Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss are in Mewhirter’s “Pool of Death”/Volleyball World photo

The beach volleyball Olympic field is set.

All of it.

The 17 spots have been punched via Olympic rankings. The French wild cards have been doled out — to Remi Bassereau and Julien Lyneel, and Aline Chamereau and Clemence Vieira. The Continental Cups have been played, and the subsequent selections made.

And on Friday morning, the drawing of lots became official, with all 24 teams being separated into their respective pools. Before we get into the breakdown and analysis of each pool, a quick primer on the Olympic format:

  • It is a round-robin style pool play, in which teams will play every opposing team in their pool
  • Three teams from each pool will break into the playoff rounds
  • The top two third-place teams will begin in the round of 16, while the bottom four third-place teams will compete in a pigtail round, or what is known as a lucky loser. The winners will advance into the ninth-place rounds.

Women’s Olympic beach volleyball pool breakdown

Pool B: The Pool of Death

In any major world-class competition in which pool play is the format, there is an inevitable pool of death. For the women, that is, by a long shot, Pool B, featuring world No. 2 Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth; China’s Chen Xue, now a four-time Olympian and a bronze medalist in the Beijing Games, and Xinyi Xia; Tokyo silver medalists Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy of Australia; and Canada’s Heather Bansley, now a three-time Olympian and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and Sophie Bukovec, who punched their Paris ticket by winning the NORCECA Continental Cup.

How tough is this pool? The only team without Olympic experience is the one seeded at the top. Australia was always going to be a land mine, due to Clancy sitting out much of the year with an injury. Same goes for Bukovec and Bansley who, had they played together for the entirety of the Olympic cycle, likely would have qualified via points rather than the Continental Cup. Alas, they were a shotgun marriage, with Bukovec splitting with Sarah Pavan and Bansley coming out of retirement in the middle of the qualification cycle. They narrowly missed on points, and emerged from an undefeated Continental Cup. Every match in Pool B will be must-watch TV.

Pool C: The Pool of Second Chances

It’s rare enough to see one team with a second life in the Olympic Games, much less two, much less two of them in the same pool. Yet that’s precisely what Pool B features, as France’s Aline Chamereau and Clemence Vieira were gifted a wild card after their countrywomen, Alexia Richard and Lezana Placette, qualified via points. The Czech Republic’s Bara Hermannova and Marie-Sara Stochlova, too, received a second — no, third! — life after narrowly missing qualifying via points, and then losing in the finals of the European Continental Cup to the Netherlands … only for the Dutch Federation to opt out of sending a second women’s team due to a federation rule requiring their teams to finish in the top eight of an Elite16 in order to be sent to the Olympic Games. The bid, then, trickled down to Hermannova and Stochlova, the silver medalists of the European Continental Cup. Paris will mark the third Olympic Games for Hermannova and the first for Stochlova.

The second-chance nature of the pool makes for a relatively easy road for top-seeded Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes, and No. 2 Germans Cinja Tillmann and Svenja Muller.

Pool F: The Mystery Pool

It’s tough to make heads or tails over Pool F, which includes France’s top pair in Alexia Richard and Lezana Placette, Switzerland’s Nina Brunner and Tanja Huberli, Spain’s Tania Moreno and Daniela Alvarez, and Germany’s Laura Ludwig and Louisa Lippmann. Anytime you see a five-time Olympian and a gold medalist, as Ludwig is, as the bottom seed in your pool, it is, suffice it to say, a strange pool. The seeding is thrown off with an Olympic rule that has the home team — Richard and Placette — seeded as No. 1 in the sixth pool, which, in this case, is Pool F. That put Huberli and Brunner, the world No. 7, as the two seed, and everything else became a bit out of sorts. They will be the clear favorites to win pool, but after that? It’s a mystery as to which team won’t make it out, as all four are notoriously streaky, as hot as they can be cold.

