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Six questions leading up to Sochi 2014

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The competition in Sochi starts a year from today, but with nationals and World Cup events happening as we speak, the competition is already heating up. We still don’t know who will compete in the Winter Olympics next February, but here’s a look at some of the top questions we’ll be asking all year.

Can Shaun White Three-peat?
White has won the last two Olympic titles in halfpipe, and the last six X Games titles in superpipe, but it still seems like everyone is nipping at his heels, most notably fourteen-year-old Japanese phenom Ayumu Hirano, who finished with silver in Aspen last month. White will also face Finland’s Markus Milan and America’s Scotty Lago. but we’re sure White will have something new up his sleeve for Sochi.

How well will Lindsey Vonn do in Sochi after the injury?
Questions will linger about Vonn’s conditioning coming off such a serious knee injury – she tore two right knee ligaments and fractured a bone in her shin – but as Christin Cooper told NBC Nightly News on Tuesday, “she’s gonna work as hard as anybody ever has to be in shape to win medals in Sochi.” We expect world champ Tina Maze of Slovenia to inspire her recovery, and expect nothing but the best from Lindsey.

Can Evan Lysacek be the first man to repeat in figure skating singles since 1952?
He can. Absolutely, so long as he’s healthy. The Vancouver champ missed this year’s nationals with a groin injury, but said he’s 100 percent now and ready to make a run for a second gold in Sochi. He’ll likely be facing-off against three-time medalist Yevgeny Plushenko, who recently had back surgery, and a host of worldwide up-and-comers including Javier Fernandez of Spain and new American national champ, Max Aaron.

What about Yuna Kim?
The South Korean star is also looking to repeat, and looked great in Germany back in December, winning gold at her first event in more than eighteen months. She should lock up a spot in Sochi at worlds in March, and definitely looks to shine on the ice again, but Americans Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, who were both impressive at U.S. nationals last month, might have something to say about that.

How will the Russians do at their first hometown Winter Games?
The Russians have always been one of the most formidable nations at the Winter Games, but disappointed themselves and Vladimir Putin by only winning fifteen medals in Vancouver; and only three gold. They’ll aim for the top of the medal table in Sochi with stars like Plushenko, a hockey team led by NHL stars Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin, speed skater Ivan Skobrev, and just about everyone on cross-country skis.

How on earth can I enjoy the Olympics more?
With more events, obviously. Twelve to be exact, which means there’s 36 more medals to be won (by the U.S.) and an exponential amount of excitement to be had. Here’s the list:

Figure skating: team event.
Snowboarding: men’s and women’s slopestyle, men’s and women’s parallel special slalom
Freestyle Skiing: men’s and women’s slopestyle; men’s and women’s halfpipe
Ski jumping: women’s normal hill
Biathlon: mixed relay
Luge: team relay

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Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross beat top-ranked Brazilians for first time

Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross
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Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross beat Brazil’s best beach volleyball team for the first time and extended the longest winning streak of their partnership in winning the Moscow Grand Slam on Sunday.

“That just shows our growth,” Ross said. “We’re still on the up and up.”

Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion, and Ross, an Olympic silver medalist, beat Olympic qualifying top seed Larissa and Talita 22-20, 21-17 in the final for their third straight international title.

Walsh Jennings and Ross have now won 22 straight FIVB World Tour matches, the best run of their three-year parternship. Walsh Jennings last reached a streak this long from 2007 to 2010, when she won 78 straight international matches with Misty May-Treanor and Nicole Branagh, according to BVBInfo.com

The Americans had lost all three of their previous matches (one a one-set exhibition) versus Larissa and Talita:

Feb. 27, 2015 — 26-24 in Rio de Janeiro
Aug. 23, 2015 — 21-18, 21-16 in Long Beach, Calif.
March 20, 2016 — 22-20, 21-19 in Vitoria, Brazil

“You know what makes me happy? This is done. Now we’ve done it, we’ve beaten them and put it to rest,” Walsh Jennings said, according to USA Volleyball.

Larissa and Talita, seeking to become Brazil’s first Olympic women’s beach volleyball champions in 20 years, have won 12 of their 20 international tournaments since pairing in July 2014.

The FIVB World Tour continues in Hamburg, Germany, next week, the final event in Olympic qualifying. Walsh Jennings and Ross are expected to play there.

Walsh Jennings and Ross and Larissa and Talita are already qualified for the Rio Games.

