Savchenko and Szolkowy. Getty Images.

Savchenko/Szolkowy capture fifth world championship pairs crown

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Sometimes in sport, momentum means nothing.

So was the case in the pairs portion of the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, over the last few days as two teams left the competition with very different feelings than they came in with.

It was elation for Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, the pair having entered into Worlds after what was considered to be a markedly disappointing Olympic effort, in which they placed third.

But here the veterans were on their game in both programs, Thursday morning finishing off what they had started by capturing their fifth World Championship gold medal with a steely performance to “The Nutcracker” (a follow up to their eye-catching “Pink Panther” short), the same routine that they faltered on in Sochi.

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It was a feeling of disappointment for Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fyodor Klimov, however. After placing second at the Olympic Games last month, the pair came into Worlds with the opportunity to take hold of the mantle held by compatriots (and Olympic gold medalists) Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov.

But it was not to be for the 22 and 23-year-old, Stolbova barely holding onto a landing in their opening triple flip throw and the pair looking shaky throughout their “Addams Family” free skate.

Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, Canadians who had placed a disappointing seventh in Sochi, shook off their bad fortune for a second straight World Championship bronze.

It was the opposite for Americans Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, the two-time U.S. champions having continuously gotten better through four programs (two team, two individual) at the Olympics only to come out flat in Saitama. Ninth in Sochi, the pair was 11th here and clearly disappointed with the result.

The other American pair, Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, were 14th overall.

“This is a disappointment for us,” Shnapir said in a statement via U.S. Figure Skating. “This obviously was not representative of what we do at home. It is frustrating especially [after] how Nationals and the Olympics went. It’s a tough way to end the season.”

It is a bittersweet gold for Savchenko/Szolkowy, who at 30 and 34, respectively, may have missed their window to win an Olympic gold. Their five World Championship titles have bookended the 2010 and 2014 Games: 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2014. They won bronze in both Vancouver and Sochi.

“Being world champion feels really great,” Szolkowy told the crowd after their win, a first since 2012. “It was a pleasure for us to skate here in our last competition of the season.”

Castelli/Shnapir were again flat on the ice in their free skate, Castelli falling hard on the team’s attempt of the quadruple Salchow throw, an element that Castelli held on to in both programs at the Olympics.

Castelli/Shnapir were 13th a year ago at Worlds. No U.S. pair has finished inside the top five at the World Championships since Rena Inoue and John Baldwin were fourth in 2006.

Final results – Pairs
1. Aliona SAVCHENKO/Robin SZOLKOWY GER 224.88
2. Ksenia STOLBOVA/Fedor KLIMOV RUS 215.92
3. Meagan DUHAMEL/Eric RADFORD CAN 210.84
4. Kirsten MOORE-TOWERS/Dylan MOSCOVITCH CAN 205.55
5. Cheng PENG/Hao ZHANG CHN 194.83
6. Wenjing SUI/Cong HAN CHN 192.10
7. Vera BAZAROVA/Yuri LARIONOV RUS 189.44
8. Julia ANTIPOVA/Nodari MAISURADZE RUS
11. Marissa CASTELLI/Simon SHNAPIR USA 170.90
14. Felicia ZHANG/Nathan BARTHOLOMAY USA 151.78

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. — 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