Unusual Olympic debut for USC's Kelly Claes and UCLA's Sarah Sponcil
TOKYO – USC’s Kelly Claes and UCLA’s Sarah Sponcil knew their Olympic debut would be unusual. Due to COVID restrictions, fans are banned at the Tokyo venues – and beach volleyball without fans is like a dance party without a deejay.
The deejay showed up anyway.
And when he played J. Lo’s “Let’s Get Loud” on Wednesday morning before 12,000 empty seats in Shiokaze Park, it generated all the exuberance of one hand clapping.
Regardless, Claes and Sponcil beat their unheralded opponents from Kenya in round-robin play, 2-0, toweled off, and walked the media gauntlet.
And then: they went their separate ways.
It wasn’t a tiff. In fact, the American pair is as tight as ever.
But Claes, 25, is in quarantine at the health center and Sponcil, 24, has been in the athlete village. They are allowed to spend two hours a day together until Claes is released – most likely on Sunday, Claes said, assuming she continues to test negative.
The situation stems from the plane ride to Tokyo. “Sarah and I didn’t sit near each other on the flight,” Claes said. “I was kind of near” Jake Gibb, a four-time Olympic beach volleyball player and UTAH graduate, and somebody tested positive in their vicinity. “So Jake and I were deemed “close contact’” and quarantined.
“They told us eight days after we’d been in the village,” Claes said. “Sarah and I had been in the same room for eight days. It’s confusing, but I just do what I’m told.”
Since then, Claes has kept herself amused at the health center by – no surprise – playing video games, “my ultimate sanctuary, my true safe haven” as she describes it on her website.
But Sponcil misses her buddy. “It’s been a little lonely and hard,” she said. They compensate by sending each other TikToks as a form of communication.
On the court, they’ve always had great chemistry but when COVID began, they felt they kept losing in quarterfinals, unable to push through to the semis, so they worked on their mental game and learned the tool that enabled them to win back-to-back tournaments and seize the second U.S. Olympic berth (ahead of Kerri Walsh-Jennings who was bidding for a sixth Games).
A Santa Barbara coach introduced them to the Platinum Rule. The Golden Rule is to treat others as you would like to be treated but, Claes explained, the Platinum Rule is to treat others as THEY wish to be treated. In other words, “making time to understand what your partner needs, not what you think you would want in that moment.”
In the past, Claes said, “We both felt like we were supporting each other, but we were giving each other what we individually needed. When Sarah made an error, I was like: ‘That’s ok, you got next, I’ve got your back,’ positive affirmation. When I was struggling. Sarah was giving me language like: ‘Dude, just hit the ball. What are you doing?’
“We had lots of talks – deep hard conversations. And we figured out that Sarah needs clear, direct [instruction]. When she makes an error now, I tell her things like, ‘Hey this is open, that’s open, or you’re early on your approach,’ versus when I’m struggling, I catastrophize and I’m not living in the present anymore. Physical contact helps me stay present, so Sarah will high-five me, hold my hand a little, say things like, ‘I’m here. Just you and me. It’s not as bad as you think.’ That type of language is hugely helpful for me,” Claes said.
And, experts say, their game is the wave of the future.
“They’re both very creative players. They’re both risk takers. And they run the most dynamic out-of-the-box women’s beach volleyball game that I’ve ever seen,” said Barbra Fontana, 1996 Olympian and STANFORD graduate who coached both women as under-19 players.
“They try to get the point as soon as they can – which I think is very progressive,” Fontana said. “It requires very good ball control. It requires a lot of athleticism because they’re out of position when they’re trying to make kills,
“Now, conversely, if they use it too much they can bleed errors which is what they were doing, in my opinion, at the beginning of the partnership. They were overly aggressive. They’ve been able to find a sweeter spot to utilize it that makes more sense, and it makes them very frustrating to play because you’re constantly under attack with them.
“I think they’re good enough to win. But they have to play excellent volleyball. If they can play in that special pocket they’ve created, I think they have just as good of a chance as anybody,” Fontana said.
On Saturday, Claes and Sponcil will meet Brazil’s Ana Patricia Silva Ramos and Rebecca Silva for their final round-robin match. As the only undefeated team in Pool D so far, the U.S. pair is likely to advance to the single-elimination brackets which begin on Sunday.
Until then… fans or not, roommates or not, both are very aware that this is the Olympics.
“Seeing the rings everywhere, that’s what makes it surreal,” Sponcil said.
“For our next one, we’ll get all the layers, all the fun things that come with the Olympics normally,” Claes said. “I’m just happy that, one, it’s happening and we get to compete and, two, that we made it.”