Squash

Squash’s chances of 2020, 2024 Olympic inclusion

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The International Olympic Committee will make the second of three major votes at its session in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Sunday.

Nearly 100 IOC members will choose one of three sports — baseball/softball, squash and wrestling — for inclusion in the 2020 and 2024 Olympics from 11-11:45 a.m. Eastern time. For more on what happens Sunday, click here.

OlympicTalk will look at each sport’s pitch. Here is a rundown of squash:

In 2011, squash had to feel fairly confident about getting into the Olympics for 2020 and 2024, even though the vote was two years away.

That’s when the IOC short listed eight sports for possible inclusion — baseball, karate, roller sports, sports climbing, softball, squash, wakeboarding and wushu. Of those, only baseball, karate, roller sports and softball joined squash in 2009 when it came up short for 2016 inclusion, when golf and rugby made it.

In 2005, baseball and softball had been cut from the Olympics beginning with the 2012 Games. Also in 2005, karate and squash actually beat golf and rugby, as well as roller sports, in voting for 2012 inclusion, though none made it. Squash, so close and yet to be given a chance in the Olympics, was gaining momentum.

Squash is a racket sport pitting two competitors hitting a ball against a wall. Points are won if a ball bounces twice on the floor before one competitor gets to it. Points are lost for hitting the ball too low on the wall.

The last year saw a combination blow dent its hopes. In 2012, baseball and softball merged into one bid, strengthening the cause of both sports. In February, wrestling was cut from the list of Olympic core sports in a shocking decision, so the Olympic stalwart dropped into the group of squash and others looking for 2020 and 2024 inclusion.

In May, the IOC named three finalists. Squash made it again, as expected two years ago. So did baseball/softball and wrestling, two bids that, one year ago, wouldn’t have been candidates for Sunday’s vote. Squash could have been the popular pick heading into Buenos Aires. Not anymore.

The Associated Press described its chances as, “once the favorite, now maybe a stroke too far.” The New York Times called it “a long shot.”

“We’re happy that we’re in the final three,” said Kevin Klipstein, CEO of U.S. Squash since 2004, in a phone interview. “It was definitely actually a bit of a tough break, for wrestling to be selected as a sport to be eliminated (in February) because a lot of squash coverage was being viewed very favorably up until that point.”

Key information for IOC session in Buenos Aires

Klipstein said the feedback squash received after failed bids for 2012 and 2016 inclusion were to better its broadcast product. It added more streaming of the sport’s professional tours, shooting in HD with multiple camera angles. In the U.S., ESPN3 and Tennis Channel continue to give it more attention, but how far it has come is still questionable.

“We put together as good a product as we can,” Klipstein said. “We’ve done what we can do. See where it shakes out on Sunday.”

Klipstein said squash is on a similar trajectory to what tennis was on 30 or 40 years ago. Tennis greats such as Andre AgassiKim ClijstersRoger Federer and Andy Murray have backed the bid.

“I could be wrong, but I think why it’s not on TV as much is because it almost seems like the same point is getting played,” Murray said at the U.S. Open this week. “It’s maybe not the best spectator sport, but it’s a very difficult sport to play. You have to be extremely fit, have very good hand/eye coordination, good feel and good touch.”

Squash is cost-effective. It can be played on a glass court built pretty much anywhere.

“I could do it on the bridge over the Bosphorus (Turkey), in a bullfighting ring (Spain) or in the Imperial Palace gardens (Japan),” World Squash Federation president N. Ramachandran of India said, according to The Associated Press. “You tell me where to put it, and I will do it. You can put them up in a matter of three days.”

Squash hopes a man named Mike Lee can work more magic. Lee, described by different outlets as a lobbyist, strategist and consultant, worked for London 2012, Rio 2016, rugby’s successful bid and the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

Another pro for squash is that it’s global. All five continents have produced world champions.

“With athletes 185 countries playing squash, I can count on going to tournaments and being surrounded by players from every part of the globe,” Amanda Sobhy, 20, the top-ranked U.S. squash player, told USA Today. “And yet, deep down inside, every single one of us would gladly trade all of our titles for the chance to compete in the Olympics.”

What it also has going is that it’s the only one of the candidates that has yet to be given a shot in the Olympic program. Winning the vote would increase its growing legitimacy.

“We’ve always viewed the Olympics as something we really want to achieve, for the athletes, that they get a chance to compete on the world’s biggest and brightest stage,” Klipstein said, “and it’s clear that we fit well into the Olympics overall in terms of the values that we have — the sportsmanship, the fact that it’s clean.”

Remember when wrestling gained attention for holding a meet inside New York’s Grand Central Terminal in May? Squash, in addition to an event outside the Egyptian pyramids, has been holding competitions at Grand Central for years.

“I guess imitation is flattery,” Klipstein said. “(Wrestling) got some nice publicity for it. I guess it’s a validation of the fact that we’re doing things that make sense.”

