Forget the scoring for a moment, focus on the skating

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SOCHI, Russia – Sure it’s easy to get caught up in the scoring. Figure skating scoring is inscrutable and bizarre and it has a long history of corruption. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers of Thursday’s ladies free skate because it’s possible, even likely, that your eyes and the scores did not matched.

But if you look too hard at the scores, you might miss something else.  Thursday night, a 27-year-old Italian named Carolina Kostner took to the ice. Eight years ago, she was the darling of the Torino Games, the great figure skating hope for Italy. She fell on her first jump and never contended. The last time she was at the Olympics – four years ago in Vancouver – she fell three times. And she broke down. There’s a YouTube video of an interview with her mother, and I dare you to watch it not to cry. There’s not a word of English in the entire video. I still dare you to watch it and not cry.

After Vancouver, Kostner got hurt, and she lost hope. “I thought, ‘I have reached my limit,’” she would say. “This is my limit.” She became a student. She tried to forget. But she missed skating. The Olympics are in her blood. Her father was a member of an Olympic hockey team. Her cousin Isolde Kostner won two bronze medals in alpine skiing. Carolina did not want to believe Vancouver was her limit. Instead she told herself to stop trying to be perfect and start skating for herself, for the joy.

VIDEO: Watch Kostner’s routine

She took the ice in Sochi, and “Bolero” began to play, and she landed her first jump, a triple lutz. From there, the music swept her away. She landed every jump. She skated with this big, beautiful smile on her face. The crowd – with hardly an Italian in the place – was mesmerized by her. When she finished the best performance of her life, the joy on her face was indescribable. She had done it.

Thursday, a 17-year-old Russian named Adelina Sotnikova took the ice. She had once been the skating prodigy of Russia. She won the national championship when she was 12. Around the Vancouver Games, when people first began talking of an Olympics in Russia, the feeling was that it would be Sotnikova’s Games. She was the future.

And then … she wasn’t. The fizzling phenom is a common story in sports. Sotnikova so dominated the junior ranks – she was junior world champion in 2011 – but her skating didn’t transfer easily to the next level. She would say that she wanted to prove her maturity, prove that she could skate like a woman and not just like a little girl. Instead, her performances were uneven. Her athletic brilliance – she skates one of the most difficult routines in the world – was often overshadowed by dramatic failures. She almost never skated a clean free skate.

VIDEO: Watch Sotnikova’s routine

Meanwhile, a new Russian skating prodigy – there’s always a new prodigy – named Yulia Lipnitskaya came along. It was Lipnitskaya, not the older Sotnikova, who skated for Russia in the team competition early in these Olympics. There, she skated so beautifully that the world fell in love with Yulia. Sotnikova steamed. “I was really angry,” she would say of not getting chose to skate at least once for the team. And, “it made me skate mad.”

By the time she stepped on the ice Thursday, Lipnitskaya had already skated … and fallen. The Russian crowd had invested so much in Yulia (and had gasped with the same shock when she fell for the second straight day) you wondered if they had anything left to give. Sotnikova began her skate. Her first jump sequence was a triple lutz into a triple toe loop … I’m told it’s the hardest two-jump combination in women’s skating. She landed both jumps perfectly.

VIDEO: Watch Lipnitskaya’s routine

And then she, like Kostner, seemed to light up. The Russian crowd, of course, helped her. They cheered every landing as if it was a hockey goal. When Sotnikova had her one slight bobble – a double loop that sort of spun her around – the crowd did not seem to notice. They had found their hero, and Sotnikova skated an inspired performance. They cheered her through it. She finished strong. And when she had finished the best performance of her life, she beamed and held her arms up in the air. Bouquets and teddy bears came flying in from everywhere in the crowd, and the sound was the loudest I have heard in Russia. She had done it.

Thursday, the last skater of the evening was a 23-year-old woman from South Korea named Yuna Kim. She had won the gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics with a performance so dazzling and flawless that many people believed even then she was the best figure skater who ever lived.

After Vancouver, she quit skating. Her heart was not in it. Before Vancouver, she would say, “I thought I would die for gold.” After winning under the most intense pressure, she no long felt that same motivation, that same hunger. There was probably no athlete on earth – maybe retired Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar—who had the weight of a country so squarely on his or her shoulders as Yuna Kim at Vancouver. They called her “Queen Yuna” and expected her to get gold.

