she can hold her partner to her own exacting standards and bring negative energy to the team. Larissa is looking to upgrade her bronze medal from 2012 London, where pouring rain in the semifinals negated her hand setting skills and likely contributed to the loss to Jen Kessy/April Ross.

It is always easy for Larissa’s partners to be overshadowed by her skills, but Talita is one of the best blockers in the world, garnering individual awards for FIVB Best Blocker in 2013, Best Hitter from 2013-2015, and Best Offensive Player in 2013. Though undersized by today’s international standards at 5-11, Talita’s blocking technique is exceptional and reads hitters well. Her hand-eye coordination while pulling and digging is the best on the tour.

Head to head, Larissa/Talita are ahead 4-1 over Walsh/ Ross, but trail 1-2 to Ludwig/Walkenhorst over the last two years.

“Larissa has been one of the best players in the world for a long time,” said former beach Olympian Holly McPeak. “An amazing defender, and great competitor, she excels in every area. She is a world champ, and won a huge number of events internationally but the Olympic gold medal has eluded her. Talita is big at the net but agile with great ball control. They are a very strong combination and pose the biggest threat in Rio.”

April Ross
April Ross

Walsh Jennings is an Olympic fixture, having won an unprecedented three gold medals with Misty May Treanor in 2004, 2008, and 2012. The 6-3, 37 year-old Walsh is the oldest and most experienced player in the draw and if anyone knows how to win an Olympics, it’s Walsh.  Walsh has earned plenty of accolades, including the FIVB’s Best Blocker (2005-2008, 2011-12, 2014), Best Hitter (2005-07, 2012), Best Offensive Player (2007, 2014), and Most Outstanding (2007, 2012-14).

Ross has morphed from “Kerri’s partner” to likely the most feared left-side player in the world. Many teams elect to serve Walsh rather than face the Ross’s  arm swing. The 6-1, 34-year-old Ross has a silver medal from London 2012 and hopes to pair it with gold in Rio. Ross has earned plenty of individual honors herself, as the FIVB’s Best Server (2011-12, 2015), Best Hitter (2009, 2011) and Best Offensive Player (2009). Walsh and Ross are 1-4 head to head with Larissa/Talita and 3-1 against Ludwig/Walkenhorst in the last two years.

“We’ve come up short too many times against them (Larissa and Talita)”, Walsh Jennings told NBC.

“Kerri and April are the front runners on the women’s side.” accordingly to 2000 Olympic gold-medalist and NBC analyst Dain Blanton. ” I wouldn’t bet against Kerri in the Olympics. She’s proved it three times out, has never lost a match, and the fact that April is hungry to get that gold and upgrade her silver medal, that makes them a pretty lethal team.”

Germans Ludwig and Walkenhorst are formidable. Ludwig, a 5-10, 30-year-old defender, is one of the most dynamic defenders on the tour, and plays with an intensity that is fun to watch. Ludwig was awarded FIVB Best Defender in 2013 and Best Offensive Player in 2011.

Walkenhorst, a 6-0 blocker, is relatively inexperienced at age 25. She was named FIVB Most Improved and Top Rookie in 2013. She hits a heavy ball and reaches well.

The Germans lead Brazil 2-1 head-to-head during Olympic qualification, while trailing Walsh/Ross 1-3. They are currently on a hot streak, with three gold, a bronze, and a fourth place finish in their last five starts.

“Walkenhorst/Ludwig from Germany have a solid chance to medal after winning gold in Klagenfurt,” McPeak said.

Ludwig/Walkenhorst are 2-1 against Larissa/Talita, 1-3 against Walsh/Ross the past two years.

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