Kravcenoka and Graudina smile after winning against Kenya

To be a sponsor seeking a beach volleyball team to endorse in Latvia is the simplest of tasks: you’ll either sponsor Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka, or you’ll sponsor…Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka.

“We definitely are currently the only women’s beach volleyball team in Latvia, and on the one hand, it feels nice to be the only team, because you get all the attention and recognition and everyone likes you because there’s nothing else to choose from, but on the other hand, the competition that comes from having other strong players within your country is so good for our development as players,” said Graudina, a 23-year-old from Riga. “Sponsors don’t have to choose between women’s teams, they choose us, because we are the only ones. We’re starting to become role models.”

And now, in Tokyo, Japan, there is no bigger stage in the sport in which they can step into that role.

On September 22, in Haiyang, China, Graudina and Kravcenoka made Latvian history when they won the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, beating the Czech Republic’s Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova, 21-17, 15-21, 17-15 to earn a spot in the Tokyo Olympic Games. In winning, and securing that bid, they became the first Latvian women’s team to qualify for an Olympic Games. When they returned to Latvia, alongside Edgars Tocs and Martins Plavins, who also won and secured an Olympic bid, their reception was an epic one.

“We were received with an orchestra at the airport. It was insane. We truly didn’t think we could accomplish that at that moment and we ended up being the first Latvian team ever to qualify for the Olympics so that’s a milestone in general. Looking back now, it feels like that’s such a big thing but in the moment, we didn’t realize it that much.” Tina Graudina

It is, in reality, only one big moment, the first of many to come, one that will lead to far bigger moments for the remainder of their burgeoning careers. Graudina is just 23, Kravcenoka 24. They haven’t only qualified for these Olympic Games; they aren’t happy simply to make it there. Graudina and Kravcenoka are playing some of the finest beach volleyball in these Olympic Games.

The Latvians upset fourth-seeded Brazilians Rebecca Cavalcanti and Ana Patricia Silva, 21-15, 12-21, 15-12 in pool play and followed it up with a 21-6, 21-14 victory over Kenya to break pool. Even in their lone loss, a 13-21, 21-16, 11-15 thriller of a match to Americans Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil, the Latvians were impressive. Kravcenoka was the steadiest offensive player on the court; Graudina was dynamic and formidable at the net.

“We are feeling full support from Latvia, the Latvian team and the Latvians who are watching us," Kravcenoka said. "I feel incredible here, because everything is good, everyone is taking care of us... We have good trainings, good food, a good apartment, good people around... What more can we ask for?”

Theirs is a journey thus far that is not all that different from Graudina’s heroes, Plavins and Janis Smedins. Smedins was just 25 years old, Plavins 26 when they Cinderella-danced from the 17 seed to a bronze in the London Olympics in 2012, winning Latvia’s first Olympic beach volleyball medal. They became overnight sensations, legends in a country of just shy of 2 million people.

Tina Graudina spikes during the Sochi quarterfinal

Tina Graudina spikes during the Sochi quarterfinal

“We only get two or three medals in general, so every single one of those medals is celebrated as the best thing ever,” Graudina said. “I remember watching the game for the bronze medal, and I even get goosebumps right now remembering that moment. After that medal, that’s when the boom started, that’s when I started practising. It was a big wave in popularity, and they were so liked by the Latvian people in general. Everyone liked them so much, and then after London, Smedins got together with [Aleksandrs] Samoilovs, and they did super good, were number one in the world two years in a row, and we got used to them winning tournaments all the time.”

Both Graudina and Kravcenoka and Plavins and Tocs have broken pool in Tokyo. Plavins and Tocs will play Brazil’s Evandro and Bruno while Graudina and Kravcenoka match up with another young team bent on making history, Russia’s Nadezda Makroguzova and Svetlana Kholomina. Like Graudina and Kravcenoka, Makroguzova and Kholomina are young, just 24 and 23 years old each, respectively. Like the Latvians, the Russians are aiming for their first female Olympic beach volleyball medal (Russia is actually seeking its first beach volleyball medal in general, men or women).

Win or lose, medal or no, Graudina and Kravcenoka – and Kholomina and Makroguzova, and American youngsters Claes and Sponcil – are already making history, already stepping into roles they once watched others play on television.

“That’s one of the things I really like about playing beach volleyball,” Graudina said. “It’s a performance, you’re there to entertain and to play but you’re there to inspire and to make people want to have the same skills as you. To inspire is definitely one of the things that makes me love the sport and this is one of the ways I can do that.”