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It’s been a weird Olympics, but Jake Gibb is making the most of it

COVID has delivered a delay, a new partner and a trip to quarantine, but the beach volleyball player from Bountiful still has his eyes on a medal

(Felipe Dana | AP) Jacob Gibb, of the United States, returns a shot during a men's beach volleyball match against Switzerland, the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Tokyo.

Jake Gibb set up the interview at the house of his beach volleyball coach shortly after wrapping up the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Gibb had approached those Games as his farewell tour, but he wanted to play a season or two more on the AVP pro circuit before hanging up his sand socks. First, though, the Bountiful native needed a new partner.

Taylor Crabb was a top candidate.

Crabb had already promised to pair with another player, a commitment he didn’t take lightly. But this was freakin’ Jake Gibb — a three-time Olympian and someone whom a 12-year-old Crabb had watched, awestruck, play in the finals of a king-of-the-beach-style AVP tournament in Hawaii 16 years ago.

“I’ve always looked up to him, obviously, as a player and everything I’ve heard about him as a partner was just something that I needed to be around,” Crabb said. “Someone that has been to the Olympics three times, who’s been at the top of the sport for 16 years. I mean, that just lines up with everything that I want to do with my career. I would love to play that long and I want to make it to that many Olympics. So why not just learn from the person that’s done it the best?”

US Jake Gibb dives for a ball during the quarterfinal men's beach volleyball match against Latvia at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Monday, Aug. 6, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

If Gibb had known that day what the future held for the pair, he may have just decided to tell Crabb never mind, then dust the sand from his feet and walk into the sunset. Instead, the 45-year-old is playing in Tokyo, without fans, during a pandemic that pushed the Games back a year, which gave him the dubious honor of becoming the oldest volleyball player — man or woman, indoor or beach — in Olympic history. And Crabb, the person he can most blame for getting him into this predicament, is nowhere to be seen.

This is probably not the Olympics Gibb wanted. But it’s the one he’s got, and he’s making the most of it.

On Monday, Gibb and Tri Bourne, a partner he’d never played with prior to the Olympics, will scrap for their third win in four matches in Tokyo. They begin elimination play against Germans Julius Thole and Clemens Wickler, the team that finished seventh in the FIVB Olympic Rankings, three spots ahead of Gibb and then-partner Crabb.

“I always expect a lot out of myself, so it doesn’t matter who I’m with,” Gibb said after a second straight pool-play win Tuesday night at Shiokaze Park, along the shore of Tokyo Bay. “This is the Olympics. We’ve worked hard for this, both of us.”

‘I WAS READY TO RETIRE’

The pandemic itself had been enough to make Gibb question his decision to make a final Olympic push.

“At first, when the pandemic came, you know, selfishly, I was pretty bummed,” Gibb said, “because I was ready to retire last year and move on to other things.”

The University of Utah graduate had bid adieu to the Olympics in Rio. When he recruited Crabb, he was mainly looking for a worthy vessel he could fill with wisdom gleaned from two decades in the sport. But then the two started to bond. And then they started to win.

Their first World Tour gold medal came in 2019 in Mexico and they took fourth in the World Tour finals later that season. In the race to become one of two teams the United States would send to Tokyo, they held a comfortable lead.

Photo courtesy of Rafael Vadillo/USA Volleyball Jake Gibb, left, of Bountiful, celebrates with beach volleyball partner Taylor Crabb. They qualified for the Tokyo Olympics together but Crabb dropped out after testing positive for COVID-19.

“We were hitting our hot streak,” Crabb said. “And then COVID hit and it was kind of a big bummer for us because we felt like we were playing our best ball then.”

With the beaches closed in California, where both live, they headed to Utah in June to train at a friend’s private indoor beach facility. Those extra touches might have helped some, as they placed third in Qatar in one of their first World Tour tournaments back. But then their momentum stalled.

The chase was closer and more stressful than they’d hoped, but Gibb and Crabb ultimately earned a spot in the Games as the USA’s No. 1 team. COVID, however, still had a wrench to throw their way.

HELLO, STRANGER

Bourne hadn’t been in Tokyo more than 36 hours, and Gibb was already packing his bags.

Gibb had been ordered to leave the Athletes Village and go into quarantine for having close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. That person actually wasn’t Crabb. It was someone on Gibb’s flight to Japan.

Crabb had, however, tested positive upon arriving in Japan on July 22 — the day before the opening ceremony — making him the first positive COVID-19 case in Tokyo among U.S. athletes expected to compete. (A few days prior, future University of Utah gymnast Kara Eaker, an alternate, became the first American athlete of any kind to test positive in Tokyo).

Gibb had said he would wait for his partner to produce a positive test if Crabb wanted him to, though they would have to forfeit matches along the way. But Crabb instead texted Bourne, who hopped on the first flight to Tokyo.

Bourne had been the partner of Tyler Crabb, Taylor’s brother. And, for the second straight Olympics, his team had finished one spot shy of representing the U.S in the Games. Now he’d have his chance, but with a partner with whom he’d never played before and who had just walked out the door to spend the next week in isolation.

In stepped Crabb. He was stuck in quarantine in Tokyo until he tested negative, and rather than wallow in his misfortune, he made himself useful. He leveraged his friendship with Gibb and Bourne to strengthen the line of communication when the players connected over FaceTime. He also studied their opponents and lent his insights on scouting reports.

“If I’m honest, this is probably the hardest week of my volleyball career,” said Gibb, who was released from lockdown Saturday, just in time for the playoffs. “Taylor is my brother. I love him. We’ve gone to battle for five years together, so to not have him here is hard.

“But we’re ready to fight together and we have Taylor with us. We honestly feel that. It feels like a cliché, but he’s with us, he’s in our scouting reports. {Tri’s] got love for Taylor, I got love for Taylor, and it feels like it’s unfair for the rest of the world: We’ve got three on two out here.”

It certainly looked that way in their early pool-play results. Despite practicing together just three times before their first match, and despite playing in a quiet, fanless stadium, Gibb and Bourne easily handled the Italian trickster team of Adrian Ignacio Carambula Raurich and Enrico Rossi on Sunday. Two days later, they swept the Swiss pair of Adrian Heidrich and Mirco Gersen.

The team from Qatar has been the only one to give them trouble. Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan, the No. 3 team in the FIVB Olympic Rankings, defeated Gibb and Bourne, 2-0.

Though the Germans finished seventh in the rankings, they won’t be a much easier opponent to beat. They also went 2-1 in pool play, beating teams from Poland and Japan but losing to Italy’s No. 1 team of Daniele Lupo and Paulo Nicolai.

The winner of Monday’s match advances to the quarterfinal, while the loser will be eliminated.

Undoubtedly, these Olympics have been like no other for Gibb, but some good things have spun out of the chaos. For one, no one’s talking about Gibb’s age anymore. Plus, he and his partner now have a secret weapon against their opponents: the element of surprise.

As Bourne said, “If we don’t know what’s happening, they don’t know what’s happening.”

Beach Volleyball

Men’s Round of 16: Jake Gibb/Tri Bourne, USA vs. Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler, Germany, 7 a.m. MDT Monday

Watch: NBCSN

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