02_BPT Tlaxcala - SWEvsBRA Centre Court

Brazil's Pedro Solberg and partner Arthur Lanci are the top-seeded team in the men's qualifier

The iconic Praia da Baia, in Espinho, Portugal, welcomes the fifth Challenge tournament in the inaugural season of the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour from Thursday to Sunday, bringing international beach volleyball back to the city for the first time in three years.

The four-day, double-gender event on the country’s Atlantic coast starts with the qualifiers, which will see 30 men’s and 31 women’s teams from 25 different nations battle for eight spots per gender in Friday’s main draw.

· Watch all the matches at the Espinho Challenge live or on demand on Volleyball TV.

The qualifiers will feature some popular names in international beach volleyball, with as many as eight Olympians set to compete on Thursday, including six in the men’s tournament.

Heading the men’s qualifier entry list is 36-year-old Brazilian Pedro Solberg. A veteran of 16 international beach volleyball seasons, the blocker represented his country at the Rio 2016 Games. He’s been paired with 26-year-old Arthur Lanci since last season and the two have had mixed results in 2022, advancing from the qualifier to finish ninth at the Tlaxcala Challenge in March, but losing their very first match in the qualifiers the following month in Itapema.

Ranked third are Mexico’s Juan Virgen, a 35-year-old, Rio 2016 Olympian, and his new partner, Miguel Sarabia, 23. The two, who recently competed at the Beach Volleyball World Championships in Rome, will try to advance from the qualifier for the first time as partners after failing to do so in the Rosarito, Ostrava and Jurmala Elite16 events and the Kuşadası Challenge.

Taylor Sander, a former volleyball star who helped the United States win bronze in Rio, and also competed last year in Japan, and Taylor Crabb, who qualified for Tokyo but had to be replaced following a positive COVID test, are ranked fourth in the Espinho qualifier. The two are coming from a second-place finish at last weekend’s American AVP event in Hermosa Beach, but were not able to advance from the qualifier in Tlaxcala. They did, however, win a pair of matches at the World Championships two weeks ago to finish 17th.

A Tokyo Olympic semifinalist, Edgars Tocs ranks sixth in this week’s Espinho qualifier. The 33-year-old Latvian blocker won’t play alongside regular partner Kristians Fokerots, who’s competing at the U20 European Championship, and picked up 21-year-old Arturs Rinkevics to try to make it out of the qualifier for the second time in the season.

Completing the list of Olympians set to compete in the men’s qualifier in Espinho is Adrian Heidrich. The towering 27-year-old Swiss blocker, who played last year in Tokyo with Mirco Gerson, started the season with 21-year-old Leo Dillier by his side and the two will try to repeat what they did in Kuşadası, when they advanced from the qualifier for the first time in 2022 after three unsuccessful attempts. They are ranked 11th among the men’s teams.

On the women’s side, the highest-ranked Olympian is Australian Nicole Baird. The 29-year-old blocker, who represented her country at the Rio 2016 Games, will have Phoebe Bell by her side and the two, who occupy the fifth place on the entry list, will try to make it to the main draw in just their second Challenge tournament of the season. The Australians won a silver medal in their home Futures event in Coolangatta back in April.

A Tokyo Olympian, 36-year-old Megumi Murakami and new partner Sakurako Fujii will have a bigger ladder to climb as the Japanese enter the Espinho qualifier ranked 23rd. The Asians had some success in Futures events earlier this season, but fell in the first round of the qualifiers at both the Tlaxcala and the Kuşadası Challenges.