Miles Evans goes all out against France/Volleyball World photo

After 17 months and 24 tournaments and God knows how many miles flown, Chase Budinger and Miles Evans’ Olympic race came down to three men crowding around a table over an iPhone in the Czech Republic.

Only Evans wouldn’t watch with Budinger and coach Ed Keller.

Couldn’t watch.

Nerves were too high as Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner battled into a third set with Germans Lukas Pfretzschner and Sven Winter.

The stakes? A USA loss and Budinger and Evans would be Olympians. A USA win and the race would go on.

It would go on no further. It would end there, as it did in 2021, on a perfect morning in Ostrava, a Winter line shot sealing a 21-13, 24-26, 15-12 win for Germany, sealing the Olympic bid for Budinger and Evans.

Hugs around. A few more. A long-awaited release of tension pent up from 17 months of a streaky Olympic race.

“I couldn’t watch the match of Trevor’s,” Evans said. “I was more nervous watching that match than any match I’ve played. I could hardly keep it together. I hate watching other US teams lose but, man, I was excited to see we made it in once that game of theirs was over. One of the best feelings on the planet and I wouldn’t have changed the process and way we’ve gotten here together.”

Budinger and Evans will join Andy Benesh and Miles Partain representing the USA in Paris later this summer. It marks the first time since 2008, when Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser, and Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal each made their debuts, the United States will send four new faces to the Olympic Games.

It worked out well then: Rogers and Dalhausser won gold, and Gibb and Rosenthal took fifth.

“I just want to say I’m super thankful to all my friends and family who have believed in me from the beginning and have stayed with me keeping that fire going and helping me along the way,” said Evans, who will be the third American to compete in an Olympic Games without having won an AVP, joining Carl Henkel (1996) and Rob Heidger (2000). “Super thankful for the team we’ve put together for support and reminders throughout the journey. The team that we’ve put together has been one of the biggest reasons we got here. Super thankful Chase was willing to take a chance on me and guide me in the right direction. Can’t say how beyond stoked I am to be where I am and have this opportunity. Just so blessed and grateful. The hard work and the grind has been real and it’s awesome to show some results from that.”

Chase Budinger quickly becoming an international storyline

The national media has already jumped on the story of an ex-NBA player making the Olympics in a different sport. Given his background in the NBA, Budinger will be one of the biggest draws at the Olympics. He once shared co-MVP honors of the McDonald’s All-American game with Kevin Durant. Now, they’ll be in the same Games together, playing different sports.

Within an hour after Crabb and Brunner lost, Bleacher Report picked up the story, as did The Athletic, the New York Times’ sportswriting arm. ESPN soon jumped on board, as did NBC, CBS, and Yahoo!, amongst others.

“I have just been soaking it all in,” Budinger said. “Haven’t thought about the words I want to say at this moment. Still need to play some volley.”

Ah, yes, there was that: A tournament still to play.

Theirs came to an end shortly after, dropping in the second round of the qualifier, 17-21, 23-25, to France’s Arnaud Gauthier-Rat and Youssef Krou, who are still building a case to earn the French wild card into the Games. But that is the only relevant Olympic storyline left in Ostrava. Every other men’s race was decided in the first round of the qualifier.

Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen bowed out to Poland’s Jakub Zdybek and Piotr Kantor, cementing the bids for Steven van de Velde and Matthew Immers, and Stefan Boermans and Yorick de Groot. Like the USA, it’ll be four new faces representing the Netherlands in Paris.

Austrians Julian Horl and Alex Horst punched their ticket when Chileans Marco Grimalt and Esteban Grimalt fell to Leon Luini and Christian Vaarenhorst of the Netherlands in the first round.

Seemingly all at once, the men’s Olympic race, outside of the remaining continental tournaments over the next few weeks, was decided.

The women’s, on the other hand, is not.

When Canadians Sarah Pavan and Molly McBain didn’t make it into the Ostrava Elite16, left as the No. 1 team on the reserve list, it all but sealed up the bid for Spain’s Lili Fernandez and Paula Soria. A first-round qualifier loss for Sophie Bukovec and Heather Bansley, the only team who could have caught Spain, officially did it: Fernandez would be going to her fourth Olympic Games, while Soria is making her debut. They’ll join young Spaniards and TCU athletes Daniela Alvarez and Tania Moreno, making it the first time in history Spain will send multiple women’s teams to the Olympics.

Also making history is Lithuania’s Monika Paulikiene and Aine Raupelyte, who similarly punched their Olympic tickets when Bukovec and Bansley lost. They are the first Lithuanian team, men or women, to qualify for an Olympic Games.

This will not, of course, be the first Olympic Games for Laura Ludwig. Paris will mark her fifth, after she and Louisa Lippmann made it official with a 21-14, 24-22 win over countrywomen Sandra Ittlinger and Karla Borger that put the race to rest.

There remains, then, just one race still to be decided, the most fascinating of them all: The Swiss women.

Anouk Verge-Depre, Joana Mader cling on to Olympic hopes

Not just a civil war, but a familial one. Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Mader, bronze medalists in Tokyo in 2021, require a semifinal or better in Ostrava to pass younger sister Zoe Verge-Depre and Esmee Bobner. In a nerve-inducing twist of fate, the universe ensured they’d play one another in the final round of the qualifier, as they did two weeks ago at the Espinho Elite16.

As they did two weeks ago in Portugal, Anouk and Mader prevailed, coming back to win 18-21, 21-16, 15-10, keeping their Olympic hopes alive.

They require 320 points to pass Zoe and Bobner. Only a fourth or better will do the job. They will need to break out of Pool D, which includes Canadians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Brandie Wilkerson, the Netherlands’ Katja Stam and Raisa Schoon, and the Czech Republic’s Barbora Hermannova and Marie-Sara Stochlova. After breaking, they’ll likely need two more wins in the playoffs to pass Zoe and Bobner.

Kim Hildreth, Teegan Van Gunst, the Cinderellas of Ostrava

Not relevant to the Olympic race, but an important note nonetheless, is the Cinderella run made by Kim Hildreth and Teegan Van Gunst. Seeded No. 14 in the qualifier, they first upset Brazilians Taina Silva and Victoria Lopes (19-21, 21-19, 15-11) then proved it was no fluke, stunning another Brazilian team in Vitoria de Souza and Hegeile Almeida Dos Santos (21-14, 21-18). It marks the first Elite16 main draw for either Hildreth or Van Gunst, who entered the tournament on a six-match losing streak.

They join fellow Americans Betsi Flint and Julia Scoles, who are making their 2024 international debut, in Pool A, as well as Brazilians Ana Patricia Silva and Duda Lisboa, and Latvians Tina Graudina and Anastasija Samoilova.

Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes and Andy Benesh and Miles Partain were all seeded directly into the main draw.

Chase Budinger blocks Tadeas Trousil of the Czech Republic/Volleyball World photo


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