2017-11-19 10:00:00 CEST
Reigning Olympic and World Champion Laura Ludwig reveals precisely how her partnership with Kira Walkenhorst has developed to become one of the most feared teams in beach volleyball
“We are colleagues that like each other.”
And in seven words, Olympic champion Laura Ludwig paints the perfect, precise picture of how her relationship with teammate Kira Walkenhorst works – on and off the sand.
Beach volleyball is their job and the beach is their office.
The German superstars are “not the best of best friends” admits Ludwig. They don’t tell each other everything. Some things just don’t need to be said. On tour, they need space. Unlike the majority of other beach volleyball athletes on the strenuous summer stretch of the World Tour, they afford themselves their own hotel rooms.
“We choose to do this to have our own space – privacy is important,” Laura, 31, says. “We have our own rhythms and sleeping patterns.
“The truth is we’re a little bit different from each other as people. We’ve had to find our own way of communicating. It’s something we’ve had to work on, on and off the court.”
It’s too easy to associate the duo with the cliché of German efficiency. But since joining forces at the start of the 2013 season, a combination of patience, hard work, determination, guts, mental toughness and ability, have enabled Laura and Kira to engineer themselves into the beach volleyball history books.
Over the past two seasons, the European pair have dominated the podiums at some of the most prestigious tournaments in world beach volleyball, single-handedly wrestling the medal supremacy away from the traditional powerhouse nations of the sport such as Brazil and the United States.
During the course of 18 tournaments since the beginning of the 2016 season, Laura and Kira have scooped the top prizes at the Olympics, World Championships and, twice, at the World Tour Finals. You can also add European and national prizes, both won during a Golden Season in 2016, into their overflowing trophy cabinet, too.
It’s a roll of honor that is the envy of beach volleyball teams across the land – but it wasn’t always the case. The partnership was a million miles away from realizing aims of winning an Olympic gold medal against Brazil on the Copacabana.
In the new team’s infancy, shortly after the 2012 Olympics in London, Laura and Kira had to accept they needed patience to accomplish their shared dream of singing Das Deutschlandlied, the German national anthem, on one of the world’s most famous stretches of sand four years later.
“We started out by wanting to play in the 2016 Olympics but we had to accept that we were not good enough straight away and we deal with that,” explains Ludwig, who was voted the Most Outstanding Player by her fellow professionals last year. “At first, I was like, ‘oh my god, can I do this?’ I thought with that in my head that after one year I’d probably quit!
“What we learned was to trust the team and each other. You think about the goals you have: you have come together to form this team for a reason, so you have to work on it.”
Finding their mojo
Success was not immediately forthcoming, however. The pair finished 25th in their first tournament together in Fuzhou in April 2013 and it wasn’t until their eighth event that they secured their first place on the podium with silver in Moscow. In Laura’s own opinion, it was inconsistent and unenjoyable at times.
“In the beginning we didn’t know how to deal with losing, or winning and then losing again – we just weren’t supporting each other properly,” Laura recalls. “Over the first two years, we wanted to help each other in different ways. Our body language was different and there were matches where we had moments of frustration that went too far – we didn’t control our frustration.
“I didn’t want to be angry but couldn’t help it. After matches I would want to talk about things straight away, then leave it behind me and laugh. Kira was the opposite; think about losing and then do the talking. We both did it, we knew we wanted to play with each other but we found a way to deal with the moments.”
As any seasoned beach volleyball pro will tell you, nothing in the sport lasts forever. All good things have to come to an end at some point – whether you’re successful or not.
Two-and-a-half-seasons into their partnership Ludwig and Walkenhorst were far from the fearsome team they are of today. The Germans entered the 2015 World Championships in the Netherlands with just one gold medal and six podium finishes to their name in 25 tournaments.
In The Hague, their woes reached a watershed moment. They were knocked out by Russia’s Ekaterina Birlova and Evgeniya Ukolova in the first round. The straight sets defeat lasted just 36 minutes. A 17th place was not what either player was expecting.
Something was not right.
“At the World Championships in 2015, we had a moment where we lost in the first elimination stage and we were like ‘shit, is this going to work? Is this right?’” remembers Laura. “We were thinking ‘are our characters right, do we have the right coaches, is it something with the way we’re practicing, are the tactics right’ – there were a lot of questions.
“Our coach asked us. We didn’t know. We sat down and talked about it. After four days we found a way, we were just too frustrated; we felt that we didn’t have the patience. So we thought, ‘okay, are we committed?’ We mapped out a plan, we had to stick to it, stay patient. We knew we could play amazing beach volleyball and our coach explained that in the end we had to believe in the plan, stay on track and have the patience…”
Clicking into gear
Boy did that chat have the desired effect. In the 25 tournaments that followed in the wake of the horror show in Holland, Team Ludwig/Walkenhorst collected 11 gold medals – 10 more than in the same number of events before the post-mortem in The Hague.
It’s a discussion that has dramatically transformed their fortunes – but Laura will not forget the heartache and hard work which has helped elevate them right to the very summit of the beach volleyball world.
“In our first training session I just knew if we play like this it’s going to be crazy [good],” grins Ludwig. “It’s been harder than expected. We’ve both suffered injuries, we both changed our technique and we both have had to become mentally tuned.
“I knew individually we were very good players but I think it’s always takes time to find your way and you need some direction: how do you want to play and where you want to go? You’re putting in this effort but where are you going? What do you want to achieve? Every partnership is important but being on the same page is vital.”
When two worlds collide
The pair’s characters couldn’t be more contrasting. Laura is the undoubted hellraiser. On the court she flies around the back of the court with her blonde locks flying behind her, reaching another point-saving dig. Off court, it’s seldom that she won’t drop an occasional swear-word into a post-match press conference with a cheeky smile.
On the other hand, Kira, five years younger than her teammate, quietly gets on with her business at the net. Not a lot gets past her. She was named Best Blocker in 2016. So make no mistake, Essen’s finest might seem the shy and reserved type, but Kira is a mean, lean blocking machine.
Their differing on-court and off-court personalities complement each other perfectly – and what also makes these two characters work so effectively is their share common goal: success. When they step onto the sand they are there to work. Their ability and ambition takes over.
“It took us two or three season seasons to make it perfect,” says Laura. “In beach volleyball you are the smallest team.
“I have learned that the most important thing is that you have one big shared goal. Being on the same page is the most important – the one thing you want to achieve. That’s what’s made me and Kira strong – having those goals and being on the same page.
“Yes, you are individuals – but every team needs to have harmony, but you need to be critical and honest sometimes. We’re no different, there’s no secret, and we definitely had to get to know each other – and we like each other.
“Our characters are a little bit different from each other as people so we didn’t always understand each other at first, so we had to find our language.
“That’s very important for every team. Like the language: how can I support my partner? The most important thing is how to communicate. It sounds easy, but you want to support your partner, you want to win – but how do you find the way?”
Laura and Kira did find a way. Proving that regardless of character, immaterial of whether or not they tell each other their deepest secrets, that if you share a common goal, talk things through when times are hard and stick to your principles, you can rule the world.
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