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The Tokyo Olympics, originally scheduled for summer 2020, were postponed to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. They run from July 23 until Aug. 8, 2021.

After Just 3 Practices, U.S. Beach Volleyballers Notch A Big Win In Tokyo

U.S. beach volleyball player Jake Gibb, shown here in 2016, is continuing to compete in the Tokyo Olympics after his partner tested positive for the coronavirus.
U.S. beach volleyball player Jake Gibb, shown here in 2016, is continuing to compete in the Tokyo Olympics after his partner tested positive for the coronavirus.

Updated July 26, 2021 at 10:22 AM ET

TOKYO — U.S. beach volleyball player Jake Gibb was facing a nightmare scenario at the Tokyo Games.

The four-time Olympian, 45, has been paired with Taylor Crabb since 2017. They were the top U.S. men's team to make it to the Olympics, after an arduous qualification process that started nearly three years ago.

But when they arrived in Tokyo, disaster struck. Just days before their first match, Crabb, who is vaccinated, tested positive for the coronavirus.

Aside from the personal devastation and concern about his friend and partner, Gibb and Team USA had to figure out whether it was still possible for him to compete.

"If I'm honest, you know, it's probably the hardest week of my volleyball career," Gibb said. "Taylor is my brother. I love him. We've gone to battle for five years together."

Gibb needed a new partner – and fast.

A Games with more uncertainty than ever before

Despite testing requirements before even getting on the plane, at least 16 Olympic athletes have tested positive for the coronavirus in Japan.

The positive tests mean they must isolate and lose their chance to compete. It's an unprecedented level of uncertainty for the world's top athletes, as members of their ranks are taken out by an invisible force.

Team USA said it has tried to prepare the athletes for the unpredictability. "They're aware that things can change at any moment," said Rick Adams, the chief of sport performance for Team USA. "We've just been very honest with athletes about what this journey could be like, and they've been experiencing it."

But knowing that something like this could happen doesn't really make it easier. "I've faced adversity before, and I will face it again, but it doesn't take the sting out of the situation," Crabb said in an Instagram post. He's said he is symptom-free.

Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb (right), the player who tested positive for coronavirus, have been competing together since 2017.
Martin Rose / Bongarts/Getty Images
Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb (right), the player who tested positive for coronavirus, have been competing together since 2017.

A phone call changes everything for a volleyball alternate

Beach volleyball is played in teams of two. The sport requires an extreme amount of collaboration and coordination – such as setting up the ball for the teammate, and communicating on the fly about how to handle a play.

Last week, 32-year-old Tri Bourne, who narrowly missed qualifying for the Games, got an unexpected phone call from Gibb. At the time, the player from Honolulu was with his daughter, driving back from a vacation in Las Vegas.

"I was out in the desert, he called me while I was at a gas station," Bourne said. "And I was kind of fired up with my response – 'If I come out there, I'm going all in!' or something like that."

Gibb and Bourne have competed against each other before, but never played together. The new partner has a connection to the Olympic-qualifying pair – he actually usually plays with Crabb's brother, who is also a professional volleyball player.

Bourne acknowledges that this was a strange way to suddenly be living his dream of competing in the Olympics. "It's absolutely devastating for their team, and at the same time I'm gaining the world," he said.

On Wednesday, just four days ahead of the first match, Bourne landed in Tokyo. The pair only had time for three practices together before competition started.

The unexpected teammates make their Olympic debut

Bourne and Gibb stepped onto the sand for their first Olympic match on Sunday evening, as cicadas buzzed in the trees around the waterfront volleyball arena.

The two gave each other a high five as they got ready to play against Enrico Rossi and Adrian Carambula from Italy.

With almost no time to strategize before the game, "we just tried to keep it simple," Gibb said. "Let's work through that, then let's open it up."

The other teams competing at the Olympics have the advantage of understanding and intuition learned from years of playing together.

"There's just so much to talk through," he added. "But, listen, we both play beach volleyball for a living, we know how to play the sport."

The U.S. men took the first point, with Bourne blowing the ball past the Italians. They quickly established a lead and a rhythm. As Gibb and Bourne scored a few more points, they seemed to loosen up and grow more confident. "Yeah baby!" Gibb yelled after Bourne won a point.

Even though the Italians tightened up the score in the first game of the set, Bourne and Gibb held them off, winning 21-18.

The second game was a tougher slog, with Italy leading for much of it. The U.S. and the Italians traded who was up, but the U.S. men sealed their victory with a final score of 21-19.

Jake Gibb (center) hugs new teammate Tri Bourne after winning a men's beach volleyball match against Italy on Sunday in Tokyo.
Felipe Dana / AP
Jake Gibb (center) hugs new teammate Tri Bourne after winning a men's beach volleyball match against Italy on Sunday in Tokyo.

Against all odds, they'd managed to win in straight sets. They cheered and hugged after the match.

After the game, the Italian team said the U.S. team's inexperience together might actually have made them harder to play against.

"Today was maybe a little tough, because in the world tour, we're used to knowing and preparing for a certain team," Carambula said.

Usually, he added, they'd have played a team many times before meeting them in the Olympics and know how to adjust ahead of time. Gibb and Bourne are a uniquely unknown quantity at this level of play.

The pair looks ahead and tries to grow as a team

Speaking after the match, the U.S. men were pumped about their victory but said they'll need to come together as a team quickly for a shot at gold.

"We need to grow because that wasn't the best match in the world," Gibb said. "We got the win, but we need to clean up some things."

They'll play their next match against a team from Switzerland on Monday at 8 p.m. ET.

And as they play, they'll be thinking of their teammate. Crabb has said he'll be cheering them on from isolation.

"We're ready to fight together, and we have Taylor with us. I honestly feel that," Gibb said. "He's got love for Taylor, I've got love for Taylor, and I feel like it's unfair for the rest of the world – we've got three on two out here."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.