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Gold? Bronze? Olympic “success” depends on the athlete (among other things)

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Steven Holcomb’s bronze-medal celebration Monday night brought to mind a vivid memory — his gold-medal celebration from four years ago.

“About the same,” Holcomb said of a boisterous fist-pumping, man-hugging reaction. “We didn’t even make it to the finish, and we were getting hounded by our teammates.”

Gold in one event one year. Bronze in another event four years later. The medals were different, but the celebrations were about the same.

Both were incredible achievements by Holcomb, who has now won Olympic and world medals in both the two- and four-man competitions. He is a trailblazer.

VIDEO: Watch Team USA’s bronze-medal run

He’s also a reminder that the definition of success at an Olympics is layered and largely brought on by subjective perception and expectation. The medal standings are growing with importance as the Games go through the final week.

What will make for a “successful” Olympics for the U.S.?

  • Winning more medals than Vancouver, when Americans took 37 of them, the most ever for one nation at a Winter Games?
  • Winning the overall medal count for the first time at a non-North American Winter Games?

It’s a nuanced question. First, let’s look at Holcomb.

  • He held onto bronze by .03 of a second after the fourth and final run in teeth-chattering conditions at the Sanki Sliding Center.
  • Holcomb, with brakeman Steve Langton, ended a 62-year U.S. Bobsled drought for the second straight Olympics.
  • In 2010, he became the first American to win four-man gold since 1948.
  • In 2014, he became the first American to win a two-man medal of any color since 1952.
  • Not only is Holcomb the reigning Olympic four-man champion, he also entered these Games as the season-long World Cup champion in the two-man.

“I don’t have any Olympic medals in two-man, so to finally come away with a bronze, I’ll take gold, silver, bronze,” he said. “We were just here to win a medal. I know we were the gold-medal favorites coming in.”

Pause right there. Gold-medal favorites. The Associated Press and Infostrada tapped Holcomb for two-man gold. Sports Illustrated picked him for silver.

WATCH: Holcomb, Langton make U.S. history in bobsled

Olympic medal predictions don’t have high success rates, but Holcomb knew the perception was there that he had a shot at gold.

Holcomb clarified, saying he didn’t consider himself the gold-medal favorite because talented Russian Aleksandr Zubkov had a home-track advantage, enough of an edge to make up for the fact he ranked well behind Holcomb in the World Cup standings.

In bobsled, track experience is critical. Holcomb dominates in places like Lake Placid, N.Y., and Park City, Utah, where he’s taken more runs than a guy like Zubkov. His success rate outside North America is not as great.

So for Holcomb to win a bronze medal at the Sochi Olympics, beating another Russian sled by .03 for that last medal, that’s worthy of celebration.

The 62-year drought? As is equated so often in sports, Holcomb wasn’t around for most of that time. But it speaks to how tough it was for the U.S. to break through in a sport long dominated by European nations.

Perception and reaction has varied across sports and athletes in Sochi. The U.S. speed skaters haven’t performed to expectations. Snowboarders and skiers have surprised.

Shaun White was a gold-medal favorite and finished fourth. Disappointment.

Hannah Kearney was a gold-medal favorite and won bronze, an upset she handled with grace (as did White). Bode Miller looked strong in training and then finished eighth in the downhill. He rebounded and tied for an emotional bronze in the super-G.

If the U.S. women’s hockey team wins silver, you can bet players will shed tears, and they won’t be of joy. How will people react if Ted Ligety wins silver in the giant slalom? If Mikaela Shiffrin wins silver in the slalom? How will Ligety and Shiffrin react?

Then there’s Dutch speed skater Koen Verweij.

The Dutch speed skaters have been seen as the epitome of dominance in Sochi, winning 16 medals. Here’s what their star, Sven Kramer, said Monday about Verweij, who missed gold by .003 of a second in the 1500m.

“What annoys me is that people blame him for not being happy with the silver,” Kramer said. “It’s good that he was unhappy. It’s top sport, and top sport is about winning.”

All medal reactions are not equal.

The U.S. won two medals on Monday to bring its total to 18 for the Olympics. There’s almost no chance it tops the 37 from Vancouver, even with more events at these Olympics than four years ago.

At the same time, it is tied with Russia for the overall medal lead. It is one medal ahead of the Netherlands and three medals ahead of Canada and Norway. The U.S. also could win a medal on every day of the Winter Olympics, which it has never done. (OK, so that’s a novelty stat.)

But with six days left of competition, the U.S. is in the running to win the overall medal count for the first time at a Winter Olympics held outside North America.

What will be a success? It’s hard to say, but Holcomb seemed pretty thrilled to contribute to the U.S. tally Monday night.

“Obviously, everybody here wants to win,” he said. “We’re happy to be in that hunt.”

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