This weekend, at just 25 and 24 years old, Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil will officially become the youngest team in USA Volleyball history to compete in an Olympic Games. They will do so after a miraculous come-from-behind run that saw them win two gold medals in the final two events of the Olympic qualification process. They will do so after passing the GOAT, Kerri Walsh Jennings.
And in doing so, they will become the faces young beach volleyball players look to as their newest role models, as Claes and Sponcil once did to Walsh Jennings and Misty May Treanor and April Ross, who is also competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games.
It begs the question: How did Claes and Sponcil become so good, so fast? How did they make the jump from college – Claes at USC, Sponcil at UCLA – to Olympians in a matter of, in Sponcil’s case, two years?
There is no simple answer, but Claes shed some light on her preparation process throughout the Olympic qualification period, and the all-consuming regimen she put herself on to be in peak condition.
One of the most-oft asked questions of elite athletes, and especially beach volleyball players, is: How often do you practice? Claes and Sponcil are in the sand four to five days per week, "depending on how my body's feeling," Claes said. "We're in the gym four to five times per week."
On top of that, they're going over film with their coach, Jordan Cheng, another two or three nights every week and seeing a sports psychologist at least once. In between, Claes also finds time to get sessions in with her physical therapist, keeping her body in peak condition, working out the minor aches and pains that can make the difference between getting a block and getting tooled, siding out or hitting out, passing perfect or missing just a touch.
It is very much a full-time job, keeping one's body in such peak condition, and Claes' days often begin before 6 a.m. and don't end until after 7.
That's how you become an Olympian.
"It’s super valuable having a coach," Kelly Claes said. "I think everybody playing internationally has a coach. Having that extra set of eyes is super valuable. I see beach volleyball as a marriage, and the coach is a marriage counselor helping us dive into the things we need to talk about that we don’t really want to talk about. When everything is great and you’re winning, things don’t get talked about, because you’re winning, and everything is great, but when you lose, things suck, all the bad things come up. When I was looking for a coach, I wanted someone to invest in Sarah Sponcil and I as athletes as well as people. I’m so happy with our choice in [our beach volleyball coach] Jordan Cheng. He’s done such an incredible job diving in on and off the court.
"I’ve worked with other beach volleyball coaches where it was ‘This is business, this is work’ and I’ve been in other partnerships like that too and I think figuring out what’s best for you and what you want, someone you can get along with on and off the court, and that shifted my perspective of what I needed in a coach. Before Jordan Cheng, it was ‘who has the best credentials to make us better on the court.’ That’s all I could think about and I made that mental shift, it’s been kind of a game changer."
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Kelly Claes made one of the fastest, most successful jumps from the college game to the professional level. Immediately, she was making AVP finals with Sara Hughes, making six consecutive AVP Sundays with Brittany Hochevar, winning silver medals at four-star events just one year out of college.
How'd she do it?
"The biggest difference between college and professional was skill level, but we were now playing against women. It’s like ‘Oh my gosh this is their career, this is their job, and I’m just this little girl out here trying to play volleyball.’ I felt like I needed to physically develop.
"Excluding April Ross and Alix Klineman, because they’re the top team in the world, there’s a drop off with the AVP. I don’t know if it’s a lack of experience or just different skill level, but the level of play internationally, everybody is so good. There’s this grit, the intensity feels different than when I play on the AVP Tour. Energy wise, it feels different. There’s another gear internationally. When I first started out, I was like ‘Ok, if she can do that, I can do that.’ I feel like it’s elevated my game. I feel like that’s why I was so successful on the AVP so young. I had that experience."
Now she's going to have even more experience: Olympic experience at the Tokyo Games.
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