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Unusual Olympic debut for USC’s Kelly Claes and UCLA’s Sarah Sponcil

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TOKYO USCs Kelly Claes and UCLAs Sarah Sponcil knew their Olympic debut would be unusual. Due to COVID restrictions, fans have been banned from the Tokyo venues and beach volleyball without fans is like a dance party without a deejay.

The deejay showed up anyway.

And when he played J. Los Lets Get Loud on Wednesday morning in front of 12,000 empty seats in Shiokaze Park, it caused all the exuberance of a hand clapping.

Anyway, Claes and Sponcil defeated their unannounced opponents from Kenya in round-robin play, 2-0, dried themselves off and walked off the media gauntlet.

And then: they went their separate ways.

It wasn’t tiff. In fact, the American couple is as tight as ever.

But Claes, 25, is in quarantine at the health center and Sponcil, 24, is in the athletes’ village. They are allowed to spend two hours a day together until Claes is most likely released on Sunday, Claes said, assuming she continues to test negative.

The situation stems from the flight to Tokyo. Sarah and I weren’t on the run together, Claes said. I was kind of around Jake Gibb, a four-time Olympic beach volleyball player and a graduate of UTAH, and someone tested positive in their environment. So Jake and I were considered close and quarantined.

They told us that we had been in the village eight days after our wedding, Claes said. Sarah and I had been in the same room for eight days. It’s confusing, but I’m just doing what I said.

Since then Claes has been enjoying herself at the health center by playing video games, my ultimate refuge, my real safe haven as she describes it on her website.

But Sponcil misses her buddy. It was a bit lonely and difficult, she said. They compensate for this by sending each other TikToks as a form of communication.

On the pitch they’ve always had great chemistry, but when COVID kicked in they felt like they kept losing in the quarter finals, unable to get through to the semis, so they worked on their mental game and learned the tool that allowed them to win back. tournaments and capture the second USOlympic berth (before Kerri Walsh-Jennings bidding on a sixth Games).

A coach from Santa Barbara introduced them to the platinum rule. The Golden Rule is to treat others the way you want to be treated, but, Claes explained, the Platinum Rule is to treat others the way THEY want to be treated. In other words, make time to understand what your partner needs, not what you think you want at the moment.

In the past, Claes said, we both felt we supported each other, but we gave each other what we needed individually. When Sarah made a mistake, I thought, that’s okay, you have the next, I’m behind you, positive affirmation. When I was having a hard time. Sarah gave me language like: Dude, just hit the ball. What are you doing?

We had a lot of deep hard conversations. And we found out that Sarah needs clear, direct [instruction]. Now when she makes a mistake, I tell her things like: Hey this is open, that’s open, or you’re early in your approach, versus when I struggle, I catastrophize and don’t live in the present anymore. Physical contact helps me stay present, so Sarah will give me a high-five, hold my hand for a bit, say things like, I’m here. Only you and me. It’s not as bad as you think. That kind of language is extremely useful to me, Claes said.

And, experts say, their game is the wave of the future.

They are both very creative players. They are both risk takers. And they run the most dynamic out-of-the-box women’s beach volleyball game I’ve ever seen, said 1996 Olympian Barbra Fontana and a STANFORD graduate who coached both women and players under 19.

They’re trying to understand the point as quickly as possible, which I think is very forward-looking, Fontana said. It requires very good ball control. It requires a lot of athletic ability because they are out of position when trying to kill,

Conversely, if they use it too much, they can make mistakes, which I believe they did at the beginning of the partnership. They were overly aggressive. They have found a better place to use it that makes more sense, and it makes them very frustrating to play because you are constantly attacked with them.

I think they are good enough to win. But they must play excellent volleyball. If they can play in that special bag they created, I think they have as much of a chance as anyone else, Fontana said.

On Saturday, Claes and Sponcil will meet Brazilian Ana Patricia Silva Ramos and Rebecca Silva for their final round-robin match. As the only undefeated team in Pool D so far, the American pair will likely advance to the single-elimination heats starting on Sunday.

Until then, fans or not, roommates or not, they both know full well that this is the Olympics.

Seeing the rings everywhere makes it surreal, Sponcil said.

For our next one, grab all the layers, all the fun stuff that normally comes with the Olympics, Claes said. I’m just happy that, firstly, it’s happening and we get to fight and, secondly, that we made it.

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