April and Alix in action during the Tokyo 2020 final

History was being made at the Tokyo Olympic Games even before the Games started. When Latvians Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka won the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Haiyang, China, in 2019, history was made: they became Latvia’s first female beach volleyball team at the Olympics ever. Two years later, when Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes won back-to-back events in Sochi and Ostrava, securing an Olympic berth, they became the youngest American beach team to compete in an Olympics.

It’s fitting, then, that the Games ended on a historical note. April Ross became the first woman to win all three beach volleyball medals, finishing Tokyo with a gold medal, complementing her silver from London and bronze in Rio. In doing so, she also jumped up the list of all-time Olympic wins, now trailing only Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings.

“I'm still trying to process it but I'm so in the present moment here with this team and this medal,” Ross said afterwards. “I'm so proud of my other ones but just how this worked out, and the risks that Alix took to come out onto the beach and all her hard work … it doesn't happen without that. I can't fathom that it worked out the way it did. It's kind of a fairytale story like, 'oh, I'm going at 39 to try and get my gold medal', and the fact that it actually happened feels so special and surreal. I'm just so proud of our team and so grateful for everyone who helps us get here.”

Australia's Mariafe Artacho del Solar

Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy are changing the game

Unless you were a devout beach volleyball fan, you probably missed much of the rapid rise of Australians Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy. They exploded onto the scene in 2018, winning back to back events in Qinzhou and Sydney. They’d win two more events that year, in Lucerne and Espinho, adding a bronze at the 2019 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships.

But it was how they were having success that was so eye-opening. They were spreading the court. Optioning. Changing tempos. Bombing serves. What Poland’s Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak did to the men’s game, revolutionizing the spread offence and blurry tempo offence, Artacho were doing to the women’s.

Only nobody can quite do it like the Australians.

Artacho’s ball control is virtually unparalleled, as is Clancy’s athleticism and ability to put away an option. The beauty of their offence is, demanding as it can be, it never got out of control, even in the windy conditions of Cancun, where they won gold in the final event. They were able to sustain their success throughout the entire quad, and when it mattered most: The Tokyo Olympics. Clancy and Artacho were smooth in wins over Cuba and Italy, and were nearly flawless in victories over Xue Chen and Xinxin Wang, Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, and Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka.

As the quad advanced, more and more teams began adopting similar offences: April Ross and Alix Klineman steadily increased their number of option attacks, Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil often played from pin to pin, leading the world in percentage of options. Russia and Latvia, too, began adding dynamic plays.

It’s a changing game, and the Australians are at the forefront of it.

“This is a moment that just won't happen once,” Clancy said after receiving her silver medal. “We'll be back there.”


‘Yes, Switzerland is a volleyball nation.’

It was a cruel twist of fate, when Swiss Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Heidrich drew their fellow countrywomen, Tanja Huberli and Nina Betschart, in the first round of the Tokyo Olympics. One can only wonder what would have happened had they been on different sides of the bracket, when one didn’t have to knock out the other so early.

It was Verge-Depre and Heidrich who would advance – and then advance again, defeating Brazil’s Rebecca Cavalcanti and Ana Patricia Silva in the quarterfinals. They’d fall, like everyone else, to April Ross and Alix Klineman in the semifinals, but then they’d rebound, defeating Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka for bronze, Switzerland’s first women's medal in beach volleyball.

“Amazing. It’s crazy,” Heidrich said. “I don’t know, I don’t find the right words for it, but the feeling is amazing, it’s crazy.”

Verge-Depre was feeling equally enthusiastic, though her response was more of a declaration: with two teams in the top 15 in the world, and a bronze medal returning home to Switzerland, “Yes,” she said, “Switzerland is now a volleyball nation.”


Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka are here to stay

Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka may have been the first Latvian women’s team to compete in an Olympic Games. They may have entered Tokyo as the 16 seed. They might have never won a medal on the World Tour. But when they won their quarterfinal over Canadians Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson, they still weren’t buying into the Cinderella narrative.

“No,” Graudina said, “because we're a great team. We will see what happens, but we just like to play volleyball and be on the court.”

They proved as much in Tokyo, when they won four straight matches, three of which over higher-seeded teams, to make the medal rounds. No, they wouldn’t claim their first medal as a team, falling in the semifinals to Australia and in the bronze medal match against Switzerland, but they established themselves as no fluke – and certainly no Cinderella, regardless of the seeding.

“Starting with 2008, we've had one team at every Olympics, so it has slowly become a very popular sport,” Graudina said. “It started very small but now it's already pretty big. The fact that we made it (here) is also inspiring a lot of new, young girls (to) start playing beach volleyball, which we're very happy about because we want to have more than one team, we want two teams (at the Olympic Games). Hopefully this will inspire some young girls.”