The girls crowded around the phone of the lucky individual with the latest photo taken in Tavares, Fla. She got the photo, the one she’d evidently been coveting, the photo not with Misty May-Treanor or Kerri Walsh Jennings or any of the legends of beach volleyball’s past, but instead with Kelly Claes, one of the many bright faces of America’s beach volleyball future.
It’s still new to Claes and her partner, Sarah Sponcil, this role of beach volleyball role model. It was only a few years ago that Sponcil was lining her walls with a collage of May-Treanor photographs. It was a bit astounding to them when, at a clinic they coached in Clearwater, Fla. at the end of November, only a few of the girls even knew May-Treanor’s name.
But they knew theirs.
“Clearwater was a huge, ‘Oh my gosh!’” Sponcil said. “You feel like you’re impacting the community but to go to a tournament like that and parents are freaking out, I’m just like ‘Whoa, this is weird.’
“They say that they saw our videos, and you know people are watching you, but you don’t know how much they’re paying attention because you’re in your bubble and you’re training so it was really neat.”
Sponcil is just 24, Claes 25. They are the youngest current American partnership making a run at the Tokyo Olympics, which puts them in perhaps the most influential position: Young girls at the impressionable ages of pre- and early-teenagers can relate best to them. They look more like them, were raised in similar eras as them, can connect easier with them.
This is not to say that the other top American teams also in the running – April Ross and Alix Klineman, Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, Emily Stockman and Kelley Kolinske – are not influential. But the position in which Claes and Sponcil currently find themselves is a unique one.
Both played beach volleyball in college, pioneers of a new era of this sport. Claes is the record-holder for most consecutive wins, at USC, and is arguably the best blocker in NCAA history. Sponcil won a pair of National Championships at UCLA, ushering in a new era of dominance in Southern California. The advent of the college game has created a boon for the sport at the grassroots level. Girls no longer need to play indoor and beach. They can instead focus on beach alone to earn a scholarship at any of the more than 100 schools now offering them in the U.S.
After all, Claes and Sponcil did it, and they could be just like them one day.
“I thought a handful of girls would know who we were and get excited about [the camp in Florida] and that would be it, but all these girls were amped, and their parents were amped, and they all wanted pictures and something signed, it was like ‘This is gnarly! They’re watching, which is so exciting!’” Claes said. “That’s what we want. We want to give back.”
These aren’t just empty platitudes, either, saying the right thing for the sake of good public relations. They’re legitimate. Both are responsive to any messages they receive on social media, happy to provide answers to questions that few, other than Claes and Sponcil, can really provide.
“I think that’s been the most fulfilling part for me is to answer college girls’ [direct messages] who are saying ‘Hey, I’m struggling with A, B, and C, can you help me?’ or high school girls saying ‘I’m trying to get recruited, how does it all work? I’m really overwhelmed,’” Claes said. “Being able to answer is one of the coolest and most fulfilling things. When I was younger, I didn’t feel like athletes were accessible like that, and I love that me and Sarah are on the same page that we get to do this together.”
When she says together, she means it, too. Rare is the moment you’ll find them doing something separate. They write songs together, make music videos together, coach clinics together, take trips together. In a way, they’re changing the culture – slowly, but surely – of United States beach volleyball.
May-Treanor is something of a role model to both, and her level of cool is almost impossible to overstate. On the rare occasion May-Treanor would lose a match – she did win 112 straight with Walsh Jennings – she wouldn’t sulk or punt balls; she’d go sit in the crowd and enjoy the show, connecting with fans, rooting on her rivals. It’s that type of culture that Claes and Sponcil are attempting to revive, even if it’s adopted by only a handful at a time.
It explains how they can compete against Delaney Mewhirter and Katie Spieler one day, then join forces with them and win a fours tournament the next, and then take a trip to Yosemite National Park the next.
“There’s so much time that’s not on the court, and Kelly and I are trying to find that balance to create relationships off the court while making it fiery and competitive on the court,” Sponcil said. “It’s been fun.”
Fun is something they’ve become rather good at. While they have not yet won an AVP – yet being a key word – they have made the semifinals in six of seven. They’ve medaled three times on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour and have put themselves in an excellent position to claim the second American Olympic spot for Tokyo.
They’re doing it all with thousand-watt smiles, which is exactly what makes them so magnetic, so charming, the type of team that gathers the longest lines for pictures and autographs, and the type who will stand there and take every last one of them.
“We can fight and leave it out on the court, and off the court, let’s have conversations,” Claes said. “Let’s enjoy this journey and life together.”
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