If squash doesn’t prevail Sunday, it’s not going to give up.

“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing,” Klipstein said. “Dust ourselves off, come back with a stronger bid.”

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Haven Denney, Brandon Frazier win U.S. pairs title after year off

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier perform in the championship pairs short program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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KANSAS CITY — Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier returned from a year off to win their first U.S. pairs title on Saturday, despite an error-prone free skate and against a field lacking any previous U.S. champion teams.

Denney and Frazier jumped from second after the short program to total 188.32 points and win by 2.04 over Sochi Olympian Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran. Denney and Frazier’s total score was 23.33 points fewer than last year’s winning score.

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, who led by 3.96 after the short program, had a strong free skate going until a fall on their throw triple Lutz and finished third Saturday.

Full results are here.

Denney and Frazier were the top U.S. pair in the fall international season by 16 points, taking a silver medal at Skate America.

But Denney struggled on landings in the short program, her right leg wrapped after blowing out her right knee in spring 2015 that caused them to miss the entire 2015-16 season. They also had multiple jumping errors in their free skate, but, unlike the rest of the top five, stayed on their feet Saturday.

“We’re trying harder elements, harder jumps, bigger throws, bigger twists,” Frazier said. “What you see is a couple of ups and downs. This is all building for the next season.”

The U.S. will send two pairs to the world championships in Helsinki in two months, but not definitively the top two finishers from Saturday. The world championships pairs teams will be named Sunday.

Denney and Frazier finished 12th at the 2015 Worlds, after placing second at that year’s U.S. Championships. Castelli and Tran, in their second year as a pair, have no worlds experience together and are ineligible for the 2018 Olympics. Tran, born in Canada, is not a U.S. citizen.

Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest discipline. The last U.S. pair to earn an Olympic or world medal was Kyoka Ina and John Zimmerman at the 2002 Worlds. Eight different pairs have won the last nine U.S. titles.

In 2016, the U.S. pairs finished ninth and 13th at worlds, but both of those teams are out due to injuries.

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, the top U.S. pair in international competition in recent seasons, has been out of competition all season due to her September stomach surgery. They have returned to full training.

The Knierims filed a petition to be named to the world championships team, which is selected on a discretionary basis on results from the U.S. Championships and other recent competitions.

“Whatever they decide,” Tran said of a U.S. Figure Skating selection committee, “we’re all for that.”

The 2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea withdrew before the free skate Saturday after Kayne suffered a concussion in a short-program fall. They placed fifth in the short program.

The U.S. Championships continue Saturday night with the women’s free skate (8 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

VIDEO: Tara Lipinski reflects on 1997 U.S. title at age 14

U.S. Championships Pairs
GOLD: Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 188.32
SILVER: Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran — 186.28
BRONZE: Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc — 184.41

4. Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay — 173.50
5. Jessica Pfund/Joshua Santillan — 168.90

Tara Lipinski reflects on winning 1997 U.S. title at age 14

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Tara Lipinski says she can remember everything about the 1997 U.S. Championships, when she became the youngest national champion at age 14.

The victory 20 years ago helped catapult her to become the youngest individual Winter Olympic champion of all time a year later.

“It changed my life in that moment [in 1997],” said Lipinski, now an NBC Olympics analyst. “That was when you talk about peaking at the right time. I knew when I stepped off the ice as a national champion, I can be Olympic champion.”

In 1996, Lipinski finished third at age 13 at the U.S. Championships behind Michelle Kwan, who won the first of her nine U.S. titles. Lipinski then struggled at the world championships, taking 15th, while Kwan won.

So Lipinski was certainly not the favorite going into the 1997 U.S. Championships in Nashville.

But she delivered an unforgettable performance, landing seven triple jumps in her free skate, including the first triple loop-triple loop combination, to surpass the short program leader Kwan, who fell twice in her free skate.

“I always got very nervous,” Lipinski said. “Now to be a broadcaster on live television, I always wonder, why do I pick these professions where there’s a lot of pressure? It’s because I love it, and I thrive under it. Looking back then, it was interesting to look back and remember how nervous I was and then that relief and that pure joy. Then realizing what happened in the next year, and how I was able to get to the point that I did still gives me chills. I have to sort of pinch myself.”

For perspective on how long ago that victory was, check out this story from the Chicago Tribune:

Within an hour of Tara Lipinski’s victory at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Saturday night, a “media alert” was on the information table in the press room at the Nashville Arena to announce Lipinski’s site on the Internet.

“Visit America’s hottest sensation at `www.TaraLipinski.com’ ” said the press release from the skater’s agency, Edge Marketing. “Visitors can dive inside Tara’s life by checking out her biography, famiily life stories and other fun facts about Tara (i.e., which of Tara’s talents might pose a threat to Martha Stewart?).”

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