Sleepers and other notes

While Pools A, D, and E are all relatively straightforward, with a pecking order that makes perfect sense with the seeding, there are still a few notable teams who have flown under the radar who could pick up an unexpected win or two. Japan’s Miki Ishii will be making her second straight Olympics after winning the Asian Continental Cup alongside Akiko Hasegawa, and their match in Pool E against Lithuania’s Monika Paulikiene and Aine Raupelyte — the first Lithuanian beach volleyball team to qualify for an Olympic Games — will be the de facto match to break pool. There is little question that Brazil’s Barbara and Carol and the Netherlands’ Katja Stam and Raisa Schoon will claim the top two spots in Pool E, but both Japan and Lithuania are sleepers primed to engineer an upset.

Men’s Olympic beach volleyball pool breakdown

Pool A: The Pool of Death

There isn’t a single pool that is unreasonably stacked, which is nice. It is a virtual guarantee that all of the top teams will be moving onto the playoff rounds. But Pool A, featuring Sweden’s David Ahman and Jonatan Hellvig, Italy’s Sam Cottafava and Paolo Nicolai, Tokyo bronze medalists Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan, and Australia’s Mark Nicolaidis and Izac Carracher, is, to me, the most difficult. At first blush, the Australians are the clear underdog, given they qualified via the Asian Continental Cup, but they’ve proven they can beat nearly everyone in the world.  And they did it recently. At the Espinho Elite16 in May, they not only qualified, but then went 3-0 in pool play, sweeping Germans Nils Ehlers and Clemens Wickler, Poland’s Bartosz Losiak and Michal Bryl, and the Netherlands’ Stefan Boermans and Yorick de Groot. Three wins like that, in consecutive order, do not happen on accident. They are a legitimate threat to beat anyone, and they’re peaking at just the right time — in their debut Olympic Games.

Sweden, meanwhile, has made nine consecutive finals, while Nicolai, a 2016 silver medalist, is competing in his fourth Olympic Games, and Qatar is the reigning bronze medalists.

As Pool B was for the women, so Pool A is must-watch TV for every single match for the men.

Pool D: The American Blessing 

If there is one pool players –`and, by extension, their friends and family and fans — hope to be in, it is that of the African Continental Cup winner. In this case, that’s Pool D, where Andy Benesh and Miles Partain are seeded No. 2. Now, to be clear, Partain and Benesh likely didn’t need the help of a relatively easy draw to break pool. They’re coming off a bronze medal at the Ostrava Elite16. But it certainly doesn’t hurt. They’ll still have to fend off familiar foes in Brazil’s George and Andre, against whom they are 1-3, and Cuba’s Jorge Alayo and Noslen Diaz, against whom they are 2-0, but if there is ever such thing in an Olympics as an easier match, it will be against Morocco’s Mohamed Abicha and Zouheir Elgaoui. To be clear, Abicha is a talented beach player, now in his second Olympic Games, and Elgraoui is a phenomenal athlete, but it is better to see a team with seven total tournaments of experience over eight years than it is, say, Nicolaidis and Carracher.

Pool F: Lights, Camera, Action

The moment Chase Budinger and Miles Evans qualified for the Olympic Games, the media circus went full send on the media circus. Budinger recently said that these past few weeks have been unlike anything he has ever experienced, receiving coverage from the New York Times, NBC, Yahoo!, Sports Illustrated, appeared on SportsCenter and everything in between. Every time he steps on the court, be it against France’s Arnaud Gauthier-Rat and Youssef Krou, the Netherlands’ Stefan Boermans and Yorick de Groot, or Spain’s Pablo Herrera and Adrian Gavira, it will be one of the most-viewed matches of the Games. Despite being seeded last, Budinger and Evans should be the odds-on favorites to finish second in Pool F, behind only Boermans and de Groot.

Krou will be coming off an injury that kept him out of the European Continental Cup, and Budinger and Evans are 2-1 against Spain, their most recent match coming at the Stare Jablonki Challenge in early June, a 21-19, 21-17 win.

Sleepers and other notes

Canadians Sam Schachter and Dan Dearing qualified via winning the NORCECA Continental Cup, making for Schachter’s second Olympic Games and Dearing’s first. They are in a favorable position to break out of Pool E, which boasts 2023 World Champs Ondrej Perusic and David Schweiner and Brazil’s white-hot pairing of Evandro Goncalves and Arthur Mariano — but also Austria’s Alex Horst and Julian Horl, who have been, at best, tepid this season, with a 9-13 record and three straight finishes outside of the top-10.


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