By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
Less than one week after the conclusion of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the American Olympic beach volleyball teams faced off against international competition in Long Beach, California. The ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball was a five-day FIVB beach tournament that concluded on August 28, 2016, with Americans at the apex once again.
The $800,000-purse international tournament was the final stop in determining the contestants in the hotly contested $500,000 SWATCH FIVB World Tour Finals in Toronto, Canada, coming up September 13-18.
The American Olympians suffered disappointing defeats in Rio, but they came back strong at the Long Beach event. After taking the bronze medal in the Olympics, the women’s number-one seeded team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross battled back for the gold in Long Beach. On the men’s side, top Americans Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena lost unexpectedly in the quarterfinals in Rio. Seeded number one at the Long Beach tournament, they plowed through the field until losing a tough battle in the final match. Brazilians Pedro Solberg and Evandro Goncalves took the gold and the Americans earned the silver medal.
Walsh Jennings and Ross rolled through women’s pool play without a loss, but were challenged by two teams of talented fellow Americans in their second- and third-round elimination matches on Friday, August 26. First, they triumphed in a close battle with the team of Lane Carico and Summer Ross, 21-15, 19-21, 15-8. The young team of Carico and Ross are already being touted as strong competitors in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. They played Walsh Jennings/Ross tougher than anyone else in the Long Beach event. At only 26 and 23 respectively, Lane Carico and Summer Ross have a bright future.
In the next elimination round, Walsh Jennings and Ross faced fellow USA Olympians Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat. The matchup was definitely one sided as Walsh Jennings and Ross won 21-14, 21-18. Fendrick and Sweat were disappointed in their Olympic performance, but played well against the tough international competition in Long Beach until they faced the Walsh Jennings/Ross juggernaut.
Walsh Jennings and Ross continued their unstoppable march to gold on Saturday, August 27, with a straight set, 21-17, 21-16, victory over Germany’s Julia Sude and Chantal Laboureur. In the final match on Sunday, August 28, against Spain’s Liliana Fernández Steiner and Elsa Baquerizo McMillan, Walsh Jennings’ dominant play at the net was the difference.
The relatively easy, 21-16, 12-16, victory was their fourth straight against the Spanish duo, who have never beaten the Americans. This was the 19th final four for USA’s Walsh Jennings/Ross in 30 career FIVB World Tour events together and their 11th gold medal. Walsh Jennings now has 55 FIVB gold medals and Ross has 21 FIVB World Tour gold medals. They shared the $57,000 first-place prize money.
Dalhausser and Lucena had a routine run through men’s pool play and did not give up a set until they faced Italy’s Alex Ranghieri and Marco Caminati in the semifinals on Saturday, August 27. The two teams split sets one and two, 21-15 and 17-21, until the Americans took charge in set three with a decisive 15-6 victory. Ranghieri competed in the Rio Olympics with Adrian Carambula and was playing for the first time with the 23-year-old Caminati.
The other men’s semifinal pitted two strong Olympic teams that both felt they had underperformed in Rio and were looking for redemption. Brazilian pair Pedro Solberg and Evandro Goncalves celebrated a hard fought, 14-21, 21-14, 15-11, victory over second-seeded Latvians Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins. With the win, Pedro and Evandro were on the hunt for their third FIVB World Tour title, after nearly deciding to skip the event after their displeasure with finishing ninth in front of their home crowd in Rio.
But on they came, as they faced Americans Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena in the men’s final. That thrilling match featured two of the most intimidating blockers on the world tour in Evandro and Dalhausser. At 6’11” and with incredible athletic ability, Evandro is one of the few players that can overshadow Dalhausser at the net. His explosive jump serving and blocking proved to be the difference in the highly contested match. Evandro and Pedro scored a 21-19, 17-21, 15-9 win.
It was the second time in less than two months that Pedro and Evandro stopped Dalhausser and Lucena in a final. The Brazilians scored a tough straight-set win to capture the Gstaad Major in July. Their victory in Long Beach earned the duo a check for $57,000, plus enough points to qualify for the year-ending SWATCH World Tour Finals next month in Toronto. The top prize for the World Tour Finals is $100,000.
Two other events of note took place during the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball. On Friday evening, August 26, a “Legends Night” celebration took place that honored some of the greatest champions and influencers in the sport’s history. The dinner, party and presentation honored Hall of Fame beach teams Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos as well as Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs, along with longtime USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal. There were several other beach legends in attendance as well as many fans. The night was a laid-back party as the legends mingled with fans, many of which took photos with their heroes.
On Sunday after the women’s bronze medal match, Josh Hutcherson, one of the stars of “The Hunger Games” movie series, hosted a celebrity exhibition match. Former NFL great Terrell Owens led the stars that challenged Josh’s team. Beach volleyball legends Randy Stoklos and Sinjin Smith played in the exhibition along with some other famous friends. The celebrity exhibition match raised awareness for Straight But Not Narrow, Hutcherson’s non-profit charity that focuses on straight young adults who strive to positively influence the perception of, and behavior toward, their LGBT peers.
The next tour stop for professional beach volleyball is the AVP Championships in Chicago presented by Acer on September 1-4, 2016. The Swatch FIVB World Tour Finals in Toronto, Canada, from September 13-18 will conclude the 2016 beach season.