Claes & Sponcil take time to breathe

PHOENIX, USA, May 14, 2020 - Lisa Sponcil walked into her garage in Phoenix, Arizona, to find a most peculiar site: her husband, Wayne, fitting some sort of mouthpiece, with a long sort of handle sticking out, into their 23-year-old daughter’s mouth. It was a functional mouthpiece, of course: on the end of it, their daughter, Sarah, could place a spinning ball. 


Because, well, why not? 


“We’re like five year olds out in the garage,” Sarah said, laughing – she is almost always laughing off the court. “Just doing stuff.”

It may seem unimportant to most. Entirely trivial, if not altogether useless, to spend one’s time determining various ways to spin multiple volleyballs at once, using various appendages of your body – your mouth, an index finger, a middle finger, whatever. But this strange stretch of days and weeks and months, in which Covid-19 has called for the indefinite postponement of the beach volleyball season and a lockdown of the western United States, has been perhaps the most valuable period of Sponcil’s, and her partner, Kelly Claes’, burgeoning careers. 


“Mentally I’m just like ‘Oh, this is so refreshing,’” said Sponcil who, with Claes, is the eighth-ranked team in the Provisional Olympic Ranking, and third in the United States Olympic race. “It just allows me to realise that there’s so much more than that in my life and so much more that I want to do.”


It is no easy task, to track down the last time either had a moment, let alone multiple weeks, to slow down. Relax. Experiment with various interests. 



In the United States, the college beach volleyball season runs opposite the professional calendar, for the most part. When one ends, the other picks up. In her four years at the University of Southern California, Claes won three consecutive national championships, compiling records with Sara Hughes that may very well never be broken – while also claiming five top-five finishes on the AVP and making her first two FIVB main draws. Sponcil was much the same: two straight national championships as a UCLA Bruin, supplemented with five AVP main draws, including a final with Lauren Fendrick in Austin, Texas, and three top-10s on the FIVB. 


This, all before either of them had graduated college. 


And then, before they could toss their caps – Sponcil actually celebrated her graduation from the Warsaw four-star, with an impromptu ceremony orchestrated by Claes – they were off, charging into the Olympic race.

Altogether, they would play 18 tournaments in the 2019 season – Claes’s second, Sponcil’s first – hitting 14 different countries and five U.S. states. 


It left little time for reflection, absorbing just what a life it was that they were living.


And then, hours before they were set to board a flight to Australia, the Coolangatta three-star was postponed, as was the ensuing event, a four-star in Cancun.  


Now they had something on their hands they hadn’t had much of since they were in high school: time away from beach volleyball. 


“Now that we’re in the midst of it and I’ve accepted where I’m at, it’s like ‘Dang, this is awesome,’” Claes, a 1.88m California native, said. “I think it’s really good for our team, having this time to get a little bit more experience, more of an off-season together before the Olympics.”


It’s provided the opportunity for the two of them to explore interests they otherwise wouldn’t have had the time to look into. Sponcil, in between learning how to spin three volleyballs simultaneously, built her own website, launched a YouTube channel, and is digging into the nuances of both. Claes has devoted more time to studying the Bible. She’s picked up skateboarding. Juggling. Even, she claims, driving a manual car. Her coach, Jordan Cheng, may disagree. It’s his Honda Civic on which she’s learning.


“I really feel like God put Sarah in my life and Jordan in my life because we all have similar goals on the court as well as off, and we’re all in very similar stages of our lives,” she said. “I think it’s made us all so much closer and made this team so unique. It’s made me so excited and ecstatic to be a part of it. Because of where we’re at, I think it’s advantageous for us.”


None of this is to say that they do not miss beach volleyball. Claes will be thrilled to get back on the road. Sponcil is one of the most competitive individuals in the United States. Cheng, more than anything, wants to see his team walk, a year from now, in the Opening Ceremony. 


This is, simply, the time they may not have even realised they needed to get them there. 


“We were ready to compete and take on the world,” said Cheng, who previously coached American duo Reid Priddy and Theo Brunner. “But the more time we had during this quarantine, I truly believe out of any team, I think we can take the most advantage of it. The girls have been going nonstop, they’re only 24 and 23. Their ceiling is so high and we get more time to train and reflect? That gets me even more excited for competing next year.”


In a period of uncertainty, there remains just one sure thing: that Claes and Sponcil will come out better from it. 


“All we know,” Cheng said, “is that it’s our goal to win a gold medal.”