VIDEO: Watch Yuna Kim’s routine

When she won that gold, she became one of the most famous people in the country. She walked away from skating and hosted her own reality ice skating show. She did countless commercials (it is estimated she makes more than $10 million a year in endorsements). She performed as a singer on television from time to time. She was the headliner at her own ice skating shows. She was also a key reason why South Korea was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Skater Michelle Kwan, who accompanied Yuna Kim at times in South Korea, says it’s simply like nothing she has ever seen – the love people there feel for Yuna Kim.

After a year and a half away did she come back … at which point she promptly hurt her foot. For every other skater at the Olympics, there was a “Best season-to-date score” listed by her name on the scoreboard. But not for Kim. She had not skated all season. Nobody knew what to expect, least of all Kim. She would say that before her short skate Wednesday, she had never been more nervous.

She took the ice Thursday to the song “Adios Nonino,” and she, like Sotnikova, faced a triple lutz and triple toe loop to start. And she landed both easily. The Russian crowd undoubtedly had cold feelings because they wanted their Sotnikova to win gold. But they could not help but get caught up in the beauty of Kim’s skating. Nobody in the world skates quite like her. She is so smooth and graceful that you are never quite sure how she builds up so much speed. She skated a brilliant and clean performance. And when it ended, the cheers were not as loud as for Sotnikova, but loud enough and filled with the deepest respect for an artist. She, too, had done it.

VIDEO: Hamilton, Bezic, Wilson on the scoring debate

Sure, it’s easy to get caught up in the scoring. The three performances, all so brilliant, all achieved under the white hot line of a magnifying glass, won the skaters gold, silver and bronze … exactly as it should have been. But who deserved the gold? Who deserved the silver? Who deserved the bronze?

“My bronze feels like gold,” said the bronze medalist.

“I was just relieved I skated cleanly,” said the silver medalist.

“I didn’t believe my eyes,” said the gold medalist.

I prefer it like that, all of them as winners. But, of course, the Olymipcs are not like that. You know, I assume, the names behind those medals. You will know that Adelina Sotnikova did win the gold to Russia’s great joy. Yuna Kim won silver and many skating experts thought she deserved better. Carolina Kostner won bronze and there were those who thought she was better than one or the other or both.

There was a lot of heat in the moments after. There was crying. There were arguments. There was a lot of Twitter fury. Figure skating scoring will always be a story because people will always see figure skating with their hearts. That’s the messiness of the sport. Then, that’s also the point of it.

Alison, Bruno rout Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena in FIVB World Tour Finals title match

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Brazil looks golden in beach volleyball, 10 months ahead of the Rio Olympics.

Brazilian pairs swept the FIVB World Tour Finals in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Sunday, capped by World champions Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt crushing 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena 21-13, 21-15 in a meeting of arguably the world’s two best teams.

“They are the No. 1 team in the world,” Lucena said. “We will get there.”

Earlier, Larissa and Talita beat Germans Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst 21-17, 21-18 in the women’s final. Larissa and Talita have won 11 of the 16 international tournaments they’ve played since teaming up in July 2014.

Perhaps more dominant are Alison, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist with the legendary Emanuel, and Schmidt, nephew of Olympic basketball all-time scoring leader Oscar Schmidt. They swept the three biggest tournament titles of 2015 — the World Tour Finals plus the World Championships in the Netherlands in July and the World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach, Calif., in August, during a stretch when they won all five FIVB World Tour events in those two months.

Brazil last earned an Olympic beach volleyball title in 2004, with Americans taking three of the four gold medals since. Volleyball, indoor and beach, is arguably the No. 2 sport in Brazil behind soccer, and the 2016 Olympic tournaments on Copacabana Beach will be highly anticipated.

Alison, an imposing 6-foot-8 figure nicknamed “Mammoth” with a matching tattoo, and Bruno also beat Dalhausser and Lucena in the World Series of Beach Volleyball final Aug. 23.

