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Sports Saturday

Why women rule in beach volleyball

Female athletes have had better success largely because of a better developmental system. 

April Ross and Alix Klineman
April Ross #1 and Alix Klineman #2 of Team United States celebrate after defeating Team Australia during the Women’s Gold Medal Match on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Shiokaze Park on August 06, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Professional beach volleyball in the United States is a tale of two genders. Bolstered by Title IX and the explosive growth of sand volleyball as an NCAA scholarship sport, it has been the best of times for our female players. On the flip side, a laughable developmental system and an aged-out core have made this the worst of times for the men.

A nation of TV viewers on NBC just watched Southern Californians April Ross and Alix Klineman dominate the best players in the world en route to winning the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. The “A Team” dropped one set in seven matches, that coming in pool play, and no set in their four victories in the knockout stage went into overtime (a score higher than 21). Ross put a golden glow in her trophy case after earning a silver medal in the London Games of 2012 (teaming with Jen Kessy) and a bronze in Rio in ’16 (with the iconic Kerri Walsh-Jennings). She recently passed Holly McPeak for third place on the all-time female beach victory list with 73, trailing only Walsh-Jennings (135) and Misty May-Treanor (112).

Ross might be 39, but she exhibits no signs of slowing down. The next Olympics are only three years away. She and the 6-5 Klineman, 31, but relatively new to the sand, rank as the early-line favorites in Paris in 2024. Stacked behind the A-Team are a bevy of twentysomethings produced by NCAA sand volleyball, the fastest-growing college sport with nearly 80 D-I and D-II programs coming aboard since its initial season in 2016. Besides crossover athletes from indoor volleyball (offered by more than 330 D-I schools), beach programs can award up to six scholarships.

Sand-specific training and competitions have changed the traditional indoor-to-outdoor career path — Ross and Klineman enjoyed distinguished indoor careers at USC and Stanford, respectively — and have made college beach players instantly competitive as pros. The other team in Tokyo was Sarah Sponcil, 25, out of UCLA and Kelly Claes, 25, from USC, who in the run-up to the Games won two tournaments on the FIVB world tour. Sara Hughes, 26, another Trojan, ranks among the best young Americans.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of collegiate beach volleyball’s influence came in the first domestic tournament of 2021, which was held a week after the Olympics. With the A-Team not in the draw, LSU products Taryn Kloth, 24, and Kristen Nuss, 23, beat Sponcil and Claes in the title match of the AVP event in Atlanta. The 6-4 Kloth won her initial AVP tourney and Nuss, a 5-6 waterbug, had played in five previous events. The long-term effect of Title IX has been seen on every level of volleyball. The women’s indoor team, coached by three-time gold medalist Karch Kiraly, took gold in Tokyo. Six of the seven starters in the semifinals and final were from the powerful Big Ten. Volleyball also is the most popular indoor sport among female athletes in high school.

So as the AVP makes its third and final stop of 2021 this weekend on the Chicago lakefront at Oak Street Beach, fans should rightfully be stoked about the female side. If only that were true of the men’s picture. The common denominators for what has seemed like forever have been 6-9 Phil Dalhausser and 6-7 Jake Gibb, big men with fantastic all-around skills.

Dalhausser, 41, represented the U.S. in the last four Olympics, with his greatest success coming 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, were bounced in the first round of the knockout phase. Gibb, 45, also is a four-time Olympian with three partners, but he never has hit the podium. Gibb and partner Tri Bourne were eliminated in the first knockout round.

That three of its four male players were in their forties — Gibb was the oldest in history to compete in Olympic beach volleyball — speaks to how miserably the USA Volleyball governing body has missed the target. Greybeards Dalhausser and Gibb have announced they will step away from international competition. The downside of that news is, Phil and Jake have beaten the guys coming up behind them for years, so how good are the replacements? The numbers at the international level for players who figure in the future aren’t particularly encouraging: Taylor Crabb, 29, has one victory in 38 FIVB tournaments. Bourne, 32, is 2-for-68; Trevor Crabb, 31, is 3-for-45; and 6-7 former NBA player Chase Budinger, 33, is 0-for-20.

All of the plusses that fuel the pipeline on the female side are minuses for our men. Boys volleyball is played in fewer than half of our states. Fewer than 60 NCAA schools sanction indoor men’s volleyball and those that do are limited to 4.5 scholarships. Collegiate beach volleyball for the men is played only at the club level by a few schools. And the indoor national team failed to advance out of pool play in the Olympics.

Young, tall male athletes simply lack 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, then hitting the bar. Should it be any surprise that our male players no longer beat the rest of the world?