J.R. Celski

U.S. Olympic Short Track Speed Skating Trials preview

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The atmosphere will be unfamiliar at the U.S. Olympic Short Track Speed Skating Trials beginning Thursday in Kearns, Utah.

The retirements last year of Apolo Ohno and Katherine Reutter, the most decorated U.S. skaters this century, left a void for not only new Olympians but also new stars.

Here’s the Olympic Trials schedule (all times Eastern):

Thursday — Men’s and women’s four- and nine-lap time trials, 3:30 p.m.
Friday — Men’s/Women’s 1500m, 5:30 p.m. (NBCSN,  8-10 p.m.)
Saturday — Men’s/Women’s 500m, 12 p.m. (NBCSN, 4-5:30 p.m.)
Sunday — Men’s/Women’s 1000m, 12 p.m. (NBC, 4-6 p.m.)

The U.S. men and women earned Olympic quota spots via World Cup results this season. The men earned the maximum allotment of five total skaters with three entries in each distance.

The women did not qualify the maximum allotment — failing to qualify an Olympic relay team for the first time — and will send its smallest team, three, since the sport was added to the Olympic program in 1992. The U.S. can enter three women in the Olympic 500m and 1500m and two in the 1000m.

The Olympic team selection process is not as simple as taking the top finishers from every distance. Skaters will be ranked by distance and in an overall standing via the following points system:

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Skaters’ four-lap time trial points are added to their points from two 500m races. Skaters’ nine-lap time trial points are added to their points from the 1000m and 1500m races for standings in those separate events. A time trial is worth 20 percent of a skater’s ranking per distance. Each result in a race is worth 40 percent.

The top-ranked skater in every distance will make the Olympic team. That could be one skater per gender (if he or she sweeps every distance), two skaters or three skaters (if a different skater wins each distance).

After that, if there are Olympic roster spots still available (there definitely will be for men), the second-ranked skater in every distance will make the Olympic team. If adding all of the second-ranked skaters exceeds the maximum Olympic roster size, priority would go to a skater who finished second in two of the three distances.

If that didn’t happen, the tiebreaker is a skater’s overall distance ranking, adding up points from both time trials and all three distances.

If there are Olympic roster spots still available after taking the top two skaters from every distance, the Olympic team will be filled by the top skaters remaining in the overall distance ranking.

Men’s Outlook

In the absence of Ohno and Reutter, one skater comes into trials already owning an individual Olympic medal. That would be J.R. Celski, who came back from a crash at the 2010 Olympic Trials to win two bronze medals in Vancouver.

On the last day of those trials (September 2009), Celski’s right skate drove into his left thigh, slicing it to the point he could see his femur and one inch from his femoral artery. Celski needed 60 stitches but said he was pain free six weeks later.

Celski took a full season off after Vancouver, collaborating with Macklemore and others for a film project, and came back faster than ever. In October 2012, he became the first man to break the 40-second barrier in the 500m.

He is clearly the best hope for a medal in Sochi, having made the podium in two of three races at the most recent World Cup event in Kolomna, Russia, in November.

Two other 2010 Olympians join Celski at trials — Travis Jayner and Jordan Malone. Ohno will be there, too, as an analyst for NBC and NBCSN.

The fifth member of the Vancouver team, Simon Cho, will not be competing. Cho was suspended through the Sochi Olympics for tampering with a Canadian’s skate blade in 2011. Cho’s admission came in 2012 and also involved US Speedskating coaches since let go. It created a schism among skaters, an issue still making headlines.

Back on the ice, Celski’s greatest competition will likely come from potential Olympic rookies. John-Henry Krueger, 18, and Eddy Alvarez, 23, also won World Cup medals this season.

Krueger, the son of a figure skating coach, was a three-time medalist at the 2012 World Junior Championships. Alvarez, of Miami, is the Spanish-speaking son of Cuban immigrants.

Women’s Outlook

Not qualifying a relay team cut the Olympic women’s roster from five to three, putting more pressure on a group that hasn’t won a World Cup medal since February 2012.

Jessica Smith, an alternate for the 2010 Olympic team, is now the leader. She’s the top U.S. skater in World Cup rankings for the 500m (21st overall) and 1500m (13th) and second in the 1000m (24th).

Emily Scott is ranked 15th in the 1000m and also a contender to make her first Olympic team.

Of the 2010 Olympians, Alyson Dudek and Lana Gehring were in the best form at the U.S. Championships in August.

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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.

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

Ashleigh Johnson
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LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. (AP) — 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