Vienna, Austria, July 24, 2017 - Watch out, Germany. Germany is gaining on you.
When Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst cemented their spot on top of the world by winning the Rio 2016 Olympic gold medal, the Germans also established the fact that they would be the team that the rest of the world would take aim at on the 2017 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour.
They didn’t have to look to the shores of Brazil or across the Atlantic to the USA to find one chief rival. All they have to do is step onto their practice court in Hamburg and see the future.
Chantal Laboureur and Julia Sude certainly have plenty of incentive as they begin the next quadrennial of Olympic qualification. The German duo was narrowly edged out of the Rio de Janeiro Games when Britta Buthe and Karla Borger took their country’s second and final spot.
In the closing days of the 2016 season, Laboureur and Sude took a bronze medal at the FIVB Long Beach Grand Slam, then went to Latvia and captured the CEV European Jurmala Masters gold medal.
Their work wasn’t done. They hit the off-season training hard and opened the 2017 season with a bronze medal finish in the Fort Lauderdale Major. Earlier this month, they polished off Olympians Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes to capture gold at the Gstaad Major with an undefeated run through seven matches, dropping only one set along the way.
“So far, the season is going quite well,” said Laboureur, 27. “We already won one bronze and one gold in the Major Series. On the European Tour we won a medal, so we cannot complain.”
“Every tournament, we have some strategies we want to build inside the game and want to use,” said Sude, 29. “Every tournament helps us to use it faster and help us recognize faster and easier.”
They’ll recognize their compatriots faster and easier in Vienna. Germany’s beach volleyball programme has advanced to the point where the women have five teams entered in the World Championships, the same as Brazil and one more than the USA.
As competitive as the German teams are in their national training center in Hamburg, the stakes in the FIVB World Championships will be more than which team owes the beer for the night. In the four-team Pool D in the tournament, three German teams will compete to advance (LudwigWalkenhorst, Karla Borger/Margareta Kozuch and Nadja Glenzke/Julia Grossner along with Mahassine Siad/Imane Zeroual of Morocco).
Laboureur and Sude are not in that pool along with compatriots Victoria Bieneck/Isabel Schneider, but it’s apparent that Germany is not only gaining on Germany, but on the rest of the world as well. It’s a fascinating scenario, since no European women’s team had earned an Olympic medal until Ludwig and Walkenhorst struck gold.
It should be noted that three teams in the same pool at a FIVB World Tour women's event is an oddity. It now has occurred 11 times as the 2017 FIVB World Championships is the 331st World Tour stop since the first sanctioned FIVB women's event in 1992.
Of the previous 10 stops with three teams from the same country in the same pool, German women have been involved three times with the last being in 2016 at the Chinese stop in Xiamen where Laboureur/Sude finished ahead of Borger/Britta Buthe and Victoria Bieneck/Julia Grossner.
Three German women's teams were in the same pool at the 2007 FIVB World Championships in the Swiss village of Gstaad where Helke Claasen/Antje Roder topped the group with Ludwig/Sara Goller Niedrig and Stephanie Pohl/Okka Rau placing second and third, respectively.
Now on a roll, Laboureur and Sude enter next week’s FIVB World Championships seeded No. 2 looking forward to playing in Austria in front of the fans that turned Klagenfurt into the “Capital of Beach Volleyball.”
“We are looking forward to Vienna because it is close to Germany and a lot of family members can come there,” Laboureur said. “It will be a big event I’m sure. I think we can expect a lot of spectators with a lot of loud voices and they know all the movements already. It’s really fun to play.”
And they have a little bit of payback in mind for the World Championships. In the 2015 event in The Hague, Laboureur and Sude went undefeated in pool play before being upended in the knockout round by Kazakhstan’s Irina Tsimbalova and Tatyana Mashkova.
“It’s our second World Championship and for sure we want to do better than our last,” Sude said. “I think we are well prepared. We are growing together as a team and we have collected a lot of experience and we are trying to build some small steps during the tournaments, to use our strategies faster and be more consistent. Hopefully we perform well in Vienna.”
As for Ludwig and Walkenhorst, they are slowly rounding into form after Ludwig underwent shoulder surgery in December. Walkenhorst is also nursing her hard-swinging shoulder back to health. And as always, Ludwig has not lost any of her famous enthusiasm.
“We need to definitely focus on us the next two weeks and get better every day,” said Ludwig. “We are trying to get more powerful and getting back the strengths we had and putting a lot of energy in our things. We saw here (at the FIVB President’s Cup in Long Beach) a little bit of it but we definitely want to make them better.
“We just want to focus on us and believe in us. We know we can play good, we know we can perform really well. We just need to throw away the other weeks when we couldn’t compete. But everything is fine now.”
The Germans will be greeted by some familiar faces and some not-so-familiar teams. Brazilians Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas, who captured World Championship gold in 2015 and Olympic silver in Rio, have new partners, as do Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross.
But Larissa and Talita, who took fourth in Rio, still loom as legends standing in the way.
“Rio was not what we expected, but that’s OK,” Talita said. “We did our best at that time and now is a new year and we’re thinking about the World Championships. This year, the most important thing for us is the World Championships.”
And little seems to get beach volleyball players more amped up than playing in front of Austria’s fans.
“I know about Klagenfurt, I know about the fans, I know about the crowd, I know they can make a lot of noise,” Talita said. “They love beach volleyball and I heard that in Vienna, there are more (fans). I think they will be great.”