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Wickler made his first Olympic appearance last year in Tokyo

For a couple of hours last October, Clemens Wicker didn’t know where his career was headed. Just two months after his first appearance at the Olympic Games, in Tokyo, the German defender was struck by some difficult news he wasn’t expecting at all. His partner, 24-year-old Julius Thole had decided to retire.

Teammates for four seasons, Thole and Wickler had quickly become the top German team competing internationally and had enjoyed a lot of success together. They won five medals (three silver, two bronze) in 28 events around the world. In a stellar 2019 season, the pair claimed silver in front of their home fans at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Hamburg. They also earned the ‘Most Improved Team’ award of the year.

With the two players in their mid-twenties, it seemed that several seasons competing among the elite of the sport were still ahead of them. But all of a sudden, that changed.

“I was shocked when Julius told me he had decided to retire,” Wickler told Volleyball World. “He explained the reasons behind his decision and I fully understood, but I wasn’t expecting it at all. I couldn’t think straight for a few hours, my head was spinning.”

Just as quickly as the news hit him, Wickler figured out he had an important decision to make. With the inaugural season of the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour quickly approaching in 2022, he needed to select a partner to continue his international career.

Luckily for him, he didn’t have to think much to find a suitable solution. Arguably the second-best German blocker (behind Thole) 28-year-old Nils Ehlers was in a similar situation after his partner, Lars Fluggen, also ended his career.

“When I first started thinking about a new partner, Nils was the only name that came to mind,” Wickler explained. “I told my coaches he was the one I wanted to play with and they agreed he was the best option. I know I put him in a difficult situation when I invited him to play with me, because he had just gotten a new partner in Sven Winter. But I was glad he decided to walk out of that, because he trusted our potential as a team.”

Wickler and Ehlers are officially partners since October, but they haven't been able to train together consistently. A military athlete, Wickler had to fulfill various commitments between November and December and was away from the German Federation’s training facility in Hamburg for an extended period of time.

After he returned, the two finally reunited and took part in a training camp in Tenerife, Spain, last month. It’s been a process, but the Germans are slowly gelling as a team and understanding each other’s game.

“I believe we have great potential together,” Wickler reflected. “We are still adjusting some things and working on our sets, but I think we can be a great team. Nils is very different to Julius as a player, but we’re understanding each other better. He’s very physical and is an excellent server. I think that’s something that will help us a lot. Serving has become more and more important in beach volleyball and I think he’s one of the best servers out there.”

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Wickler (right) and Ehlers battle at the net as opponents in 2019

The new team’s debut is expected to take place next month, at the Beach Pro Tour Elite 16 event in Rosarito, Mexico. But the long-term goal, of course, is to qualify for the Paris 2024 Games.

The two are very aware that the more they play together, the better they will get. But at the same time, they believe they have what it takes to have a successful first season together to build from.

“We understand we’re a new team, but there are big tournaments coming up in 2022, especially the World Championships in Rome and the European Championships in my hometown Munich, and we want to be ready for them,” Wickler added. “Besides making the adjustments we need to make as new partners, we’re also working on some changes in our technique and that takes time. We know we’ll be better in 2023 than we will be in 2022, but Nils and I are both very ambitious and we believe we can play good beach volleyball and be competitive this year already.”