German Women gain glory, Copacabana gold

It’s the morning after and the followers of Beach Volleyball around the world are still in “awe” of the performance by Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany in dominating the top two-seeded women’s pairs in the Rio 2016 Olympic competition to spoil what was to be a Brazilian beach party on the sands of Copacabana early Thursday morning.

With a pair of back-to-back 2-0 wins over Brazilian medal favorites top-seeded Talita Antunes/Larissa Franca (21-18, 21-12, 36 minutes) and second-seeded Agatha Bednarczuk/Barbara Seixas (21-18, 21-14, 43) , the fourth-seeded Ludwig and Walkenhorst become the first European women’s
team to not only win an Olympic Beach Volleyball medal, but to also top a “Summer” Games podium.

With threatening weather surrounding the 12,000-seat “Coliseu on Copacabana” where play can be impacted by windy conditions, the first set in the gold medal contest was close with 10 ties and five lead changes before Ludwig and Walkenhorst broke from a 13-13 tie to take a 17-13 lead.  From that point on, the Germans were in control as the wind picked up during the “midnight madness” match.

“We said, ‘We’ll take the storm and make our own storm,'” said Ludwig after the match as the 30-year old was playing in her third Olympics after competing with Sara Goller Niedrig where the pair placed ninth in the Beijing 2008 and fifth in the London 2012 Summer Games.  And as the 25-year old
Walkenhorst added, “the more pressure we had, the better we played.”

“Storm” indeed was created by the Germans in the competition as Ludwig and Walkenhorst finished the Rio 2016 Olympic Games with a 7-0 record as the pair dropped only one of 15 sets in the competition to Laura Giombini and Marta Menegatti of Italy (2-1, 21-18, 18-21, 15-9, 51 minutes) in a “meaningless” Pool D match.  In their other six Rio matches, the Germans average set win was 21-13 with each contest lasting an average of 34 minutes.

Two-time European champions together, Ludwig and Walkenhorst started Rio Olympic group play with back-to-back wins over teams from Egypt and Canada.  The Germans were challenged briefly in their opening elimination bracket match by Isabelle Forrer and Anouk Verge-Depre before winning 2-0
(21-19, 21-10) in 34 minutes.

Stats-wise, the Germans’ quick disposal of their opponent lessen their numbers as Ludwig and Walkenhorst finished second in service winners (25), third in successful attacks (165 of 272, 61 percent), and fourth in both blocking (21) and digging (82).

Individually, Walkenhorst was second in point scoring (120), third in service winners (14), second in successful attacks (85 of 134, 63 percent) and fourth in blocks (21).  Ludwig, who has been cited as the FIVB World Tour’s top defender (2011) and offensive player (2013), was third in digs

Despite having the lowest seeding among the four “finalists” with Americans April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings No. 3, Ludwig and Walkenhorst owned advantages in the head-to-heads with both Brazilians.  After the semi-final win over Talita/Larissa, the Germans are 4-1 with the team that was expected to win Copacabana quadrennial gold.  After the gold medal victory over Agatha/Barbara, Ludwig and Walkenhorst are 5-1 against Agatha and Barbara, the reigning FIVB world champions.

Only three teams held head-to-head advantages over Ludwig and Walkenhorst entering the Copacabana competition and Germans defeated one of the pairs (Heather Bansley/Sarah Pavan of Canada) in the quarterfinals (21-14, 21-14, 35).  The other two tandems with more wins than losses to the Germans were Ross/Walsh Jennings (5-1) and Madelein Meppelink/Marleen Van Iersel (4-3).

Talita and Larissa eliminated Meppelink and Van Iersel from the competition in the first-round of elimination while Agatha and Barbara stopped Ross and Walsh Jennings’ run for gold in the semi-finals.  Despite the Olympic seeding, Ross and Walsh Jennings had won four of the previous five matches with Agatha and Barbara before the Brazilians denied the Americans a shot at Ludwig and Walkenhorst by winning 2-0 (22-20, 21-18).

Germany has now won back-to-back Olympic championships as Ludwig and Walkenhorst joined London 2012 men’s gold medal winners Julius Brink and Jonas Reckermann in capturing “Summer” Games Beach Volleyball titles.

“My feeling was, ‘If they can do it, we can do it,’” said Ludwig, who was in the stands for the men’s final in London. “It’s a pity because never in a big tournament have we (German women) had this success.  But now, we are happy because we are the first women’s team from our country to medal in a big event.”

There was a common link between the two teams as Jürgen Wagner coached both pairs to Olympic gold medals.

“I am very pleased with the program we implemented with the girls worked,” said Wagner after the gold medal win.  “The four-year process was hindered due to Kira’s mononucleosis that forced her to miss most of the 2014 season (four events only).”  Ludwig added that the team was “not blown off
course, it made us even stronger.”

In addition to Wagner, Team Ludwig/Walkenhorst employed sport psychologist Anett Szigeti and trainer Helke Claasen.   “It all worked extremely well for the team without a name for themselves,” said Wagner.  For Ludwig, it was Wagner’s plan that worked.

“I said to Jürgen, it’s really weird that you know everything,” a jubilant Ludwig said early Thursday morning.  “I did not think that we could play so hot in the Olympics as Kira was playing for the first time.  But Jurgen managed us well along with our support staff.  I was speechless at first when asked about winning the gold medal.  But now, it was all about our preparation to reach our goal of winning a gold medal.  Kira played great and handled the pressure.  We are the Olympic champions!”

BRONZE MEDAL – Ross and Walsh Jennings rallied to win the bronze medal late Wednesday with a 2-1 (17-21, 21-17, 15-9) win in 54 minutes over Talita and Larissa.  Walsh Jennings and Ross repeat Olympic podium placers.  Walsh Jennings won Olympic gold in Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012 with Misty May-Treanor.  The London title win was over compatriots Ross and Jen Kessy.