MORE: Logan Tom continues volleyball career in Indonesia

Star goalie Ashleigh Johnson set to make U.S. Olympic water polo history

Ashleigh Johnson
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LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — Donna Johnson just wanted her five children to be safe around the pool at her Miami home. That was it, really, the first step in Ashleigh Johnson‘s path from prodigy to USA water polo.

Swim lessons turned into meets when their instructor told Donna Johnson her children were so good she had nothing left to teach them. When Ashleigh and her siblings continued to show athletic potential as they got older, Donna Johnson, a single mother and nurse from Jamaica, delivered a simple message to them.

“For everything that they do, it’s not about pressure, it’s about maximizing your potential,” she said.

Now her oldest daughter is about to make history this summer. Ashleigh, a goaltender blessed with jaw-dropping athleticism, is a lock for Rio de Janeiro, putting her on track to become the first black woman to play water polo for the U.S. Olympic team.

While this is just the fifth Games for the women’s tournament, Johnson’s ascension to elite goaltender is a welcome development for a sport looking for more diversity and growth outside of water polo-crazy Southern California.

Each of Johnson’s teammates is from the Golden State, and the same three Pac-12 schools — UCLA, Southern California and Stanford — dominate the roster. Seventy-five percent of USA Water Polo’s roughly 42,000 members live in California.

After starring at Ransom Everglades High School in Florida, Johnson opted for Princeton instead of USC.

“I think Ashleigh Johnson’s the future of our sport in the U.S.,” USA Water Polo CEO Christopher Ramsey said. “She’s an out-of-California athlete who grew up in Florida. She went to Princeton, high academic achiever from a different background than a lot of traditional water polo families are from.”

Just a short while ago, Johnson, 21, wasn’t interested in that future, at least with the national team. The thought of moving away from her tight-knit family and joining a new team in California wasn’t appealing to her, but several conversations with coach Adam Krikorian helped change her mind.

“I didn’t really know that the Olympics was a possibility for me,” Johnson said. “I thought it was just like coming and training like I had been doing for years, but just living out here, and he made me realize that the Olympics was a great opportunity and a possibility for me.”

Krikorian first heard of Johnson about 10 years ago when he was the head coach at UCLA. Nicolle Payne, one of his assistants with the Bruins and a former national team goaltender, was working a camp in Miami when she sent an email to Krikorian about America’s next great goaltender.

“She said, ‘Adam, keep this name in your mind,’ and she told me her name — Ashleigh Johnson,” Krikorian said. “‘She is the most amazing goalie I have ever seen.”‘

It’s easy to see what got Payne’s attention.

The 6-foot-1 Johnson has long arms, perfect for firing outlet passes for U.S. counterattacks and guarding the top parts of the goal, and she cuts through the water with impressive ease. Sick of swimming in high school, she was offered an out by her mother and coach if she won the 50-meter freestyle at states as a sophomore. So she won and walked away.

She collected 54 saves while helping the United States qualify for the Olympics at a tournament in the Netherlands in March, including 10 stops in an 11-6 victory over Italy in the final, capping an 8-0 performance for the Americans. But that gifted sprinter is still inside her.

At a recent practice, assistant coach Chris Oeding gave the team a chance to cut short the swimming portion of training if the players could assemble a sub-1:40 200-yard freestyle relay team. Krikorian and assistant coach Dan Klatt offered a nodding Johnson as a candidate, but four different players were chosen.

They made the time, but Johnson stole the show by swimming the second leg alongside the relay, leaving Krikorian and Klatt shaking their heads as she churned through the pool like a motorboat.

“She’s a freak,” Princeton coach Luis Nicolao said. “She’s just athletic. I often joke she could probably start for our basketball team, track team, swim team, she just has that natural ability to succeed at anything she does.”

Johnson and her sister, Chelsea, play for Nicolao with the Tigers. They have two older brothers, Blake and William, and one younger brother, Julius.

Their parents got divorced when Ashleigh was little, and Donna Johnson raised the kids mostly on her own. It’s a challenging juggling act not lost on her children.

“I mean she’s such a hard-working, loving and determined woman,” Ashleigh said, “and she’s taught me that hard work ethic and just to try my best at everything and love what I do.”

Chelsea Johnson, who joked that she followed her sister to Princeton because she didn’t want to play against her, said she sees similarities between Ashleigh and their mother.

“I think the biggest thing from her, she and Ashleigh, is that she’s always smiling, no matter what,” she said. “Like her and Ashleigh, not matter what they’re doing, no matter how hard the thing is, they’re always smiling and trying to make everyone around them feel better about whatever’s happening.”

VIDEO: Ashleigh Johnson stands out on U.S. water polo team