Move over, USA.
Brazil, with numerous top players in the primes of their careers, appears to have taken over as the world’s beach volleyball superpower.
Since beach volleyball was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1996, the U.S. has been dominant, winning three of five gold medals in the men’s competition and doing the same in the women’s tournament.
During Wednesday’s pool play of this week’s Swatch FIVB World Tour Finals at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park, the USA went 2-1 against Brazilian teams, winning the only men’s matchup and splitting on the women’s side.
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Still, most of the American stars who won those Olympic gold medals have since retired.
The women’s team of Misty May and Kerri Walsh, which won gold in the past three Olympics, was broken up by the former’s retirement. Walsh, 37, is trying to return to the Olympics with a different partner, but she is currently out due to shoulder surgery.
On the men’s side, only 6-foot-9 Phi Dalhausser — known as the “Thin Beast” — remains active, although the 35-year-old has been slowed by injuries and is competing at this week’s event as a wild card rather than as part of one of the top eight teams.
Meanwhile, Brazil, which has won a total of 11 medals in the Olympics but only two gold — one for the women in 1996 and one for the men in 2004 — is hungry to replace the USA at the top of the podium.
That’s especially true since Brazil will host the Olympics next year.
Brazil has the top two men’s teams in the world and the top two women’s teams, and all four have already qualified for the Olympics.
Brazil’s Pedro Solberg, 29, who has already qualified for the 2016 Games with teammate Evandro Goncalves, 25, said the Americans should not be dismissed so easily.
“I hope USA and Brazil can keep fighting for the gold as we have been doing,” Solberg said. “Those guys are great. I’ve been playing against them for years.
“I don’t know what’s coming up [in terms of future American stars], but it must be somebody really good at the university [level]. We don’t really have that here in Brazil because our players turn pro after high school.
“In the U.S., it may take more time. But once they are here, they will show how good they are.”
Maybe so, but the USA no longer has a top-four men’s or women’s team. The top team overall is the fifth-ranked duo of Jake Gibb, 39, and Casey Patterson, 35. This figures to be their last Olympics, assuming they qualify.
Meanwhile, Brazil has the top two men’s teams in the world and the top two women’s teams, and all four have already qualified for the Olympics.
On the men’s side, they have Solberg-Goncalves, as well as Bruno Oscar Schmidt, 28, and Alison Cerutti, 29. For the women, it’s Larissa Franca, 33, and Talita Antunes, 33, as well as reigning FIVB world champions Barbara Seixas, 28, and Agatha Bednarczuk, 32.
Of those eight Brazilians, only Cerutti (silver in 2012) and Franca (bronze in 2012) have won Olympic medals.
Solberg said he and his fellow Brazilians are still trying to grow the sport of beach volleyball in their soccer-crazy country.
“We have good players, but we could promote the sport better,” Solberg said. “In Brazil, soccer takes up 99 percent of the pages in the newspaper.”
Beach volleyball, however, never had to fight for attention with futbol in the Solberg household growing up in Rio de Janeiro. That’s because his mother is Isabel Salgado, a former pro volleyball player won won the FIVB event the last time it was in South Florida in 1994.
Solberg was 8 years old at the time, but he remembers that Miami Beach event well because his mother came home bearing gifts.
“She bought me water skis and a bike and a video game for my sisters,” Solberg said. “I was so happy for her. But I was happy for me, too.”
Salgado is still involved in beach volleyball. She now coaches her daughters, Maria Clara, 32, and Carolina, 28, both of whom play in the world tour but did not qualify for this week’s tournament.
“My parents always gave me a lot of options growing up,” Solberg said. “I swam and took piano and guitar lessons. But I always knew I wanted to play beach volleyball.”