May 22 was a seminal day for a pair of teams living across the planet from one another, competing in a country far from home. In the finals of the Kusadasi Challenger were young Swedes Jonathan Hellvig and David Ahman, and the upstart Australian team of Chris McHugh and Paul Burnett. Neither had ever made a final in an event bigger than a two-star, nor had either team made it to the medal rounds under the new Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour system.

Yet there they were, competing in an excellent final in Kusadasi, with Ahman and Hellvig jump-setting their way to gold, winning 19-21, 21-18, 15-12.

Three days later, neither would even make it out of the qualifier of the Ostrava Elite16.

Such is the brutal nature of the Elite16 events, a tournament so competitive and deep that the top two teams from just a week prior finished tied for 17th. There are many factors, of course, for this dip in play – the travel, the fatigue from competing in as many matches as possible in Türkiye, the adrenaline dump and emotional volatility that comes with matches of the highest magnitude, then having to compete immediately after, in an even more difficult tournament.

But it simply cannot be ignored that, in Elite16s, fans and players alike are treated to medal-worthy matches in qualifiers.

This week in Jurmala, Latvia, host of the second consecutive Elite16 on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour schedule, will be no different. And it will be, as all of these Elite16s are in this rapidly shifting leaderboard, replete with fascinating storylines to follow.

Tri Bourne (USA)

Tri Bourne (USA)

Can the American men pull themselves out of their international slump?

Thus far, this has been the worst start to a season for the American federation – for the men – in recent memory. The only medals on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour have come in Futures events, both thanks to Miles Evans, who has won a pair of silvers with Andy Benesh (in Thailand) and Logan Webber (in Greece). But at the Challenger and Elite16 level? A single fifth-place finish from Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner in Itapema has been the most noteworthy.

The slump has had consequences, too: Just two teams, Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander, and Schalk and Brunner, qualified for next week’s World Championships.

Wednesday’s qualifier is a prime opportunity for the Americans to begin finding their way, with Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb seeded second, Troy Field and Chase Budinger No. 11, and Crabb and Sander No. 13. It is just the second Beach Pro Tour event for Crabb and Sander, one of the most intriguing, must-watch teams in the American federation. Their previous event came at the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour, in Tlaxcala, Mexico, where they fell in the final round of the qualifier to Saymon Barbosa and Bruno Schmidt. They’re trending upwards, with a recent second-place finish in the New Orleans AVP stop, as are Field and Budinger, who qualified for their first Volleyball World main draw in Kusadasi, finished ninth, then claimed third in New Orleans.

Bourne and Crabb, too, have gained a bit of momentum back. After a brutal nineteenth in Kusadasi, a finish that nudged them out of World Championships, they returned with a ninth in Ostrava, where they beat Burnett and McHugh and lost a narrow ninth-place match to Qatar’s Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan.

Evandro and Alvaro (Photo: William Lucas/Inovafoto/CBV)

Evandro and Alvaro (Photo: William Lucas/Inovafoto/CBV)

Will Evandro and Alvaro hit their stride?

When the Tokyo Olympics finished, Evandro and Alvaro wasted little time in announcing their new partnership together. Immediately, they could have been considered medal favorites for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Their lack of success thus far has been shocking.

In six tournaments as a team, their best finish is fifth, in Kusadasi. The following week, in Ostrava, they were thoroughly handled by Italians Paolo Nicolai and Sam Cottafava, 19-21, 7-21. There is, on paper, little that could suggest why. Perhaps they are simply working through the new partnership chemistry. When they find it, they could reinsert themselves into the medal conversations. Perhaps that will come in Jurmala.

Mathias Berntsen (Norway) in defence

Mathias Berntsen (Norway) in defence

Can the hot teams remain hot?

The aforementioned Italian duo of Sam Cottafava and Paolo Nicolai has been arguably the most successful assemblage of a new team on the Beach Pro Tour this season. Seeded first in the Jurmala qualifier, the Italians already have a silver medal together, at the Doha Challenger, and have knocked off a who’s-who of some of the top teams in the world: Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, Steven van de Velde and Christiaan Varenhorst, Esteban and Marco Grimalt, Stefan Boermans and Yorick de Goot, Alvaro and Evandro. They’re on a torrid run, one that seems to only be getting hotter as Cottafava’s development continues.

Norway’s Hendrik Mol and Mathias Berntsen are not a new team, as the Italians are, but they are playing arguably the best beach volleyball in their four-year partnership. In Kusadasi, they finished fifth, landing convincing wins over Italian Olympians Enrico Rossi and Adrian Carambula and young Chileans Noe Aravena and Vicente Droguett. Can the eighth-seeded Norwegians continue the run at the Elite16 level?

AVP Austin - Women's champions Taryn Kloth (L), Kristen Nuss (R)

AVP Austin - Women's champions Taryn Kloth (L), Kristen Nuss (R)

Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth: Elite

Kristen Nuss’ and Taryn Kloth’s international career began buried so far deep down the reserve list for the Coolangatta Futures event at the end of March that many in the United States wondered if they’d be able to stick together at all this season, or if they’d have to briefly split, grab a partner with international points, and rejoin when they had assembled enough to get in together. But then the reserve list wilted away in Australia, and Nuss and Kloth wound up seeded eleventh in the qualifier. They capitalized on the good fortune, winning every match in Coolangatta, picking up a gold medal and 400 precious points.

Somehow, they’ve only gotten better. They qualified in the Itapema Challenger and finished ninth, won the AVP season-opener in Austin, Texas, then hopped on a plane and won again in Kusadasi, stunning Australians Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy in the finals. Another plane, another weekend, another final, in New Orleans for the second AVP stop, where they finished second. And, lest you thought they might have a moment to rest and celebrate their early successes, they’re hopping on yet another plane, this one bound for Jurmala, where they are seeded eleventh in the qualifier of their first Elite16.

Welcome back to the Beach Pro Tour, Ukraine

With the current state of the world, and Russia at war with Ukraine, it has made it exceptionally difficult for Ukrainian athletes to travel and continue competing on the Beach Pro Tour (and other sporting endeavors that require international travel). But Ukraine is back to competing, with a pair of teams in the Jurmala qualifier: No. 12 Inna Makhno and Iryna Makhno, No. 14 and Anhelina Khmil and Tetiana Lazarenko.

New Zealand’s Shaunna Polley and Alice Zeimann make their Elite debut

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic – and the year or two prior, as well – Shaunna Polley and Alice Zeimann saved up their funds to make a push on the international tour. The two have flown up the rankings, with six consecutive top-10 finishes in 2021, highlighted by a gold medal in the Cortegaca one-star. A pair of fifths have followed in 2022, both in Futures events. Now they’re making the leap into the Elite16, seeded eighth in the qualifier.