Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil are in an all-positive mindset – about finally getting back on Tour, about their chances to make the Olympics, about having a successful season ahead and about having each other as teammates and best friends.
The Americans progressed through qualifications at the Katara Beach Volleyball Cup and made a positive start in the main draw of the event, but regardless of their results so far, they are just thrilled to be back on Tour and competing again.
“Oh my gosh, it feels amazing! We’re still shaking with adrenalin,” 25-year-old blocker Claes told Volleyball World. “It’s been way too long! To come out here, compete and see a bunch of friends is just positive all around. We’re just really thankful that we get to compete in these crazy times.”
“We’ve made a lot of friends on Tour, so it’s been fun to reconnect and get out there to show everyone what we’ve been working on and see what everyone else has been working on,” 24-year-old defender Sponcil added.
Their first match in Qatar also delivered a huge dose of adrenalin. As the top-seeded team in the qualification bracket, Claes and Sponcil were a breath away from being knocked out as their opponents Katja Stam and Raisa Schoon of the Netherlands had a match point in the second set. With some perfect serving by Claes and some fantastic defending by Sponcil highlighting the match, the Americans fought their way back to a tiebreak victory and into the main draw.
“It was a fight. I think they are an amazing team! It just goes to show that everybody has been working real hard over the last year. I don’t think we’ve ever experienced a qualifying match like that. Anybody could’ve won the match and we squeezed it out, which is exciting, and we get to move on,” Claes said.
Claes and Sponcil had fewer issues to combat in their first main draw game and cruised to a straight-set win over Austria’s Katharina Schutzenhofer and Lena Plesiutschnig to secure a spot in the playoffs, but realise the tough matches are still ahead.
“The main draw is a new beast and everyone’s great out there. We are just going to take it one point at a time. It’s so easy to think ahead to the next days, but I am just very in-the-moment; I like to stay in the present. So it’s about just working together in each match and really giving it our all, because everyone is going to give their A-game. We have not played in like a year and a half, so everyone’s eager to just get out there and give it their all,” said Sponcil.
Of course, the main target right now is this summer’s Tokyo 2020, but regardless of whether they make it or not, they are convinced it is going to be a successful season for them.
“I love playing with Kelly. She is my best friend. Just getting to go out there every day to play, practice and work hard on the game that we love is more than a dream,” said Sponcil. “We have so much growth, so much potential and I have my best friend right here, which means lots of fun memories already. And I am just excited for what’s to come. I think the season is going to be successful, one way or another. We are going to keep pushing, grinding and having fun.”
Kelly and Sarah first appeared on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour together in the fall of 2019 and immediately made the podium at their first event, the Qinzhou 3-star. They have achieved elite finishes in almost every tournament they have played since then, including two silver medals in 2019, at the Hague and the Espinho 4-stars. They have quickly climbed up the FIVB World Ranking ladder and are currently in number 10.
But this is not enough to give them more breathing room as decision time in the Olympic qualification process approaches. The simple reason – there are two other great American teams (Alix Klineman & April Ross and Brooke Sweat & Kerri Walsh Jennings) who are above them in the ranking. However, Kelly and Sarah have each other and believe that fact makes them stronger in the race.
“Since we’re very close, we know each other inside and out. We focus on our mental game and we practise a lot how to get each other out of tight situations. And that’s an advantage! I think the more you know each other, the better off you are and the more you are able to bounce back from defeats and grow from wins and losses,” said Sponcil. “We are not focusing on the other teams. The best thing that we can do is just stay on us, stay connected as a team. We cannot control what everyone else is doing. We can only control ourselves and how we’re playing.”
“I think we have a great shot at making the Olympics,” Claes confirmed. “We try not to think too much in the future and take it just one match at a time. It’s very surreal - being 25 and 24 and being in the position that we are at right now. We still have so much to learn and we are out there; we are knocking on the door and we are going to write our own story.”
What is the Olympic Games for them?
“It’s THE dream,” Sarah said.
“It IS the dream,” Kelly added.
Go to: Katara Beach Volleyball Cup 2021
Watch Katara Beach Volleyball Cup live on YouTube
FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour