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After a pair of succesful weeks in Mexico, Stam and partner Schoon will try to keep their momentum in Brazil

The only team to take a place on the podium at the first Challenge and Elite16 events of the inaugural 2022 Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour season, Raisa Schoon and Katja Stam have every reason to dream big. And this weekend, in Itapema, the Brazilian city that hosts the second Challenge tournament of the year, the Dutch will have another opportunity to start making their dreams come true.

The 23-year-old Stam and the 20-year-old Schoon are still relatively new faces on the international beach volleyball scene. They stormed into the elite of the sport less than a year ago, when they surprisingly qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, and became the youngest beach volleyball duo to ever appear at the Games.

· Watch all the matches of the Itapema Challenge live or on demand on Volleyball TV.

Their victory at the European Continental Cup was a turning point in their careers. Since then, they have had success in pretty much every event they have played at.

“This past year has been insane,” the 1.90m-tall Stam told Volleyball World ahead of their debut in the Itapema Challenge. “We had some great achievements recently and qualifying for Tokyo was the best and most surprising of them. But we still didn’t feel we were consistent enough as there were some tournaments in which we couldn’t play at our best and finished well below where we expected.”

Playing their best volleyball has, however, been the norm for the Dutch in 2022. The silver medallists of last year’s European Championship have been almost flawless since the start of the inaugural season of the Beach Pro Tour, taking silver at the Tlaxcala Challenge and gold at the Rosarito Elite16, where they started in the qualifier. They have won 12 of their 14 matches this year.

“We didn’t necessarily expect to have so much success in Mexico, but we were confident that we had made great strides this winter training with our new coach Marko Klok,” the blocker added. “But we also knew every team did about the same, so we went to Mexico really open-minded. The start of the season feels great to us because we’ve been able to play a good level of volleyball and also to have good results.”

Their fantastic start of the season has catapulted Stam and Schoon to second place in the FIVB World Rankings. It would be fair to say that they’re already the top team on the planet as the players that currently top the list, Brazilians Agatha Bednarczuk and Eduarda ‘Duda’ Lisboa, are no longer partners.

Their move to the top spot could take place right after the Itapema Challenge, when Agatha and Duda, currently on 4,640 points, will drop 640, and the Dutch, who are 320 points clear of the third-placed Nina Brunner and Tanja Huberli of Switzerland at 4,340, could add a few more.

The possibility of becoming the number one team in the world at such young ages excites the young Dutch, who would want to make the feeling last for as long as they can.

“That’s unbelievable,” Stam reacted. “We didn’t expect to get there so quickly. It means a lot to be at the top of the world right now but it will be even nicer if we can stay there for a long time. It’s obviously great to be a champion and win some tournaments, but it’s so much more meaningful to dominate the sport for a long time. That’s our goal and that’s what we’re fighting for.”

In order to take another step in that direction this weekend, the Dutch will have to do much better than they did the last time they played in Itapema, when they showed some of the signs of inconsistency that bothered them last year. Schoon and Stam competed at the Meia Praia Beach last November, in the last FIVB World Tour event, and returned home with a bitter taste in their mouths after they finished 17th. Their debut in this year’s tournament will be on Friday.

“That was our first tournament with our new coach and we didn’t play anywhere near our best,” Stam recalled. “But it was important for us to get to know each other and to know exactly where we needed to improve. We planned our winter based on that tournament and, after the first two events this year, I think it worked well. We’ll try and approach this tournament the same way as the last two and see how it ends.”

The rise of Schoon and Stam couldn’t have taken place at a better moment for Dutch beach volleyball. The country saw three of its most successful female players retire in the second half of 2021 in Marleen van Iersel, Madelein Meppelink and Sanne Keizer and there was a risk they would not have a top team in the inaugural season of the Beach Pro Tour.

To Schoon and Stam, the possibility of continuing the legacy of Meppelink and Keizer, with whom they shared their Olympic journey in Tokyo, and several training sessions at the Federation’s training facility in The Hague, that is another source of motivation.

“We’re definitely not as experienced as they are, but it’s a great honour for us to be tasked with representing our country for as long as they did,” Stam added. “We trained a lot with Sanne and Madelein over the last two years and I can’t even explain how important that was for us. One thing that really impressed me was how they kept on pushing themselves and everybody around them every day in training. As they’re no longer around, we have to do it ourselves now and it’s pretty hard.”