Pac-12 Olympic medal opportunities in beach volleyball after sweltering Thursday in Tokyo
TOKYO – There were two kinds of fire at the beach volleyball venue on Thursday. The heat of the women’s Olympic semifinals, and the heat of the sun.
The games were high-stakes: The victors would fight for gold on Friday. The vanquished would vie for bronze.
And the mercury was rising.
When USC’s April Ross and STANFORD's Alix Klineman stepped on the court at Shiokaze Park at 9 a.m., the heat index was 119 degrees – with no wind or shade.
An hour later, when USC’s Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka of Latvia took their first serve, it had risen to 131.
Each match ended in straight sets in less than 45 minutes apiece, but the damage was done. There would be two – not three – Pac-12’ers in the championship match.
Ross/Klineman remained undefeated and advanced to the gold medal contest by defeating the super-physical Swiss duo of Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Heidrich, 21-12, 21-11.
“Alix really took over with her blocking and that was a huge key to our game plan,” Ross said of her third Olympic partner in three Games. “She really got in their face and affected them a lot.”
Even though they had only teamed up in 2017, neither questioned their partnership. “I was committed,” Ross said. “And when we won our first international tournament, it was kind of like, ‘Duh.’”
Also, “Alix studied the game more than anyone else I’ve ever known. She’d go home and watch a ton of video and I’d be like, ‘Well, I better go home and watch videos, too!’”
Immediately, Ross liked the 6’ 4” Klineman’s “physicality, work ethic, intelligence, and her intensity is huge. When you’re working for something like this, you need somebody who’s going to work their butt off every day.”
The same could be said for Ross’ 2016 Olympic partner, Kerri Walsh-Jennings, a Cardinal with whom Ross had earned a bronze medal in Rio but was later bumped out of a Tokyo berth with a new partner by the rapid success of NCAA stars Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil who made it to the round of 16 in Tokyo and tied for ninth place.
Ross said the rise of college players like Claes, Hughes, and Graudina are changing the current game, and the future of beach volleyball.
“We trained against a few players that recently graduated in our preparation for Tokyo,” Ross said. “We were really impressed with their skill level. I would not be surprised if you see some of them on the FIVB [international tour] really soon. The field is gonna keep getting stronger and stronger.
“With Sponcil and Claes, especially,” Ross added, “you see a lot of creativity, a high IQ on the court. They put in a lot of work at the professional level, but I think it started definitely with their coaching in the NCAA. And Tina [Graudina] has such great ball control. You don't see a lot of veteran players hand setting. For me, that's the biggest, clearest change. All the NCAA players are hand setting.”
Hand setting, as opposed to bump setting, is a bit quicker and gives players more options to fool the other team, but it is also risky because the referees keep a close eye on sets to make sure they’re not letting the ball come too low, or making double hand contact with the ball.
Klineman, a former professional indoor player, added that thanks to scholarship opportunities now, beach players “are starting their careers as beach players, not indoor players switching over. That wasn't happening even five years ago, really. So they won’t have to break old habits and learn the beach game from the indoor game.”
In the other semifinal, Graudina (the first NCAA beach volleyball player to qualify for an Olympics) and her partner lost early leads in both sets and surrendered to Australia’s Mariafe Artacho Del Solar and Taliqua Clancy, 23-21, 21-13.
Kravcenoka said, “We had okay passing; the set wasn’t so good.”
Graudina shook her head. “I don’t agree.”
“We feel, at this moment, a little bit tired,” Graudina said in a white two-piece, still dripping wet from the match. “It is disappointing to lose in the semifinals, but the tournament is not over yet. We have one more game so we will go very determined towards the next match.”
When they play the Swiss for bronze, they will have a lot of support – both from their fellow Latvians and from USC.
“We are so happy for our boys,” Graudina said, referring to Latvia’s 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Martins Plavins and his partner since 2017, Edgars Tocs, who had yet to play their semifinal on Thursday night. “We’ll cheer for them and they’re cheering for us. We’re driving each other forward.”
So, too, is USC head coach Dain Blanton, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist. “Dain is commentating,” Graudina said. “He’s supporting us both. I feel a lot of support from back there.”
Graudina’s bronze medal match will be at the same time on Friday (10:00 a.m. local). Ross/Klineman will face Australia for gold at 11:30, when it is likely to be even steamier.