Local Contenders: Kelly Cheng/Sara Hughes, California

Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC highlights the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, as they work for the chance to represent their country in the Olympic Games in Paris 2024. Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to the biggest stage of their sports, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit for more stories from across the United States as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in the summer of 2024.

He kelly cheng and sara hughes The beach volleyball association is like something out of a Hollywood script.

Both born in 1995, they grew up in Southern California, the spiritual home of the sport, amid the backdrop of beach volleyball’s Olympic debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Now, they are the premier US beach team, tasked with extending a streak that dates back to 1996. The US has won at least one beach volleyball medal in all seven Olympic Games, including gold in six of those Games.

It’s no stretch to imagine Cheng and Hughes reaching the podium in Paris next year, then carrying that momentum to the 2028 Los Angeles Games. In the first Summer Games in the US since 1996, beach volleyball will be one of the most popular events, both in popularity and temperature, and will take place in a 12,000-seat stadium on the beach in Santa Monica.

Hughes, seven months older than Cheng and four inches shorter, grew up playing in Huntington Beach. three times olympic champion Misty May Treanor often a few more courts are practiced.

“My older coach said, ‘If you want to be the best, you have to see the best,’” said Hughes, who hung a May-Treanor poster on his bedroom wall. “Then he would sit me down and watch her play.”

May-Treanor became a mentor, briefly coaching Cheng and Hughes’ varsity team, and continues to support them with postgame text messages.

Cheng (née Claes), from Placentia, a little further inland, kept her focus on hard courts (indoor volleyball, basketball) until the middle of high school. She verbally committed to playing indoors for Long Beach State, but a coach suggested that she try hitting balls in the sand because the NCAA was in the process of starting to sponsor the sport.

Around this time, Cheng met Hughes. “She took me under her wing,” Cheng said.

They played youth tournaments together and in 2013 they came third at the under-19 world championship in Porto, Portugal. Cheng had an epiphany. Her trainer took her aside, told her to freeze and enjoy the atmosphere.

Do you want to be a gym rat for the rest of your life? he asked.

“I thought that was my game plan,” said Cheng, who as a teenager broke his spine and underwent cardiac ablation to treat supraventricular tachycardia.

After prayers and conversations with her parents, Cheng signed to play beach volleyball for USC and joined Hughes. They were nicknamed “Cardinals and Golds” for their school colors and their hair.

“I don’t know if my body would have held up if I played indoors, but I think I’m going to have a very, very long career on the beach,” Cheng said. “And I love that this is a two-person sport. There is no substitution. There is no hiding. You have to be able to do everything.”

Cheng and Hughes filled a need for USA Beach Volleyball when there was an opportunity for new talent. May-Treanor retired after the 2012 Olympics and Kerri Walsh-Jennings and april ross they were 30 years old in the mid-2010s.

Between winning NCAA beach titles with USC in 2016 and 2017, they were the only team to win a set from Walsh Jennings and Ross in the AVP game leading up to the Rio Games. Hughes even turned down Walsh Jennings’ offer to partner.

But as with any script, there must be a catch.

Cheng and Hughes separated in 2018.

“It was a lot of the unknown and being young and a little bit immature and listening to maybe outside forces and not really knowing how to deal with things,” Hughes said last October.

Hughes paired with summer ross for a Tokyo Olympic bid that ended after Ross’s back injury in 2019. Cheng later teamed with the UCLA Bruin sara sponcilhe defeated Walsh Jennings for the final US Olympic berth and lost in the round of 16.

Then last year, Cheng reached out to Hughes to ask about the meeting.

“Kelly and I were attracted to each other and we knew the time was right again,” Hughes said in October.

When Cheng and Hughes announced their reformed partnership last fall, they were instantly favorites for one of two US spots for the Paris Games.

april ross and alix klinman, the Tokyo gold medalists, are unlikely to play together again. Ross, 40, is now training and will give birth to her first child in October, though she hasn’t closed the door on a return to competition. Klineman, 33, also has her first child this year. Either could return for a last-second Olympic bid, though the window to earn ranking points has already begun.

Cheng and Hughes won their first four tournaments together last fall between the AVP domestic and FIVB international tours. One of their goals is to become the first Americans to win the world championships since 2009. The worlds are in Mexico in October.

In Paris, beach volleyball will be played at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Then, for LA in 2028, both the sport and Cheng and Hughes will return home to where the modern game began nearly 100 years ago.

Cheng and Hughes train in what they call “a hidden pocket” in Hermosa Beach, but they can always find women or men to play against. In the Strand, people often stop them and congratulate them on a recent victory.

“It’s deeply ingrained in our culture,” Hughes said.

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