KWJ-Sweat win FIVB Ostrava country quota; is it time for USA Olympic beach trials?


FIVB Ostrava 6/1/2021-Kim Behrens-Germany
Germany’s Kim Behrens digs in Ostrava country -quota play/FIVB photo

After an inordinately long and drawn out 33-month Olympic qualifying period, we will finally know this week who will represent the USA in Olympic beach volleyball.

The road to the Games ends at an FIVB four-star event in Ostrava, the Czech Republic, the final Olympic qualifier.

The stage is set for Wednesday’s qualifier after Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat defeated fellow Americans Emily Day and Sara Hughes 21-18, 21-19 Tuesday to win the country quota and enter the qualifier as the top seed. The German women also needed a country-quota match, with Kim Behrens and Sandra Ittlinger defeating Leonie Kortzinger and Chantal Labourer (21-15, 21-11).

Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who must win bronze or better to get back into second place in the two-spot USA Olympic race, play the winner of Wednesday’s match between the Netherlands’ Raisa Schoon and Katja Stam and Switzerland’s Esmee Bobner and Zoe Verge-Depre. If the Americans lose, it would be the end of their Olympic hopes.

The only other Americans in action Wednesdsay are Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner, who face Brazil’s Vitor Felipe and Renato Lima in the first round of the qualifier.

With the Olympics in Tokyo just 52 days away, April Ross and Alix Klineman have sewn up one USA Olympic spot. They have an impressive 9,400 points, topping the Olympic rankings.

But after last week’s FIVB four-star in Sochi, Russia, Walsh Jennings and Sweat (6,960 points), who led the race for the second spot for years, now find themselves 160 points behind Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil (7,120 points). Claes and Sponcil moved past them with their gold medal last week.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat need bronze or better to move back into second place, presuming that Claes and Sponcil don’t make the semis themselves.

Sponcil and Claes can eliminate Walsh Jennings and Sweat with their own silver medal.

On the men’s side, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena and Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb are tied at the top of the USA ladder with 7,040 points. Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb (6,680 points) are behind the 8-ball, trailing by 360 points.

Bourne and Crabb’s only in is with a gold medal, presuming that both Dalhausser and Lucena and Gibb and Taylor Crabb finish ninth or worse. This sets up a scenario where Bourne and Crabb would move into the top spot, with Gibb and Crabb second.

A gold medal for Bourne and Trevor Crabb and ninth or worse for their competitors would tie all three teams at 7,040 points. Bourne and Trevor Crabb own tiebreakers over both teams (first tiebreaker is tournaments played, second is single best result).

They have played two more events than Dalhausser and Lucena. And although they have played the same number events as Gibb and Taylor Crabb, Bourne and Trevor Crabb’s highest finish (World Championships in Hamburg, 1,120 points) surpasses Gibb and Taylor Crabb’s highest finish (840 points, World Tour Finals in Rome).

For Gibb-Taylor Crabb and Dalhausser-Lucena, their mission is simple. They guarantee their own Olympic destiny with quarterfinal finishes or better.

With the Olympics less than two months away, it begs the question: Would the USA’s medal chances — and beach volleyball in the United States — be enhanced by beach volleyball trials?

A trial would have two chief advantages: Publicity and preparation.

It would also have two disadvantages: Knowledge of international competition and luck.

Advantages of Olympic trials:

The Olympics is an unquestioned beach volleyball boon, capturing worldwide attention for the quadrennial fortnight. Certainly an Olympic trial event would generate huge pre-Olympic attention on NBC, for USA volleyball, and beyond.

Why wouldn’t you want to show the sport to millions of fans before the Olympics? Wouldn’t that grow the sport?

Second, it would allow qualified teams to rest and rehab according to their physical and mental pre-Olympic needs. It seems that every Olympic quad the USA No. 2 and No. 3 teams are barnstorming continuously across multiple continents and events in a desperate attempt to increase their provisional Olympic rankings.

What if they were able to listen to their bodies and trainers, and rest, recover, and prepare to maximize their competitive opportunities?

It would also have the side benefit of allowing the athletes additional freedom to compete domestically on the AVP tour. You’ve got to have FIVB points – to make the main draw, to make the qualifier, sometimes even to make the country quota. The FIVB is a closed system that offers competitive advantages to the teams that play more events.

A trial would allow more athletes to compete on the AVP, rather than scramble around the globe, in many cases losing money, while strengthening our domestic tour.

Disadvantages of Olympic trials:

The players oppose Olympic trials vehemently. Players argue that the Olympic team should be pairs that have succeeded in international competition, not simply in domestic competition, where the players have superior competitive information, frequently competing and practicing against each other.

And sure, that’s a valid argument. There’s no scouting report like having played an opponent head-to-head. No preparation for playing in a foreign country like touring the beaches of the world.

The second disadvantage of an Olympic trial system is luck. Any team can get hot on a given day, with the razor-thin margins in the top echelon of professional beach volleyball. With rally scoring to 21, it just takes a net-dribbling serve or equalizing inclement weather or wind to alter a result.

In the 1996 Olympic trial, Randy Stoklos landed on a ball while warming up his jump serve against Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh, spraining his ankle. It’s difficult to assess how much of a factor the injury was, but Dodd and Whitmarsh and Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes went on to earn the Olympic berths that year.

Brazil is an example of the disadvantages of early selection. Brazil chose its Olympic roster in October of 2019, nine months prior to what they believed was the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Alison Cerutti and Alvaro Filho, Evandro Goncalves and Bruno Schmidt, Agatha Bednarczuk and Eduarda Lisboa, and Ana Patricia Silva and Rebecca Cavalcanti were named to the Olympic squad.

Now, heading into the Olympics, Schmidt has been slowed by COVID, only playing two events in 2021 (17th and 25th in Cancun).

Silva and Cavalcanti are ranked as Brazil’s third team in entry points, behind Bednarczuk and Lisboa, Talita Antunes and Taiana Lima, tied with Carolina Salgado and Barbara Seixas.

The disadvantages of Olympic trials can be minimized. The top FIVB-ranked team should earn an Olympic berth. Only teams with significant international experience should be allowed into trials.

For example, the second-seeded team could be seeded into the finals of a small four-team double-elimination tournament, set up so the second team with superior international results need win only one of two matches against its challengers.

An Olympic trial structured in that way would attract significant viewership and awareness, while enhancing the USA’s medal opportunities.

***

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