Why women dominate beach volleyball
Professional beach volleyball in the United States is a story of two kinds. Bolstered by Title IX and the explosive growth of sand volleyball as an NCAA stock sport, it was the best of times for our players. On the flip side, a laughable development system and aged core made this the worst of times for men.
A nation of viewers on NBC just watched Southern Californians April Ross and Alix Klineman dominate the world’s top players on their way to Olympic gold in Tokyo. “Team A” have lost one set in seven matches, the latter in the pool, and none of their four knockout stage wins have been extended (a score over 21). Ross put a golden glow in his trophy case after winning a silver medal at the London Games in 2012 (with Jen Kessy) and a bronze medal in Rio in 2016 (with iconic Kerri Walsh-Jennings). She recently passed Holly McPeak for third place on the all-time women’s beach winning list with 73, behind only Walsh-Jennings (135) and Misty May-Treanor (112).
Ross may be 39, but she’s showing no signs of slowing down. The next Olympics are only three years away. She and 6-5 Klineman, 31, but relatively new to the sand, rank among front row favorites in Paris in 2024. Behind Team A are a host of youngsters produced by sand volleyball from the NCAA, the fastest growing college sport player with nearly 80 DI and D-II programs on board since his first season in 2016. In addition to indoor volleyball cross-athletes (offered by over 330 DI schools), beach programs can award up to six scholarships.
Sand-specific training and competition changed the traditional indoor-to-outdoor career path – Ross and Klineman enjoyed distinguished indoor careers at USC and Stanford, respectively – and made University beach players instantly competitive as pros. The other team in Tokyo was Sarah Sponcil, 25, of UCLA and Kelly Claes, 25, of USC, who, heading into the Games, won two FIVB World Tour tournaments. Another Trojan horse Sara Hughes, 26, ranks among the best young Americans.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of college beach volleyball’s influence is the first national tournament of 2021, held a week after the Olympics. Team A not in the draw, LSU products Taryn Kloth, 24, and Kristen Nuss, 23, defeated Sponcil and Claes in the title match of the AVP event in Atlanta. The 6-4 Kloth won their first AVP tournament and Nuss, a 5-6 waterbug, had played in five previous events. The long term effect of Title IX has been seen at all levels of volleyball. The women’s indoor team, coached by three-time gold medalist Karch Kiraly, won gold in Tokyo. Six of the seven starters in the semi-finals and finals belonged to the mighty Big Ten. Volleyball is also the most popular indoor sport among female high school athletes.
As the AVP makes its third and final stop of 2021 this weekend at Chicago’s lakefront in Oak Street Beach, fans should rightfully be delighted with the female side. If only it was true for the men’s photo. The common threads for what seemed like an eternity were 6-9 Phil Dalhausser and 6-7 Jake Gibb, great men with fantastic off-road skills.
Dalhausser, 41, has represented the United States in the last four Olympics, his greatest success having come when he and Todd Rogers won the gold medal in Beijing in 2008. But the “Thin Beast” was ousted. in the quarterfinals in 2012 (with Rogers) and ’16 (with Nick Lucena). In Tokyo, Dalhausser and Lucena, 41, bounced back in the first round of the knockout phase. Gibb, 45, is also a quadruple Olympian with three partners, but he has never been on the podium. Gibb and his partner Tri Bourne were eliminated in the first round knockout.
The fact that three of its four male players were in their 40s – Gibb was the oldest in history to compete in Olympic beach volleyball – shows how much USA Volleyball’s governing body missed the mark. Greybeards Dalhausser and Gibb have announced they will be retiring from international competition. The downside to this news is that Phil and Jake have beaten the guys who have been following them for years, so how good are the substitutes? The numbers at international level for future players are not particularly encouraging: Taylor Crabb, 29, has one victory in 38 FIVB tournaments. Bourne, 32, is 2-for-68; 31-year-old Trevor Crabb is 3-for-45; and 6-7, former NBA player Chase Budinger, 33, is 0 for 20.
All the advantages that feed the pipeline on the female side are disadvantages for our men. Men’s volleyball is played in less than half of our states. Fewer than 60 NCAA schools sanction men’s indoor volleyball and those that do are limited to 4.5 scholarships. College beach volleyball for men is only played at the club level by a few schools. And the national indoor team failed to get out of the pool at the Olympics.
Tall, young male athletes just don’t have the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick that fosters a large talent pool. The main developmental system on the beach for years has been guys (many of them self-taught) playing against their buddies and then hitting the bar. Is it any wonder that our male players no longer beat the rest of the world?