For much of the lead-up to Tokyo, 25-year-old Kelly Claes and 24-year-old Sarah Sponcil looked like the team of the future for United States beach volleyball, but not necessarily one that would compete in Tokyo.
They were trailing Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat in points until the second-to-last Olympic qualifying tournament in May, where they won in a major breakthrough moment that allowed them to leapfrog the longtime Olympic veteran Walsh Jennings to secure a place at these Olympics.
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Thus far in Tokyo, they've proven their ascent was no fluke, with a perfect 3-0 record ahead of their Round of 16 elimination match against the Canadian team of Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson.
First, Claes and Sponcil were tested by the Latvian duo of Tina Graudina and Anastaija Kravcenoka in their opening match, rallying from a big third set deficit to pull off their first Olympic win.
They then responded with a dominant performance in a 21-8, 21-6 win over the Kenyan duo of Gaudencia Makokha and Brackcides Khadambi in their second preliminary match.
Claes and Sponcil then posted their biggest win yet, a three-set victory over the favored Brazilian pair of Ana Patrícia Silva Ramos and Rebecca Cavalcanti Barbossa Silva that left the young Americans atop Pool D heading into the elimination round.
Sponcil and Claes met as teenagers while playing local tournaments in California. While they technically attended rival colleges (Claes at USC, Sponcil at UCLA), Sponcil started at LMU and didn't transfer to UCLA until her senior year, so they said they never considered themselves rivals, since most of their match-ups came while Sponcil was playing for LMU.
They re-connected in 2018 when Claes called Sponcil to meet for burritos and talk about pairing up. Brother's Burritos in Hermosa Beach can be credited as the founding site of their partnership.
Claes said in June 2018, "When I was looking for a partner, I was really looking for someone that can make me laugh. And she kills me! I wanted someone I could really connect with...I was looking for someone my age so we could kind of grow together and go on this journey together. When I found Sarah, it was just such an awesome lightbulb moment of like, this is what I've been looking for."
Away from the beach, Claes is a fan of Comic-Con, Dungeons and Dragons and video games. Also loves Anime and has a tattoo with a quote from the Anime Fullmetal Alchemist that reads, “A heart made fullmetal.” Said of the significance of the tattoo, “I think it’s one of the coolest lines the main character says in the whole show. Kind of talking about …you can’t really gain anything without struggling through something.”
NBC Olympics Research contributed to this story.