Laura Ludwig (left) and Kira Walkenhorst became the first European women to win an Olympic medal, and made it gold
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 20, 2016 – After the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games there is little doubt that Europe’s leading sides are now no longer the underdogs when they face the traditional powers from Brazil and the USA.
Germany’s Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst won women’s gold at Rio 2016. In doing so they became the first European women’s team to win an Olympic medal of any colour and followed in the footsteps of compatriots and London 2012 champions Julius Brink and Jonas Reckermann, who became the first European team to top the Olympic podium.
“I think it's really important for Germany,” Walkenhorst said after their victory. “After this, the Germans are getting more exposure and famous for beach volleyball.”
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Kerri Walsh Jennings
At London 2012 Brink and Reckermann were joined on the podium by men’s bronze medallists Janis Smedins and Martins Plavins to make it two European teams to win London 2012 medals, along with two USA teams – Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor and April Ross and Jennifer Kessy – and two Brazilian teams – Emanuel Rego and Alison Cerutti and Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta.
At Rio 2016 the split was even. Three European medallists, two from Brazil and one from the USA. As well as Ludwig and Walkenhorst, Italy’s Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai won men’s silver and the Netherlands’ Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen won men’s bronze.
“I think a couple of years ago in Europe the countries started with national programmes a little bit different from those in Brazil or the US,” Nicolai said. “We grew and now we can take on the Brazilians and Americans.”
It isn’t as though European teams are only peaking every four years at Olympics and between London 2012 and Rio 2016 because they were no strangers to success at major championships in the intervening years.
Brower and Meeuwsen were surprise victors of the Mazury 2013 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships, with a win over Brazil’s Ricardo Santos and Alvaro Filho in the final.
Germany’s Jonathan Erdmann and Kay Matysik won bronze, while their compatriots Karla Borger and Britta Buthe won women’s silver.
Two years on at the Netherlands 2015 World Championships, the tables turned. Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas led a Brazil sweep of the women’s medals, while the Netherlands Reinder Nummerdor and Christiaan Varenhorst won silver between Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt and Pedro Salgado and Evandro Goncalves.
Furthermore, Latvia’s Janis Smedins and Aleksandrs Samoilovs won the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour in 2013 and 2014 and Ludwig and Walkenhorst are the current women’s leaders.
“I don’t think we have to talk about it anymore, just Brazil and America,” Brouwer said. “Of course it is where the sport originated, but if you talk about the sport and results we are on an even level.”
Despite Europe’s rise Alison and Bruno’s Rio 2016 triumph was a Brazilian men’s team’s first victory since Athens 2004, which was also the last time a Brazilian women’s team reached the gold medal match before Agatha and Barbara did so at Copacabana Beach.
It is also a bit early to write the obituary for US beach volleyball. Walsh Jennings and Ross have won four World Tour events this year and Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena won five golds and five silver after teaming up in August 2015 to book their place in Rio 2016.
It means that beach volleyball fans can enjoy an ever-growing field of teams that can beat anyone and means that the upcoming FIVB World Tour Finals in Toronto will be another fiercely fought competition with teams pushing themselves to ever greater heights.