April Ross and Alix Klineman win as beach volleyball returns in U.S.
Association of Volleyball Professionals introduces three-week series without fans.
The pair, who should have been preparing to travel to Tokyo, instead found themselves on a beach in California this weekend – they were in Long Beach playing on the U.S.-based Association of Volleyball Professionals circuit.
Ross and Klineman were triumphant on the first stop of the new three-week AVP Champions Cup series, which replaced the AVP's regular season due to coronavirus restrictions.
The world number two team beat Sara Hughes and Brandie Wilkerson in the final 24–22 21–19 in straight sets.
Ross won bronze at Rio 2016 alongside Kerri Walsh Jennings, who does not play on the AVP circuit.
Speaking to NBC, Klineman admitted she would rather have been warming up for the Olympics.
"It’s not what anybody hoped for, but I think we’re making the most of it. We took the time off to enjoy that time but also to get stronger and healthier.
"We’re just really grateful that we even have opportunities to play right now."
She and Ross beat Canada's Sarah Pavan *and *Melissa Humana-Paredes – the world champions – in three sets in the semi finals, in what could be a preview of a blockbuster final next year in Tokyo.
The competition was played in front of no fans, with all athletes involved taking weekly coronavirus tests for the last three weeks. Players also received temperature checks when they arrive for games.
AVP tournaments do not form part of the Olympic qualification pathway, which is based on FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour events.
Ross and Klineman are currently the top-ranked U.S. pair on that list, with Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat second. A maximum of two teams per nation can qualify for Tokyo.
Meanwhile, Long Beach AVP champions Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena find themselves as the third American men's pair on the FIVB qualification rankings right now.
Dalhausser, who was one half of the Beijing 2008 gold medal team, could become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player if he makes it. Lucena, Walsh Jennings, and Jake Gibb could all also set that record next year.
Dalhausser and Lucena beat Gibb and Taylor Crabb – currently the top U.S. men's team – to win the Long Beach event.