2019-03-11 10:25:00 CET

Aussie qualifiers earn Sydney smiles

An unexpected home victory Down Under

Nicole Laird (left) and Becchara Palmer celebrate their win on home sand (Photo: FIVB)Nicole Laird (left) and Becchara Palmer celebrate their win on home sand (Photo: FIVB)

The Australian fans that flocked to Sydney’s Manly Beach the past week had come to see the names that were front-page news 12 months ago at last year’s Commonwealth Games.

Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho Del Solar were silver medalists at the Gold Coast last year before they went onto win World Tour golds in Lucerne and Espinho. A top-10 finish to the season saw their 2018 campaign climax with a bronze at the World Tour Finals in Hamburg. Back on home sand, however, the women’s tournament favorites crashed out in the round of 16, losing to newly-formed German duo Julia Sude and Karla Borger.

A tournament is always buoyed by success by teams from the host nation. Luckily for the passionate Aussie fans, they still had Nicole Laird and Becchara Palmer to cheer for. That wave of optimism carried the unfancied pairing all the way to the top of the podium. It was gold for Australia but nobody gave the qualifiers a chance.

Yet this was no fluke. Playing in only their second tournament together, Laird and Palmer might not have been the household names of the sand in the past two years, but both have a track record to rival many players on the World Tour. Palmer is a former Under-19 World Champion and competed at the 2012 Olympics in London. Laird, just 26, partnered Artacho at the Rio Games in 2016 after the pair had won the World Under-23 championships in 2014.

The field in Sydney was strong. The three-star event in Sydney had attracted a host of top names. Yet Laird and Palmer won seven of their eight games. In the final they saw off Betsi Flint and Emily Day of the United States in three sets. In their semifinal they beat Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat also in three sets. They also toppled Japan’s Megumi Murakami and Miki Ishii in the quarters and the resurgent Italian team Marta Menegatti and Viktoria Orsi-Toth in the last-16.

Success was a far cry from a 19th place and 500 US Dollars haul in Cambodia two weeks ago to a gold medal and a prize of 10,000 US Dollars on home sand. Quite a turnaround.

Battling through qualification to win a tournament isn’t unheard of. But it’s a damn fine effort. And the smiles said it all.

I have no words.... other than thank you 🙏🏼

555 Likes, 43 Comments - Becchara Palmer (@becchara) on Instagram: "I have no words.... other than thank you 🙏🏼"

“It was exhausting,” reflected Palmer after the pair’s maiden gold as a tandem. “It’s definitely the long way to do it, but as a new team it is important that we play more matches like these.

“We said from the very beginning that we are going to learn and evolve through this competition and we stayed true to that. We’ve squeezed the life out of this tournament in terms of matches we have to play and we have come out pretty well.”

Silver for Flint and Day was the ever-improving pair’s second medal together and ensured an eighth top-10 finish in 12 FIVB tournaments.

For three-time Olympic champ Kerri and new partner Brooke, their bronze was their second third-place finish in three tournaments since they joined forces. The experienced duo beat China’s Fan Wang and Xinyi Xia to ensure the Americans left Australia with two out of three medals.

For the majority of the women who were in action on the Sydney sand, the next event in the hunt for medals is a month away at Xiamen’s four-star in China.

So now the Australian fans have a new duo to keep in mind when beach volleyball hits the sports pages.

But for Nicole and Becchara it’s back to a one-star in Satun, Thailand next month. Their smiles are sure to carry them through, perhaps to greater things to come in 2019.

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