2017-11-30 10:00:00 CET
When three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings asks to play with you, what do you say?
Sara Hughes had a dilemma. Cut loose her long-time school friend or join forces with the most decorated woman in the history of beach volleyball.
When Kerri Walsh Jennings came calling at the start of last season, 22-year-old Hughes could not immediately give legendary Walsh Jennings an answer. She couldn’t. It wasn’t just because the Californian was about to take her first steps on the sand on the FIVB World Tour with college friend Kelly Claes. No, it was because Kerri Walsh Jennings – three-time Olympic champion – wanted Sara to be her partner.
“I couldn’t make a straight decision,” Hughes tells us openly. “Kerri is one of the best players of all-time. To be asked by her was such an honor – especially for me at such a young age.”
It’s not what you know, it’s who…
What 39-year-old Walsh did not count on, however, was Hughes’ strong bond with teammate Claes. The American youngsters came through college together, played the indoor game together and, in 2013, the pair won bronze together in the FIVB Under-19 World Championships in Portugal.
The duo rose to prominence on the international beach scene when causing a massive shock at the 2016 Klagenfurt Major, beating superstars Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst just one month the Germans won Olympic gold on the Copacabana.
“I gave Kerri’s question some thought and then I looked at the partnership with Kelly,” continues Sara. “I knew we were growing as a team and I wanted to keep working on what we’d already achieved and get better.
“For sure it would have been great to learn from Kerri, but I knew I wanted to achieve my goals playing alongside Kelly.
“Kelly and I have known each other and played together for seven years. We started playing in high school and played collegiate volleyball and that has always helped our friendship.
“We wanted to get to a higher level on and off the court as good friends and have very similar personalities.”
Having reluctantly turned down Kerri’s advances, the next step for Hughes and Claes was to go on and succeed on the sand in their first pro season on the sand.
The duo entered seven World Tour events and achieved five top-10 finishes, including a ninth place at the World Championships in Vienna.
However, the season was not without its challenges – ones which ultimately helped make the youngsters’ union even tighter.
“To start with we didn’t have a coach,” explains Hughes. “We were used to playing indoor volleyball where we are used to having a full team behind us. All of a sudden we were like ‘where are the 15 people looking out for us?’ At the beach, it was just the two of us. It was a big learning curve. We had to work out for ourselves when we were going to practice and work out. It was hard. We were warming ourselves up – other teams had two or three coaches. There were times when we were asking ‘is there a spare ball we can use?’
“The hardest thing was not having a coach – that really did bring us closer together. After a game, especially a loss, it was tough. We had no coach, nobody to talk to about the game. We would go back to the hotel, shower, and then 45 minutes later we sat down and tried to debrief the game… but we had nobody to go through what happened, what we needed to do next, and what to work on.”
A helping hand
Despite lacking those additional Mikasas, the highly-rated youngsters were still beating some of the biggest names in beach volleyball – and their eye-catching performances on the sand made people stand up and take notice of the pair.
“As we got better we got more funding though our association and that meant we could hire a coach,” explains Sara. “We went through the kind of person we wanted – someone who could travel with us and make the real commitment. In the end we chose Jose Loila.”
Brazilian legend Loila was inducted into the FIVB’s Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame in 2017 having enjoyed one of the most successful careers in the sport – which included 20 gold medals in 66 events on the World Tour. Now the 47-year-old is teaching Sara and Kelly new tricks. “It’s amazing and very motivating for us to be working with Jose,” says Sara, excitedly.
Having impressed on the World Tour, the duo headed home to the US and ended the season making history. They became the youngest women’s team ever to lift an AVP title when winning in Chicago in early September.
For Sara the plaudits kept on coming – the icing on the cake came soon after their success in the Windy City, when the FIVB named her 2017 Rookie of the Year.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “I was at home when I got the call from my agent. It was such an honor.
“It was a very humbling experience for Kelly and I to play on the World Tour alongside so many established players, especially as newcomers.
“And I can’t thank Kelly enough – we did it together and it was incredible for two young girls, a new team on the tour, to win this award. It’s been a whirlwind and we’ve been so grateful to play at such a high level.”
After such a successful summer and first full-time season, Sara’s decision to turn down Kerri has been vindicated.
However, for Hughes, her friendship with Kelly was always going to win this particular battle.
“Me and Kelly are very good friends and we have a lot of fun on and off court and my biggest thing is having fun,” she says.
“I love playing the sport and yes, you mess up every now and then, but that’s the time to laugh. It’s hard sometimes but we try to be positive on the court all the time.”
With their friendship strengthened even further after a rollercoaster last 12 months, you wouldn’t bet against these friends going all the way to Tokyo in 2020.
“That’s what we’re striving for,” says Sara.
At least they can now try to achieve their dream together by having fun – and not worry about where the next ball is coming from in training.
When your legs are tired after the first week of practice...learn to crawl 😎 #backatit #getsandy #kttape @kttape
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