Gulf Shores, Alabama, USA, May 2, 2019 - When the American collegiate championships begin here Friday, the top-ranked beach volleyball pair on this southeastern Alabama beach located on the Gulf of Mexico will be participants born in Latvia and Argentina.
While the Argentinean is a citizen of the United States, Tina Graudina from Latvia still represents her home country on the international beach volleyball circuit where she will continue playing in two weeks in Brazil with Anastasija Kravcenoka.
But first, Graudina and Abril Bustamante will be the driving force behind the University of Southern California's bid to retake the NCAA Championship trophy back from cross-town rivals UCLA this weekend as the Women of Troy (28-4 dual record) are seeded first in the eight-school field followed by the Lady Bruins (31-3), Florida State (28-5), Pepperdine (20-9), Louisiana State (29-6), Cal Poly (25-10), Hawai’i (26-9) and Stetson (29-8).
According to CollegeBeachvb.com, Graudina and Bustamante are the top-ranked collegiate team with a 77.51 rating as the two have combined for a 30-2 record this season after posting a 31-2 record in 2018. Two of the pair's setbacks have been to the Canadian McNamara (Megan and Nicole) twins from UCLA.
While the 21-year-old Graudina is a sophomore at Southern California, Bustamante is a senior and will be graduating from USC where current FIVB World Tour standouts Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes earned their degrees in 2017 after leading the Women of Troy to the NCAA titles for two straight seasons.
Graudina (left) and Bustamante
Graudina found her way to Southern California when Women of Troy coach Anna Collier saw the 6-foot Latvian play in the 2014 FIVB Beach Volleyball Under-17 World Championships in Mexico with Linda Gramberga as the pair captured the bronze medal after losing in the semifinals to Americans Morgan and Martin Kathryn Plummer in three sets.
The 2017 FIVB Beach Volleyball Under-17 World Championship podium (left to right) with Americans Joy Dennis, Haley Hallgren, Morgan Martin and Kathryn Plummer, and Latvians Linda Gramberga and Tina Graudina.
“She was the best player in the tournament, but I had to wait two years before I could offer her a scholarship,” said Collier, who is completing her eighth season at USC with back-to-back national titles in 2016 and 2017 when Bustamante was a freshman and sophomore compiling a 49-13 match mark with two different partners.
While Bustamante moved full-time to the United States in 2002 when she was five after living in both Argentina and Spain with her parents, Graudina's first international trip was to the 2017 under-17 worlds in Mexico. “It was an amazing experience,” said Graudina. “It was one of my best two experiences in beach volleyball as I earned my first FIVB medal in Acapulco. I had no expectations and the whole trip was filled with positive emotions.”
A fifth place at the 2017 European Championships with current Latvian partner Kravcenoka was listed by Graudina as another memorable moment. “It happened in my hometown where all my friends and family came and we played our best volleyball,” said the USC sophomore that participated six years in track and field as a heptathlete.
Graudina said her experience at USC has helped her “Internationally. I prepare and train for eight months to get the peak performance only for one weekend at the NCAA finals. It's almost more the mental aspect of it than anything else because you already know your opponent so well and have a history with them. But, the pressure for that single weekend has been building up for many months before that.”
As for her international experience, Graudina stated that her World Tour participation “Definitely prepares me! Playing in qualification rounds and experiencing both the wins and losses toughened me and gave me the passion to play by seeing the other top teams. These experiences definitely shaped me as a player.”
With Latvia having two of the world’s top men’s team in Aleksandrs Samoilovs/Janis Smedins (No. 3 internationally) and Martins Plavins/Edgars Tocs (No. 10), Graudina said the relationship with those two pairs is “Close. We all train together. I am very grateful we have the opportunity to be friends with them and I definitely look up to them.”
Tocs, Kravcenoka, Graudina and Plavins after winning medals at a 2018 CEV event in Pelhrimov, Czech Republic
While Graudina is thinking mostly about the NCAA Championships this weekend, she is looking forward to the future as she resumes FIVB World Tour action in two weeks at the Itapema Open in Brazil with Kravcenoka. While a spot in the 2019 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Germany is uncertain, Graudina and Kravcenoka are pointing to Tokyo 2020 and qualifying for the Olympics.
Kravcenoka (left) and Graudina
“Right now, I am focused with the rest of my team on winning the NCAA Championships,” said Graudina. “However, I am looking forward to returning to the FIVB World Tour and playing with Anastasija. Our goal is Tokyo. The competition is fierce and my preparations at USC has made me a better player.”
The fourth annual NCAA Championships features school vs. school competition with five matches per dual with a team needing three victories to win the match. Here's Friday's opening schedule for the double-elimination event that will be televised by the ESPN Networks with the finals scheduled for 1 p.m. (Central time USA) on Sunday.
9 a.m. - USC vs. Stetson; 10 a.m. - Pepperdine vs. LSU; 11 a.m. - UCLA vs. Hawai’i; 12 p.m. - Florida State vs. Cal Poly.
American Olympic medal winners Dain Blanton (Sydney 2000 gold with Eric Fonoimoana) and Holly McPeak (Athens 2004 bronze with Elaine Youngs) provide the commentary. Fonoimoana is currently a volunteer coach at USC while American Olympic champion Todd Rogers (Beijing 2008 with Phil Dalhausser) leads the Cal Poly program and Athens 2004 Olympian Stein Metzger guides the UCLA squad.
The ESPN NCAA crew (from left to right) features Holly Rowe, Courtney Lyle, Same Gore, Dain Blanton, Holly McPeak and Dawn Davenport