TOKYO (AP) — Beach volleyball’s future was on display at the Shiokaze Park venue Monday morning for the Olympic debut of Americans Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil.
Three of the four players in the U.S. victory over Latvia came up through an NCAA beach volleyball program that has only been around since 2012. Claes and Latvia’s Tina Graudina both went to Southern California, and Sponcil played at rival UCLA. (USC coach Dain Blanton, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist, was courtside working for NBC.)
For previous generations — like the other U.S. women’s team, 39-year-old April Ross and her 31-year-old partner Alix Klineman — college beach volleyball was not an option.
“I think a lot of athletes in the U.S., this younger generation is coming up because of the NCAA, which is super exciting,” Claes said after the three-set victory over her fellow Trojan and Anastasija Kravcenoka. “I’m really excited to see just how the sport grows even more because of that.”
Since beach volleyball was added to the Olympics in 1996, it has been forced to rely on players who switched over after playing indoors in college and perhaps even beyond in European or Brazilian professional leagues. But the varsity beach volleyball program has given Claes, 25, and Sponcil, 24, an option that wasn’t available to their predecessors. (Men still don’t have a college beach program in the U.S.)