Former Golden Gopher standout Nicole Branagh and current beach volleyball teammate Elaine Youngs secured an Olympic berth for the United States in beach volleyball by advancing to the finals of the Grand Slam Gold Tournament in Moscow, Russia on Saturday, July 5.
Branagh and Youngs join Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh as the second team from the U.S. to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in beach volleyball. FIVB qualified the top two teams from each country for the Olympics in Beijing. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh are ranked No. 1 in the world, while Branagh and Youngs will finish second in points among U.S. teams during the Olympic qualifying stage. Entering the Moscow tournament, Branagh and Youngs were sixth in the world.
“What a relief,” said Branagh. “It has been a grueling process with four American teams competing for two Olympic berths. I had a knot in my stomach throughout the second set with Talita and Renata. I am going to enjoy the next few hours before playing the Chinese. This is a very special moment and one that I will remember forever.”
In the Grand Slam Gold Tournament in Moscow, Russia, Branagh and Youngs advanced to the championship match before losing to Chen Xue and Xi Zhang in the finals. Branagh and Youngs defeated one of their closest competitors for an Olympic spot, Tyra Turner and Rachel Wacholder, 2-1 (18-21, 21-16, 15-10) in the quarterfinals to knock them out of contention for an Olympic spot.
Branagh and Youngs closest competition for the final U.S. Olympic spot, Jen Boss and April Ross, were knocked out of the tournament in the second round (round of 16) by Maria Antonelli and Vanilda Leo of Brazil by scores of 21-15 and 22-20.
After advancing to the semifinals with the victory over Turner and Wacholder, Branagh and Youngs clinched their berth as one of the two U.S. Olympic teams with a victory over Talita Antunes and Renata Ribeiro of Brazil by scores of 21-17 and 21-14 that put them in the championship match.
With the victory over Talita and Renata, Branagh and Youngs added another 160 points to their Olympic qualifying total for their best eight finishes on the SWATCH FIVB World Tour since May 2007. The win eliminated Boss and Ross from Beijing consideration as Branagh and Youngs have 4,540 qualifying points while Boss and Ross could not overtake their rivals with a gold medal finish in the final qualification tournament in Marseille (July 15-20).
Branagh was a four-year letterwinner at Minnesota. She holds the career-record for kills with 2,379, and had three of the top seven single-season kill totals (679 in 1999, 643 in 2000, 579 in 1998) in school history.
She joins former Golden Gopher teammate Lindsey Berg as one of two Minnesota volleyball players to earn the opportunity to compete in the Olympics. Berg competed as part of the U.S. National Women’s Volleyball team in 2004. Berg and former Golden Gopher Cassie Busse will find out later this month if they have been named to the 2008 U.S. Olympic Women’s Volleyball team.