If determination and success were built into human form, that human would be Phoenix native Sarah Sponcil. Her longtime commitment to the sport of beach volleyball has landed Sponcil and her teammate Kelly Claes a spot at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Sarah grew up in Phoenix, attending St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School and Veritas Prep. After graduation, she attended Loyola Marymount University in California for three years before transferring to UCLA her senior year. Her volleyball career, however, started way before school did.
“Sarah started playing volleyball at the age of three. She would be outside bumping the ball around with her older sister, Rebecca, and her dad,” Sarah’s mom, Lisa, said.
Her father was instrumental in getting her volleyball career started. He coached Sarah in middle school, high school and club volleyball. He would stay with Sarah in California every summer for two months while she practiced and played in numerous beach volleyball tournaments.
She joined the Arizona Sky Indoor Volleyball Club when she was seven, started playing beach volleyball when she was nine, and later transferred to Spiral Volleyball Club when she was 14.
“Sarah and her dad would hang out before elementary school on the basketball courts and practice setting the volleyball into the basketball hoop. This happened every single day,” Lisa said.
Training didn’t stop there; it only got more intense as her love for the game grew. She practiced indoor volleyball for her elementary and high school teams, and then would head to her indoor club practice, where she would practice for two or three more hours.
Sarah won her first open tournament at Victory Lanes in North Phoenix at 10 years old. At 15, she competed in the California Beach Volleyball Association tournaments.
“She was invited to train with the USA National Beach Team when she was 16 years old. At that point, she would stay in California for two months, training and competing in various USA and CBVA tournaments,” Lisa said.
Sarah has received numerous accolades over the years, including three state volleyball championships for Veritas Prep, being named Small School Player of the Year three years in a row and Gatorade Player of the Year two years in a row.
She also won two NCAA National Championships in beach volleyball while attending UCLA.
Lisa recalls when it was apparent her daughter’s next goal was to compete in the Olympics.
“Sarah had created a collage of AVP [Association of Volleyball Professionals] and Olympic beach volleyball players – her idols – that hung above her bed. We got her the Olympic Rings to hang above the collage. I think at that time she was starting to dream about the Olympics,” Lisa said.
Sarah’s first taste of competing at the Olympic level was when she played with Olympian Lauren Fendrick in her first AVP game in 2018 and finished second place.
“She told us that she could hang with the pros after that,” Lisa said.
Her training and volleyball career peaked when Sarah and her partner were invited to compete at the Olympic qualifier in Russia: the Sochi FIVB 4-star tournament in May 2021. They won gold and headed to the second place spot.
After Sochi, there was one more Olympic qualification tournament that the U.S. teams needed to do well in to make it to Tokyo. It was held in Ostrava, Czech Republic, in June.
Sarah and Kelly beat out longtime champions and previous Olympic competitors Kerri Walsh and Brooke Sweat in the qualifiers and the two headed to Tokyo.
The games started July 23, with beach volleyball beginning the following day. At the start, there were six pools of four teams. Sarah and Kelly played each team in their pool once, with one match played every other day. Each game consists of the best two out of three games.
The top three teams from each pool then head to single eliminations matches, where teams must win every game or be eliminated.
“We were in shock when we found out she was going to the Olympics,” Lisa said. “We started crying. It was surreal. I was so happy that all of her hard work over the years paid off.”