Could Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho del Solar become the first pairing since Nat Cook and Kerri Pottharst at Sydney 2000 to win an Olympic medal for Australia in beach volleyball?
Taliqua Clancy, who’s considered to be one of the best players in the world, is one half of Australia’s beach volleyball duo of Clancy and Mariafe Artacho del Solar.
Despite only coming together six months ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Games – where they won silver in front of a home crowd on the Gold Coast – their success has only continued to grow. Now with multiple wins on the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) World Tour and even a World Championship bronze medal, there are high hopes the duo could come away with an Olympic medal at Tokyo 2020.
“My first Olympics was at the home of beach volleyball,” Clancy, who went to Rio 2016, told Tokyo 2020. “I still feel a bit bittersweet, though. We made it to the quarter-finals, which is just short of medal rounds.
“So I definitely still feel like I can see myself and Mariafe on top of that podium. Fingers crossed that Tokyo will go ahead next year.”
Growing up 200km from the beach
The town of Kingaroy, which is situated 210km (nearly a 2.5 hour drive) from Brisbane, is famously known for one particular thing. To many Australian's it’s called the ‘Peanut Capital of Australia’ but for Clancy it is also home.
So how did a girl from regional Queensland, with no beach in sight, come to be a beach volleyball player?
After being talent identified in high school, Clancy moved to Brisbane at the age of 15 for training at the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) on a scholarship before eventually moving to Adelaide, South Australia just two years later to join Australia’s volleyball program.
As Clancy explained, moving from indoor to beach volleyball is the “normal pathway” in Australia but it also gave her the option to have a shot at going to an Olympic Games – something she had been dreaming about from a young age.
Clancy had always had the goal of becoming a professional athlete - a dream that began while watching sports on television - but it was the Olympic Games Sydney 2000 that had the biggest impact on the then eight-year-old.
“I think as soon as you watch footy [rugby league] and stuff on TV, you're like, ‘Oh, you can do this for a job’,” Clancy laughed. “That's amazing and then the 2000 Olympics rolled around, and I was like, ‘I want to go to the Olympics’.”
It wasn’t so much beach volleyball that caught her attention but one of the biggest and most memorable moments from the Games, one that is still talked about to this day – Cathy Freeman’s 400m final.
“I feel like now later in life and watching the documentary how significant that moment is, especially being a young female athlete watching her compete. That impact that she had, and that one race is just incredible, so she's a huge inspiration.”
Sixteen years later, Clancy would herself become an Olympian, writing her name alongside some of the greats like Freeman and Patrick Jonson – something that the beach volleyball player considers “an honour”. Not just that but she would also become the first indigenous Australian volleyball player to represent Australia at the Olympics when she partnered with Louise Bawden for Rio 2016.
Unfortunately, while the duo entered the Round of 16 undefeated, a star-studded pairing of Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross of the United States ended their Olympic run.
Three years of Clancy and Artacho Del Solar
There is something special brewing between Clancy and Artacho del Solar.
Having known each other since they were juniors – even winning a bronze medal at the 2012 U21 World Champions – and seeing each other around with both being part of the national programme, it was a destiny of sorts that they would become partners.
“Our pathways changed when it came to the Olympic cycle [in 2016], but I feel that journey that we both took and those experiences that we had, I think that's what really helped us when we came together in 2017,” Clancy explained.
“I think we've got a really great chemistry on the court. We trust each other a lot.
“We have similar values, even just like culturally… we're both very family-orientated and passionate so I feel all those elements have just made us such a great team.”
In their first season together on the FIVB World Tour, Clancy and Artacho Del Solar won the most titles ever by an Australian men’s or women’s beach volleyball team – gracing the podium six times and finished their 2018 season ranked within the top five in the world.
By July of the following year, and after becoming the first Australian beach volleyball team since 2003 to win a World Championship medal, the duo reached world No.2 status.
2019 Getty Images
Their bronze medal at World Championships was an incredible feat itself considering that during their Round of 32 win Artacho del Solar suffered a medical collateral Ligament (MCL) injury.
The pair were unsure if they would continue playing with their Round of 16 match against Switzerland’s Joana Heidrich/Anouk Vergé-Dépré the following day.
“It was the morning after, and we still weren't really sure if we were going to continue playing…we were just so uncertain. I remember we're both walking to breakfast, and she was limping, and we literally went to the lobby and she just like turned it on,” Clancy recalled Artacho del Solar trying her best to hide the extent of her injury.
The duo decided to continue – with no other teams being fully aware of the injury. It did help that it was cold weather, so the pair were wrapped up in warm weather gear with the strapping hidden underneath.
“Her resilience to keep pushing through that pain was incredible,” Clancy said of Artacho del Solar. “The part that’s even more exciting, is the fact that we weren’t at our best, and we were still able to get a bronze medal.”
“We were both sitting there going it's a really great achievement for where we were at and what could have happened… we could have been forfeiting. It's incredible and I think that definitely has given us that extra motivation leading into the Olympics.”
After Artacho del Solar was side-lined for almost four months, the duo was back to business with a fourth place finish at the Qinzhou Open before topping the podium in the last event of 2019 the Chetumal Open in Mexico.
Will the Olympic gold drought end?
It was 20 years ago that fans on a packed Bondi Beach witnessed Nat Cook and Kerri Pottharst win Australia Olympic gold in women’s beach volleyball. But since that day, Australia has not stepped foot on the podium again at an Olympic Games.
But there are hopes this will change next summer especially with the success Clancy and Artacho del Solar have shown on the world stage including winning 11 World Tour medals from 22 FIVB events. The pair, who have recently relocated to Brisbane from Adelaide, have been training everyday throughout the past eight months with Australia having dealt well with the pandemic.
“We're working every day still, we haven't stopped,” Clancy said, “We keep just growing our game, it's actually been awesome to watch Mariafe’s growth in just this past year.
“We were still always finding little areas that we can gain and learning new things. I think you've got to take it as an opportunity... so we just keep working our way and just getting a little bit better every day.”
But when asked whether they could win Olympic gold, and in turn replicating that famous victory at Sydney 2000, Clancy knows there are possibilities to doing that at Tokyo 2020 next summer.
“As a team we do like to take things one step at a time, but we definitely know that we can do that. We're very lucky that we have Natalie Cook in Queensland with us and so she's a great little burst of inspiration,” she said.
“We definitely know there's something very special in our team and we would just keep working hard every day.”
During the extended qualification period for Tokyo 2020, Clancy and Artacho del Solar need to participate in just two more FIVB sanctioned events to qualify.
Olympic Beach Volleyball at Tokyo 2020 will take place at Shiokaze Park between 24 July – 7 August 2021.