Tokyo Tracker: The airtight race for the United States' second spot

The race for the second American spot at the Tokyo Olympics is tight, with three teams contending for it

There was no dearth of indelible moments in Doha, Qatar one week ago, leading with the fact that it was the first time women were able to compete in an Olympic qualification event there.

They didn’t disappoint. Between a rising Russian federation, a deep – and getting deeper – roster of Americans, new Brazilian teams, Canada continuing to flex its muscles, the tournament was a magnificent success, finishing with the gold medal match beach volleyball fans have become so accustomed to seeing: April Ross and Alix Klineman vs. Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan.

USA's Alix Klineman and April Ross

While that match was its usual thrilling self, the one that many Americans tuned into with perhaps even more interest occurred three rounds earlier, for ninth.

There, Emily Stockman and Kelley Kolinske clashed with veterans Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat.

Why, you might ask, would a ninth place match, between two teams who have one gold medal in this Olympic qualification period between them, be of such intense interest?

In a word: Olympics.

Even prior to Doha, the American Olympic race was already airtight, with three teams – Walsh Jennings and Sweat, Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes, Stockman and Kolinske – separated by a few hundred points. Doha made that even tighter.

Stockman and Kolinske needed a points-boosting finish to close the gap between Walsh Jennings and Sweat. That ninth-place match was the opportunity they needed, and the one they took advantage of, winning 21-11, 24-26, 17-15.

Their eventual fourth-place finish would help them drop a 320-point finish in Xiamen and replace it with a 560 in Doha, adding a whopping 240 to their total.

It still leaves them 640 behind Walsh Jennings and Sweat, and 450 behind Sponcil and Claes, but with five more four-stars prior to the qualification deadline, it’s more than possible for that second American Olympic spot to switch hands multiple times.

We say the “second American Olympic spot” because the first is most likely in the hands of Ross and Klineman, who won the event, eclipsing the 9,000-point threshold in the Olympic standings.

With the Cancun bubble coming up next month, we wanted to break down what each of the remaining three American teams in the race have to do to qualify for Tokyo.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat’s run thus far has been one marked by remarkable consistency. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the greatest to ever play the game, with her three Olympic golds and one Olympic bronze. Walsh Jennings and Sweat have played the most Olympic qualification tournaments of any American team, and it’s proven to be an effective strategy, with four fifth-place finishes being the next four they can drop. It’s a blessing and a curse – a blessing, because that consistency has put them in the fortunate situation they’re in, currently in line to qualify if the deadline were today. But it also makes it difficult to move forward; the only way Walsh Jennings and Sweat can improve upon their point total is with a fourth or better, no small feat given the fact that these fields are as stacked as possible, with every country sending as many teams as it can.

Kelly Claes (USA)

Claes and Sponcil find themselves in a similar position. With 6,720 points, 240 behind Walsh Jennings and Sweat, they have just one finish outside of the quarterfinals they can drop. That was a ninth in Las Vegas, their first Olympic qualification event as partners, when Sponcil was splitting her time playing with studying for finals at UCLA. After that, they’ll need to medal, likely multiple times, to surpass Walsh Jennings and Sweat.

Stockman and Kolinske, meanwhile, with 6,320 points, have three finishes they can readily drop – a fifth at a three-star in Qinzhou, and ninths in Tokyo and Yangzhou – before they, too, will need to begin medaling to improve upon their points.

This is the beauty of the Olympic race: it makes virtually every match interesting, and ninth-place matches as compelling as gold medal matches. Doha is likely only the first of many occurrences in which one of those three American teams match up with one another.

Each one will only get more interesting than the last.

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