Tina Graudina on USC and Latvian beach volleyball culture
TOKYO – Not only was Tina Graudina the first NCAA beach volleyball player to qualify for an Olympics back in September 2019, but she and her Olympic partner are the first women to represent Latvia – ever – at the Games in beach volleyball. Should they do well in Tokyo, they would not be the first Latvian medalists on the sand (Mārtiņš Pļaviņš and Jānis Šmēdiņš took bronze in 2012), but their rise is remarkable because Graudina’s partner (Anastasija Kravcenoka) does not play in college.
So where does all this Latvian talent come from? How did Graudina, the 23-year-old political science major end up at USC, where she has one year of eligibility remaining? And what does the 6-foot-1 left-side blocker hope to accomplish in her Olympic debut? For the answers, read on:
Is it fair to assume you grew up near a beach in Latvia?
Yes, I’m from Jurmala, a seaside town with a beach culture. There aren't courts everywhere like in L.A.. But there's plenty of opportunity to play. The city council organizes a lot of youth tournaments, and we have courts where we train every single day.
Is Jurmala a hotbed of Olympic athletes?
Latvia doesn't have a lot of Olympians in general. In Tokyo, 33 people are in our delegation, but we compensate with quality. We almost always get a medal. For a country of less than 2 million people, that’s a pretty good percentage.
Leading up to the Games, who was Latvia’s 'Face of the Tokyo Olympics?’
The Latvian men’s 3x3 basketball team is harboring a lot of votes for getting a medal. We’re not specifically expected to get anything [in women’s beach volleyball], but everyone hopes for us to do decently well.
You competed in heptathlon and beach volleyball simultaneously for four years. How did you ultimately decide to focus on beach? And did you ever play indoor volleyball?
I played indoor a little bit, but to be honest, I really didn’t like it. When the first indoor beach volleyball facility was built in Latvia, it allowed us to train during winters and that's when I switched completely to beach volleyball. Since 14, I've played only beach volleyball. When I turned 16, 17, I realized that I have bigger chances of fighting for medals internationally in beach volleyball, because I did pretty well in youth world tournaments. My first year at USC was the first year I did only beach volleyball for the whole year.
Why don’t more Latvian players come to the U.S. to play?
In Latvia, because we are so small, everyone kind of looks negatively at people leaving the country. They are like: Oh, you’ll go away and never come back and be lost to Latvia. You grow up with this mentality that you need to be there for your country, like you have to contribute. You are valued because we need every single person. Also, the coaches have put so much energy into athletes that they've known probably since 10 years old. And for that athlete to just go away? To a university? All their work is gone. That's not what the coaches want. So they don't want their athletes to go to the U.S.
Given all that, how did you decide to leave?
Because I valued education highly and I knew that I couldn't study political science and do beach volleyball together at home. In Latvia, sport is not connected to universities. If you go to university, education is your main priority. And I wasn't sure that I wanted to be a professional athlete. I was like, ‘Yeah, I'm good at sports, I LIKE it. But do I want to dedicate my whole life for it? I don't know.’ That's why I wanted to go somewhere where I can do both.
Why did you choose USC?
I credit this decision to my dad. He was much more familiar with the college scene in the United States. I had NO idea. The only thing I knew about USC was what I read when I Googled it. But I liked the coaches. I liked what I heard what I saw on my official visit. Other places probably would have been awesome as well. But I'm very happy that I happened to go exactly there.
Did your USC beach volleyball career overlap with NCAA superstar Kelly Claes? [Note: On Monday, Claes and Sarah Sponcil, a UCLA grad, beat Graudina and her partner in their opening match of Olympic round-robin play.]
I started as she finished, and had to live up to her legacy. I was small-country girl suddenly dropped into USC and L.A. Everything seemed so big and huge and so professional. I knew that there was a pair who won [almost] every single one of their games. But I didn't really think about them. I just wanted to prove myself. I had already made my name a little-bit known in Europe, but in America, nobody had no idea who I was. On accident, I got the same jersey number as Sarah Hughes [who had a 147-4 win-loss record with Claes at USC, including 103 wins in a row]. I didn't know the importance of that jersey, but I remember hearing some comments. I am glad that I did get #14 because I got the aura from it and a sense of legacy and purpose of: Okay I now have to lead this team in the same direction as she and Kelly did.
In 2018, you were Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and went 31-2 with Abril Bustamante. As a sophomore, you went 33-2 as Pac-12 Player and Pair of the Year. But Abril is from Argentina, and your Latvian Olympic partner, Anastasija Kravcenoka, didn’t play college beach volleyball. How did you and Anastasija qualify for the Olympics in the middle of your college career, and how much did you get to train together prior to Tokyo?
Anastasija and I started playing with each other three years before I went to USC, so we were already an established partnership. But we didn't expect to go professional. That's why we didn't plan our futures in unison together. When I made the choice to go to the United States and she decided not to, we didn't think it would be that big of a deal. It turned out to impact our lives very, very much because my decision to be in USC impacts the way she trains. When I'm at school, she's training alone or with a coach.
In September 2019, you and Anastasija automatically qualified for the Tokyo Olympics by finishing in the top-two at a tournament in China. Then what?
We weren't expected to win. It was a big surprise even for ourselves. I had just finished sophomore year. In preparation for Tokyo, this last year, she flew to Los Angeles for two months. I trained with her in Hermosa Beach before my practices at USC. Those were hard days. I would go from 8 to 10 a.m. at Hermosa, then drive to USC and practice at USC from 11 to 3.
Do you two speak Latvian on the court? Are there Latvian words for bump, set, and kill?
We do speak Latvian on court so nobody can understand what we’re saying – which is very important. But English has more vocabulary to describe volleyball. In English, each shot has different names. For example, ‘cut shot’ means just short, angled shots. But in Latvian, ‘cut’ can mean anywhere as long as it's not a strong hit.
Since you and Anastasija are the first women from Latvia to qualify for Olympic beach volleyball, anything you do here is historic. What do you think of that?
Just by being there, we already set the bar. It's kind of nice to not have the pressure. But obviously there's pressure. But pressure comes only within -- from yourself. So nothing should bother us.
What’s a realistic goal for you in your first Olympics?
We definitely want to make it out of the group, for sure. But I don't want to say a place because, even though it is very much skill, there's so much luck involved. So much luck. You have to earn your luck. We'll see how it goes.