That tournament marked the American duo’s international return after Dalhausser and partner and two-time Olympian Sean Rosenthal split. The Floridians Dalhausser, 35, and Lucena, 36, had previously played together through the 2005 season.

On Wednesday, Dalhausser and Lucena beat Alison and Bruno in three sets in pool play. The two pairs had played 209 points together over two matches going into Sunday’s final, with the Americans holding a 105-104 points won advantage.

“There is no rivalry yet,” Lucena said. “They are a good measuring stick for us. They show us where we need to be.”

Three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings missed the World Tour Finals after undergoing season-ending right shoulder surgery, while partner and Olympic silver medalist April Ross teamed with sub partner Lauren Fendrick and lost in the quarterfinals Friday.

The FIVB World Tour season continues with a tournament in Puerto Vallerta, Mexico, this week. producer Seth Rubinroit contributed to this report from Fort Lauderdale.

MORE BEACH VOLLEYBALL: PHOTOS: Alison/Bruno, Dalhausser/Lucena play match on helipad

WATCH LIVE: Possible Olympic final preview in FIVB World Tour Finals — 2:30 p.m. ET

Alison, Bruno
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The World champions will play beach volleyball’s hottest team Sunday in an intriguing FIVB Word Tour Finals championship match and possible Olympic final preview, live on NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra.

Brazilians Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt established themselves as beach volleyball’s best team by winning every international tournament they entered this July and August, including the World Championship.

But the U.S. pair of Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena has been the talk of the sport since partnering in July for the first time since separating in 2005. The duo has only entered five FIVB World Tour events this year, but they have made four finals.

“We don’t consider them to be a new team,” Bruno said. “They already play together so well.”

WATCH LIVE: FIVB World Tour Finals — 2:30 p.m. ET

There are many similarities between the pairs.

Alison and Dalhausser are both intimidating blockers. Dalhausser has been named the FIVB World Tour’s best blocker six times, while Alison was recognized in 2011.

In fact, Lucena called Alison “a thicker version of Phil.” Alison, who is known as “Mammoth,” has 35 pounds on Dalhausser, the “Thin Beast.”

Bruno and Lucena are speedy defensive specialists. Dalhausser called Bruno, nephew of Olympic basketball’s all-time leading scorer Oscar Schmidt, the world’s best defender.

“Bruno might be better than me,” Lucena said, laughing, “but I am taller.”

Both Bruno and Lucena are listed at 6-foot-1.

Dalhausser also compared to Lucena to Todd Rogers, his 2008 Olympic gold medal partner. Dalhausser described Lucena as “more explosive” than Rogers, who was named the FIVB World Tour’s best defensive player three times.

“Todd was super competitive, and Nick is the same way,” Dalhausser said.

Alison and Bruno and Dalhausser and Lucena split their first two meetings (not counting a recent exhibition on a helipad). They’ve played 209 points. Alison and Bruno have won 104. Dalhausser and Lucena have won 105.

Alison and Bruno won the first clash, 21–16, 20–22, 15–13 in the World Series of Beach Volleyball final in Long Beach, Calif., on Aug. 23.

Then Dalhausser and Lucena won Wednesday, 18-21, 21-16, 15-11 in a pool-play match that Lucena called “the most competitive match we’ve played.”

Dalhausser and Lucena, who are both from Florida, are counting on the heat to be a third teammate in Fort Lauderdale.

“We have to wear out the big guy,” Dalhausser said, referring to Alison. “We hope it’s 150 degrees, and we will serve him every time.”

The winning team will receive $100,000. It is the biggest international first-place monetary prize ever.

“They are the best team in the world,” Lucena said. “We want to change that and show what we can do.”

On the women’s side, Brazilians Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes and Germans Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst advanced to Sunday’s final, which will be live on Universal Sports Network at 1:00 p.m. ET. Larissa and Talita have won 10 of the 15 international events they’ve played since debuting in July 2014.

Three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings missed the World Tour Finals due to season-ending right shoulder surgery. Her partner, Olympic silver medalist April Ross, teamed with Lauren Fendrick this past week, and they lost in the quarterfinals.

MORE BEACH VOLLEYBALL: ‘Mammoth,’ ‘Magician,’ bring Brazil back atop beach volleyball