Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds. Getty Images.

Worlds preview: U.S. ladies aim to break eight-year slump

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With two Olympic medal winners out of the World Figure Skating Championships and three top-10 finishers for the U.S. heading there this week, a long-standing streak could be broken in Saitama, Japan.

No American woman has landed on the podium at Worlds since Kimmie Meissner and Sasha Cohen won gold and bronze, respectively, in 2006, a dry spell that could end if things go the way of the red, white and blue beginning Thursday.

Gracie Gold, the reigning national champion, presents the country’s best shot of ending that streak, the 18-year-old having finished fourth at the Olympic Games last month. Ashley Wagner (seventh in Sochi) and Polina Edmunds (ninth) have outside shots at medals, as well.

More: Full Worlds schedule and streaming times | Entry list

“I want to skate two great, clean programs – that’s always my goal,” the 15-year-old Edmunds told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “Above that, I want to be in a good placement. At the Olympics I was top 10 and I hope to place higher at Worlds.”

A higher placement is highly likely for Edmunds as both the reigning Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova and silver medalist Yuna Kim will not make the trip to Worlds. Sotnikova is said to be resting and preparing for the 2014-15 season at home. Kim, meanwhile, announced her retirement at the conclusion of the Sochi Games.

The ladies event is nonetheless packed with intrigue as host Japan will hope to send Mao Asada, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist, into retirement with another world title, the 23-year-old having won this event in 2008 and 2010.

Asada crashed out of medal contention last month in Sochi with a devastating short program that left her in 16th place. She rebounded in the free skate, performing flawlessly and finishing sixth overall.

Like Asada, Olympic bronze medalist and fellow former world champ (2012) Carolina Kostner will look for a golden swan song in Saitama, the Italian having had a career-crowning performance in Sochi.

More: World Figure Skating Championships men’s preview | Pairs preview

The American Gold has been steadily improving on the ice since joining forces with legendary coach Frank Carroll in October. The Los Angeles-based Chicago native’s fourth-place finish in Sochi landed her just off the medal stand a year after making her senior debut at the U.S. Championships in 2013.

It was last year at Worlds that Wagner and Gold finished fifth and sixth respectively, helping the U.S. earn a third spot for the Sochi Games. The U.S. women should secure the same third place at Worlds again this year with the burgeoning star in Edmunds, the surprise silver medalist at Nationals in January.

“I’m excited, but this is just another competition for me. I’m really comfortable headed into Worlds,” said Edmunds, adding that her eyes are fixed on the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. “I think that every competition I go to throughout the next four years is a step leading up to the next Olympics and it’s my goal to get there again. I know that anything can happen but I just want to keep moving forward with my skating.”

Gold and Wagner, 22, have expressed that they’ll both make an effort to qualify for the Pyeongchang Olympics, as well. Neither were available for interviews with NBCSports.com.

With Sotnikova out of the picture, 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya will look to take her place atop the world’s medal stand after faltering in the ladies’ individual event in Sochi. Lipnitskaya was the toast of Russia after skating impeccably in the team event (helping Russia win gold) only to fall in both her short and long programs and finish fifth overall, far behind Sotnikova.

The flexible teen is joined by countrywoman Anna Pogorilaya, a talented if not hot-and-cold skater at the age of 15.

Other names to watch include home favorites Akiko Suzuki (eight in Sochi) and Kanako Murakami (12th) as well as France’s Mae Berenice Meite (10th) and Valentina Marchei of Italy (11th).

Controversy continues to swirl around the sport as the Korean Skating Union and the Korean Olympic Committee announced last week that they would file an official complaint over Kim’s silver medal at the Olympics last month.

Asada, Kostner, Gold, Lipnitskaya, Wagner and Pogorilaya are all legitimate shots to medal. Asada and Kostner are both looking for their fifth World Championship podium appearance.

But for Edmunds, the Sochi experience has the teenager buzzing for more success.

“I have a lot of great memories from Sochi,” she said. “I know that throughout the years I’m going to have more and more great memories from big events. It’s really exciting to move forward with that under my belt. It was amazing – I’m never going to forget that.”

Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage for subscribers. Ladies skate Thursday for the short program (2:45 a.m. ET) and Saturday for the free skate (4:15 a.m. ET). NBC will air a World Championships recap show April 13 from 3-6 p.m. ET.

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

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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