Julia Lipnitskaia

Lipnitskaya holds off Kostner, Savchenko/Szolkowy win at Grand Prix of Russia

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Battling nerves and an experienced foe, 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya skated to a gold-medal win Saturday afternoon at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, becoming just the second woman this season to win two Grand Prix golds.

The home favorite’s 190.80 barely edged out 2012 world champion Carolina Kostner’s 190.12, advancing the teen to the Grand Prix Final in two weeks and putting her alongside 2010 Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada as the only double-gold winner of the 2013 season.

Mirai Nagasu of the U.S. had a strong free skate, vaulting herself from fourth to third and claiming her first Grand Prix medal in over a year. Third after the short program, American Agnes Zawadzki fell to sixth after a shaky and at times slow free skate.

With the Grand Prix stop in Russia the final one of the season, Lipnitskaya and Asada are unofficially into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks, joined by American Ashley Wagner and Russians Adelina Sotnikova, Anna Pogorilaya and Yelena Radyonova (who, because of age, isn’t eligible for the Olympics). The official list will be released by the ISU.

“I’m not satisfied with today. It was the worst skate of my career,” Lipnitskaya said bluntly after her win, according to Russian outlet R-Sport. “I was very nervy today, not like usual. I made a mistake on the first jump and then I wasn’t able to pull myself together.”

In the pairs competition, the short program held to form Saturday, four-time world champions and Vancouver bronze medalists Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany outdoing the Russian team of Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov by five points.

Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch held on for third place despite a bad fall on a lift and a solid free skate from Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fyodor Klimov, the Canadian pair grabbing the bronze by less than a point overall.

Kovtun makes a statement in men’s short program

While the 26-year-old Kostner won the free skate by nearly four points, it wasn’t enough to overcome the youthful Lipnitskaya, who played the character of a searching young girl in her long program. Lipnitskaya barely saved an early fall on a triple Lutz, then skated with more vigor through the rest of her program.

Neither woman appeared to skate as cleanly as Nagasu, though the 20-year-old American was called for under-rotating one jump and taking off on the wrong edge of her skate (a half-point deduction) on two others. But it was a mental victory for Mirai, who was fourth at the Olympics in 2010 and since has lacked consistent results.

With her bronze medal, Nagasu joins Wagner and Gracie Gold as the only two American ladies to win a medal this Grand Prix season. Christina Gao (fourth and eighth) and Zawadzki (seventh and sixth) are thought to be the two other top contenders for one of three U.S. spots in Sochi.

Despite her win, Lipnitskaya, the 2012 junior world champion, was visibly disappointed with her free skate. She scored eight points lower than her total from her Skate Canada win a month ago. Lipnitskaya becomes just the second skater age in the last 15 years to win two Grand Prix medals in one season at the age of 15 or younger, her countrywoman Elizavita Tuktamysheva doing so in 2011.

Savchenko/Szolkowy skated convincingly throughout after a short program that saw Aliona fall hard and apparently injure herself. But the German of Ukranian descent showed no signs of pain, though she did two-foot her landing on a triple Salchow throw to close the free skate, playing it safe.

Unofficially, Savchenko/Szolkowy qualify for the Grand Prix Final with their gold medal in Moscow, following a first-place performance at the Cup of China earlier this month. Moore-Towers/Moscovitch are unofficially in, as well.

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