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Betschart and Eiholzer win 'Alpine derby' at European Games

 
The podium of the women's beach volleyball tournament of the inaugural European Games with teams from Austria (left, silver), Switzerland (gold) and Lithuania (bronze)
 
Baku, Azerbaijan, June 20, 2015 – A week ago Switzerland had claimed the very first gold medal at stake at the Baku 2015 European Games and seven days later, on a humid yet memorable night, Nina Betschart and Nicole Eiholzer crowned their campaign in the women’s Beach Volleyball tournament by claiming a dramatic “grand finale” with Austria’s Lena Plesiutschnig and Katharina Schützenhöfer (21-16, 14-21, 15-13). 

The “Alpine derby” in the gold-medal match prolonged the long-standing sports rivalry between Switzerland and Austria and turned into the perfect climax to bring to a close five days of classy action at the Beach Arena before the men’s semis and medal matches on Sunday. 

Lithuania’s Ieva Dumbauskaite and Monika Povilaityte completed the podium of the first ever European Games following their 21-19, 21-19 victory in the bronze-medal match with Italy’s Giulia Toti and Laura Giombini. Nina Betschart and Nicole Eiholzer were among the underdogs, yet potential medal contenders of the competition that got under way on Tuesday at Baku’s Beach Arena. 

Saturday’s gold medal continues an impressive series of performances by these young Swiss girls whose success story started in 2011 when they won silver at the CEV U18 European Championships. After striking bronze in that same competition a year later, they went on to claim back-to-back titles in the U20 division in 2013 and 2014, with Betschart boasting also an additional gold medal from the 2013 edition of the U22 European Championships (in tandem with Anouk Vergé-Dépré). However, Saturday’s win represents their first major title in the senior division, and most probably only the first one with more to come in the future. 

The final match was as dramatic as the plot of a thriller, with Betschart and Eiholzer struggling to find their way into the game and quickly trailing in the opening set (4-8, 7-9). However, with a terrific series of seven points vs. only two for their opponents, the Swiss – cheered on by their country’s beach soccer national team – flipped the charts around, went to the front (14-11) and were able to keep control of the game through to the end of the first set (21-16). Plesiutschnig and Schützenhöfer – also supported by a large Austrian crew including 2009 European silver medallist Florian Gosch, now Marketing Director of the Austrian Olympic Committee – responded by dominating the scene in the second set where they broke away after a tie at 10 to bring it home by a landslide 21-14. The Austrians seemed to be on route to the gold medal as they opened the tie-break with a 5-1 run but after a time-out the Swiss regrouped and eventually levelled the score at 7 all. The teams continued to side out and up to 13-12 it was always the Austrians to be in the lead but in the end the Swiss scored three points in a row – including an ace by Betschart – and got the party started, thereby being crowned the first ever European Games champions in Beach Volleyball. 

Nina Betschart said after her gold medal performance: “It is a fantastic feeling that I can’t put into words at the moment. I must let it sink in. We were very strong today. I can’t believe this is true. Of course you know you are playing at the European Games as you have been preparing for that. However, the teams here were really strong and you can’t expect you will finish on top of the charts in the end.” 

Her partner Nicole Eiholzer added: “I am so happy. Winning a gold medal in this kind of competition is not easy. It’s just fantastic.” 

Austria’s Katharina Schützenhöfer said: “I just feel empty now. This was not what I had expected. After the first set we never managed to come back. That is all I can say.” 

Bronze goes to Lithuania’s ‘golden girls’ 

Lithuania’s Monika Povilaityte and Ieva Dumbauskaite added another chapter to a success story that started back in 2011 when these still very young players topped the podium of an U18 European Championship held in their home country’s capital, Vilnius. 

On Saturday night, they were able to regroup from their semi-final loss and to cruise to a 21-19, 21-19 win in the bronze-medal match with Italy’s Giulia Toti and Laura Giombini. The two sets played before a passionate audience – including a large group of Lithuanian fans – followed a similar plot with Italy’s Toti/ Giombini leading the way early on but already in the first stanza Lithuania’s golden girls stormed back with three straight aces by Povilaityte to make it 12-9 in their favour. Though the Italians fought their way back and levelled the score at 16, Povilaityte and Dumbauskaite changed gear once more and they never looked back, finishing it off at 21-19. Toti and Giombini played aggressive right from the outset of the second set but anytime they got to the front with a comfortable lead, their opponents clawed back with positive series of as many as four straight points. It was also evident that Dumbauskaite and Povilaityte have been playing together for years already whilst the European Games represented only the second tournament of the Toti/ Giombini tandem. The teams sided out up to 19 all but the last couple of points belonged to Lithuania and the young Monika and Ieva could get the party started together with their fans. 

Ieva Dumbauskaite said: “I still can’t believe it. When the last ball touched the ground I couldn’t believe that this was really happening. I feel like being in a dream. To have a medal here helps us to keep up the motivation to go further. This is not enough. Now we want more. We want to go to Rio. That is our goal. Tomorrow we go back to Vilnius and we will celebrate with our friends.” 

Monika Povilaityte added: “My partner was better than me today. She was really strong and helped me in many difficult situations. This game was hers. I had a little pain in my stomach but it didn’t interfere with my performance.” 

“Unfortunately we missed the usual grit on various occasions and we failed to close out the points,” Giulia Toti commented. “We have to improve on our team chemistry because in difficult moments we should know how to help each other. Overall, the tournament went really well for us but if you think that we lost a [bronze medal] final 21-19, 21-19, then it’s a big regret. Certainly later we will see the glass half full and we will take the positives out of this experience and re-start working hard, because there is only room for improvement in our future.”





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