Klagenfurt, Austria, July 27, 2016 - After years of watching and admiring Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst from afar, Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes were about to step on the same Beach Volleyball court as the German Olympians.
“It was just fun,” the 21-year-old Hughes said. “But I have so much respect for (them) and like Kelly, I love watching them on FIVB. It was surreal to be actually on the court competing against her.”
In Wednesday’s A1 Major Klagenfurt, the wild-card United States duo, who just finished their third year at the University of Southern California, did more than compete against the top-seeded Ludwig and Walkenhorst.
Hughes and Claes recovered from an early 16-13 deficit and then went on to defeat Ludwig and Walkenhorst, 21-18, 21-19, as pool play opened in the main draw of the SWATCH Major Series tournament, one of the most popular events on the FIVB World Tour.
They weren’t done there, however. Later in the day, they knocked off another Olympic team, defeating Canada’s Jamie Lynn Broder and Kristina Valjas, 21-17, 21-17.
Internationally, Claes and Hughes are unknown but their work at the collegiate level has been phenomenal. In the past two seasons at USC, they have a 92-3 match record and have won their past 73 matches.
A week ago, Claes and Hughes put the finishing touches on their World University Games championship in Estonia, which came on the heels of them help their school capture the first NCAA Beach Volleyball national championship, before heading to Austria.
They earned a wild card berth into the main draw in Klagenfurt and discovered Tuesday night that their first match would be against the German team that had already won four gold medals on this season’s World Tour, not to mention the European Championship.
They went in undaunted.
“We were talking about the match last night,” the 20-year-old Claes said. “We were like ‘Hey, let’s just have fun, let’s do our thing.’ We want to see how we match up against everybody. We want to play against the best and our pool is the best, so it’s exciting to see that we can compete with everybody.”
Two kills by Claes and a shot into the net from Walkenhorst tied the first set and the Germans called a timeout. The young Americans traded points, then took a 20-18 lead on a net-trickling ace by Hughes, then Walkenhorst’s next shot went long.
Claes and Hughes were not satisfied and went in for the kill, taking an 8-5 lead in the second set that forced another timeout from Ludwig and Walkenhorst. It didn’t help them and the collegians extended their lead to as many as six points, then held on for the victory.
They never lost their poise, even when Ludwig came up with amazing digs and Walkenhorst served up a storm. Hughes was even alert when Ludwig would try to catch them off guard.
“I love watching her play,” Hughes said of Ludwig. “Her over-on-ones, it was kind of fun because I’m a defender too, and on the court you kind of battle it out and she was trying to go over on one and I would go and dig it.”
They jumped into each other’s arms after the final point, posed for pictures and soaked in the moment of the first time they had ever stepped on the court in a main draw for an FIVB World Tour event. The duo had lost their only qualifying match last year at the Long Beach Grand Slam.
“Kelly and I were talking about it when we found out our pool and we were playing the No. 1 seed first. We love that,” Hughes said. “We don’t consider that a bad thing. We want to take that opportunity and get to play an Olympic team and see where we meet up against them. That’s a cool thing for us. I think we got the crowd going a little bit and everyone had fun watching. It was just a really fun match to play.”
Not long after that, their phones started popping. Family and friends from California were up at 3 a.m. to watch the streaming video of the match.
They made headlines when they met April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings in the AVP San Francisco Open last month and nearly defeated the Olympic medalists in one match, at one point holding a 13-11 lead in the third set.
“Honestly, we were there to play April and Kerri,” Hughes said. “We wanted to see how we matched up against them and seeing that we were able to play at that level, and now that we’re here . . . being so close to them, I thought, ‘Wow, we could do well out here.’ ”
All they did was beat two Olympic teams.
“It’s unreal,” Claes said, laughing almost in disbelief. Almost.