Why does Vernon Davis love curling? ‘It just grows on you’

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SOCHI, Russia – Sunday provided a unique Olympic experience – watching curling with Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis.

Davis arrived for his second Winter Games as USA Curling’s honorary captain on Friday and has been taking in the U.S. men’s team games at the Ice Cube Curling Center.

He arrived about 20 minutes after bagpipers opened play Sunday night. Davis took a seat about 20 yards from the round-robin play action on an elevated press row. He stood out, of course, wearing a black San Francisco 49ers Foundation jacket, an official Olympic credential and several Olympic pins, including a Guatemalan one. He barely took his eyes off the ice.

“It’s like watching my kids play, watching my son play,” Davis said. “I’m not playing, but I have a relationship with these guys. I want them to win.”

The open-minded Davis learned about curling from a 49ers beat writer before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, gave it a try and took to it.

Within weeks, USA Curling found out and extended the honorary captain offer.

“I’m open to try new things and different things,” Davis said. “I find it fascinating.”

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Davis’ role the past four years has been to promote awareness for a sport that’s gained a cult following at the last four Winter Games, but still has plenty of room to grow in the U.S. (Hawaii became the 45th state to host a curling event in October.)

On Sunday, he played analyst for two reporters as U.S. skip John Shuster and his team faced Sweden. Davis was a natural.

He talked peels, guards and shoe covers for about 45 minutes. He peered across the ice and gestured just like the curlers about positioning.

A telestrator would have come in handy.

“You have to know when to use finesse and when to use strength,” Davis said. “It’s a thinking game. You have to be strategic and come with a good plan to execute to be able to dominate your opponent.”

His passion for curling was evident as he predicted how shots would be played.

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“At first it took me a while to figure out the reason for the sport,” Davis said. “I’m like, ‘Is this really an Olympic sport?’ I needed some answers. I had a lot of questions, technical stuff.

“Once you find out what’s going on in this game, it just grows on you.”

He curls for fun in San Jose, joining “random people” for games. Davis has his own USA Curling jacket with “V. Davis” on the back. The V will keep people from confusing him for U.S. speed skater Shani Davis as they did at the 2010 Olympics.

“The only thing I don’t have is my own stone,” Davis said. “They said they’re going to send me one. They sent me two brooms.”

He sees plenty of parallels between his primary trade and his new hobby.

“[In football] you have to really use your mind, set your opponent up in a way that you can gain leverage and beat him and beat him easily,” Davis said. “That’s the way it is with curling, coming up with a plan, setting up your defense, curling your stone, knowing when to use strength and when not to.”

Davis said his 49ers teammates questioned how serious his commitment was. They asked: “Why curling?”

“There’s no NFL player that promotes curling but me, which is pretty cool,” said Davis, who thinks he can persuade Frank Gore to join him on the ice. “It shows that I’m different and am willing to open up and do something different.”

The Olympics and the Super Bowl, where Davis played last season, are very similar, he said.

“They’re both enormous, everyone’s there, everyone wants to be involved, whether it’s sponsorship or just coming to support,” said Davis, who watched 1996 Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes and 1992 Olympic bobsledder Herschel Walker growing up. “Tons of people there, entertainers, you name it. From a marketing standpoint, it’s huge.”

Davis’ early tour of Sochi included a visit to USA House, a photo in front of the Olympic cauldron and a mob scene when he ate a cafeteria and was swarmed by about 30 people. He also scored a ticket to the U.S.-Russia hockey game Saturday.

“I get a chance to go to [San Jose] Sharks games,” Davis said. “It’s nothing like what I saw yesterday.”

A highlight was talking shop with Shuster on Saturday, learning about how the curlers game plan. Again, it equates to football.

“At the snap of every ball, before I take off the line of scrimmage, I need to really think, I need to really focus,” Davis said. “Their focus is the same focus that I need to have before I release off the line of scrimmage.”

How committed is Davis to raising curling’s awareness?

He wants to go to a third Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, and wouldn’t rule out becoming competitive in the sport once his football career ends.

“The Winter Olympics, when everyone hears curling, they’re thinking … oh, Vernon does that,” he said. “It makes people want to look at it. They want to get involved. They want to see what’s going on. They want to learn more about it. They’re on the Internet, Googling curling, trying to find out about it. Which is a pretty good thing.”

Several women’s players spurn worlds inquiry from USA Hockey

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As sports organizations and notable hockey figures express support of the U.S. women’s team, several players say they rejected overtures from USA Hockey to serve as replacements for the upcoming world championships.

Two players told The Associated Press on Friday that USA Hockey reached out to them to gauge their interest for the worlds, which begin next week in Plymouth, Michigan.

Brittany Ott, a goaltender for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, and Annie Pankowski, a junior forward at the University of Wisconsin, said the email from USA Hockey was not an invitation but rather an inquiry about their availability.

“I responded to that email and I said I’m not willing,” Pankowski said.

A third player, goalie Lauren Dahm, told the AP on Saturday she also turned down an invitation. Dahm plays for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Boston Blades.

The U.S. team has said it plans to boycott the worlds over a wage dispute with USA Hockey, which confirmed Thursday it would begin reaching out to potential replacement players. Several players posted messages on social media saying they support the national team and would decline or have declined any outreach from USA Hockey.

“From a personal standpoint I have never been invited to a USA Hockey series or camp or anything like that and I would honestly love to be invited to something like that,” Ott said by phone. “However at the current time, this is a fight that I believe in and I’m definitely going to stand up and help fight as much as I can.”

Many players posted a version of a Jerry Rice quote on Twitter on Friday: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC.” Not all players who tweeted that message were asked by USA Hockey if they could play.

On Saturday, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith joined the chorus of support for the players, saying on Twitter the organization stands behind their pursuit of fairness and equality.

“These women understand inequality when they see it and are expressing their right to be treated fairly as athletes and workers,” Smith tweeted. “Of course, they have the NFLPA’s support in daring to withhold their services until a fair agreement is reached.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol posted his support on Twitter, calling players competitors and role models.

On Friday, the NHL Players’ Association and Major League Baseball players posted messages of support. The NHLPA posted on Twitter that it supports players and panned USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements, adding that the decision “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

The MLBPA encouraged all female hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period. The sides met for 10-plus hours Monday, but players have called USA Hockey’s counterproposal “disappointing.”

USA Hockey said Thursday its priority was to have all the players selected for the national team on the ice March 31 when the tournament begins. But the organization added that it informed players’ representatives it would begin reaching out to potential replacements with the tournament coming up.

Star national team forward Hilary Knight said last week she wished USA Hockey luck putting together a suitable team of replacements to defend the gold medal because the player pool was united in the dispute. Ott and Pankowski said they had not heard from any players expressing a willingness to play in worlds.

“It’s a very unified front,” Ott said. “It’s a tight-knit community that we have in women’s hockey here. This is definitely a big opportunity for us to make a big change and have a big impact on our sport and have it grow. We’re all standing together.”

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World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.