American collegiate champion Hughes breaks through with Claes
Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes celebrate a point at the 2017 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Vienna, Austria.
In the final FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour stop in Klagenfurt prior to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Hughes and Claes were extended a wild card invitation and flew halfway around the world. Undaunted, all they did in their first two Swatch Major Series matches was defeat Germany’s Laura Ludwig/Kira Walkenhorst and Canada’s Kristina May/Jamie Broder. Those two teams had already punched their tickets to the Copacabana Summer Games.
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A year later as full-time participants on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour for the first time, the American collegiate champions from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles finished as one of the top 16 women’s teams on the international circuit by winning 18 of 31 matches at seven events with Hughes being named as the Rookie of the Year and Claes also receiving votes.
Their talent was obvious and perhaps they did catch the veterans off-guard with their new, smiling faces that revealed nothing but a “we’re just happy to have a chance to be here” attitude. Just a bouncy Southern California attitude that continues to charm fans and even their fellow players.
But there had to be something beyond mere talent. To watch them, it really doesn’t take a trained eye to see the poise with which they carry themselves. They’re quick learners as well and the anecdotes are piling up as they display those little things that make them unflappable.
During a pool-play match in this year’s FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships, Hughes and Claes were locked in the heat of a rally when an opponent’s shot was directed toward the back line. Both players tracked it and what they saw was the ball was a couple of grains of sand beyond the baseline.
The ball was called in. Both Hughes and Claes signaled the ball was out and implored the referee on side court No. 3 to step down from the chair to confirm what they saw. The ref declined and was ready to blow the whistle to resume play.
Hughes, 22, and Claes, 21, promptly wiped any notion of complaint off their faces and braced for the next serve. In fact, Hughes walked over to the mark and swept it away with her foot, signaling she and Claes were over it. Many times, 10-year veterans of the sport would have continued their challenge and perhaps even let the perceived bad call get to them over the course of the next few points.
Sara Hughes dives to keep the ball in play
Asked where they got the ability at a young age to wipe the play away and move on, the answer was simple.
“Just growing up watching people,” Hughes said. “I really do wish he got down and checked it but we’ve learned with something like that he’s really not going to get down. So, we say whatever, wipe it off, clean slate, next point.”
“You can’t get them all and you can’t let it affect the rest of your game,” Claes said. “So, we reset and go back to our speed, our game.”
Their speed, their game, on the world’s biggest stage before the rabid and knowledgeable Austrian fans.
All week long, Hughes and Claes said all the right things during their numerous media appearances. And every single time, they expressed their awe and appreciation for simply having the opportunity to be where they have long dreamt of being.
The duo placed ninth in the 2017 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships, falling in the elimination rounds to eventual champions Ludwig and Walkenhorst. They closed their 2017 season by finally breaking through on the American domestic tour, capturing the AVP Chicago Championships with an undefeated run.
At an exhibition event two weeks before the start of the Vienna World Championships, Hughes and Claes captured a bronze medal at the Long Beach tournament in southern California by defeating Ludwig and Walkenhorst for the third spot on the podium. The win came after a three-set semifinal setback to American rivals Lauren Fendrick and April Ross, who dropped the gold medal match to the Germans in the Vienna finale.
Yet as the victories pile up only one summer after their Klagenfurt exploits, shouldn’t the duo now have the mindset that this is exactly where they belong, that they have earned their keep being a new force to be reckoned with on the World Tour?
“I don’t know when that’s going to flip because I’m still like a little in awe that we’re here,” Claes said. “I feel like we’ve earned our spot, we’re meant to be here, but it hits me sometime like ‘Wow, we’re here’ and that’s really cool.”
Make no mistake, though. The kids have a little swag as they step on the court.
“I think we belong here now,” Hughes said. “Coming out after college, it was kind of a toss-up, we’re just going to go and play our hardest and seeing our finishes and doing what we’re doing, I think our game and how we play proves we do belong here. And we’re so happy to be here and we’re taking in every experience we can. But we’re here to win it.”
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