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Snow volleyball hopes to stake claim in Winter Olympics

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Beach volleyball is moving to the mountains and swapping its sand for snow.

A spinoff of the sun-splashed sport familiar to Summer Olympic fans and seaside frolickers, snow volleyball is spreading from the Alps to the Andes and making a run at the Winter Games. If all goes well, volleyball officials say, their sport would be the first to appear in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

“Our key message is to be the No. 1 family sport in the world,” Fabio Azevedo, the general director of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think it fits perfectly to our plan.”

Itself an offshoot of the more traditional indoor game, beach volleyball has grown into one of biggest attractions of the Summer Games, thanks no doubt to the bikini and boardshorts uniforms and the party atmosphere.

Now the FIVB wants a piece of the Winter Olympics, and it sees snow volleyball as the way in. With a European tour already established, volleyball officials have set out an agenda that would bring the new snow sport to Asia, Argentina and the United States with an eye toward approval as a demonstration sport at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

“They want to push it ultimately to the Winter Olympics,” said Martin Kaswurm, whose company manages the Snow Volleyball European Tour. “It’s not something we put into the mouths of the FIVB. It’s something they had as a goal themselves.”

The continental circuit, which kicks off this weekend in the Czech ski resort of Spindleruv Mlyn, was officially sanctioned by volleyball’s European governing body for the first time last winter. Azevedo said the goal is to have a world tour next year and a fully-fledged world championship in 2019. A spot in the 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne — where the FIVB has its headquarters — is also on the federation’s radar.

From there, snow volleyball could apply for status as a demonstration sport at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Azevedo hopes to have at least an informal display at the Winter Games next year in Pyeongchang, South Korea, even if it’s just stringing up a net in a plaza somewhere.

“We definitely want to be there and show people what snow volleyball is like,” he said. “Being really conservative, in order to climb this mountain step by step, I think the Olympics in 2026.”

While Olympic ice hockey and field hockey have different rules, different equipment and different governing bodies, snow volleyball is almost identical to the beach game. The tactics and rules are also similar to the two-a-side beach sport, and many of the competitors come from beach volleyball.

“Basically, we’ve just changed the surface,” Kaswurm said. “They only thing different is that they wear soccer shoes.”

The atmosphere also resembles beach volleyball, with disc jockeys cranking out music and cheerleaders — in lederhosen instead of bikinis — pumping up the crowd .

“Music, it’s inside our DNA, man,” Azevedo said.

Usually there is a hot tub courtside, and traditionally the winners will jump in after their matches to celebrate (and warm up).

“If you’re brave enough and have your swimsuit — or not — you can just jump in. And with the drinks and other friends you can enjoy the view on the center court and all the mountains around,” said Bobb Kufa, the 2016 Czech beach champion. “Pure happiness.”

Austrian national champion Flo Schnetzer said the crowd especially loves the post-match hot tub celebration.

“The people laugh when they see people in their underwear jumping into the whirlpool,” he said. “It’s so much fun to play in such an amazing atmosphere and to play in such an amazing place. The crowd is really crazy; they love it. They like to party and they like to celebrate in the mountains.”

But playing on a mountain has its own challenges.

Mostly, because the snow is slicker than sand there is more of a premium on players who can read and react quickly than on tall ones who can block. It’s also easier to jump on the compacted snow, so shorter players can be more effective blockers and height is less of an advantage.

“Snow volleyball is for smart and flexible players,” Kufa said. “All the moves are much slower. That means you have to be smarter – especially in defense. You have to decide the direction you want to go, and that’s all. You can’t take it back – otherwise you find yourself on your back with the shoes up to the air.”

The thinner air also slows the players down.

“You can really feel it,” Schnetzer said. “It’s really intense after just a short time. So you need to be physically really well prepared to be able to play on the mountains.”

And let’s not forget the cold.

“It is a mountain, so you should be ready for weather changes and be prepared for all kinds of weather,” Kufa said.

So far, the tournaments have been scheduled at resorts — with free admission — as something for the skiers to watch when they need a break. For the players at an event in Iran earlier this month, it was a quick diversion from the Kish Island beach event scheduled the following week.

That’s one big advantage snow volleyball has over other sports trying to join the Olympic program: It already has a strong federation and a ready pool of potential players from the beach game, including 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Martins Plavins of Latvia and the top beach players from several European countries.

Three-time Olympian Phil Dalhausser, a 2008 gold medalist, said he would wait until his beach career is over to give it a try.

“I would be too afraid of hurting myself,” said Dalhausser, who was born in Switzerland but has spent most of his life near the beaches of Florida and California. “The snow probably would be pretty slippery.”

Dalhausser said anything that gets people to watch and play any form of volleyball is good for the sport. And once fans see snow volleyball, Azevedo said, they will be hooked — just like those who have come to follow the beach version every four years at the Summer Olympics.

“Both of them are two parties,” Azevedo said. “But if you organize a party in your home, it’s probably different than a party I am organizing in my home. So, there are two different energies. But I can tell you you are going to enjoy both of them.”

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Alina Zagitova hands Yevgenia Medvedeva first loss in 2 years

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Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva is no longer the clear favorite in the Winter Olympics’ marquee event.

The two-time world champion lost for the first time in more than two years, upset by training partner Alina Zagitova at the European Figure Skating Championships in Moscow.

Italian Carolina Kostner earned bronze.

Zagitova, the 15-year-old world junior champion, set personal bests in the short program and free skate and totaled 238.24 points. She beat Medvedeva by 5.38 points.

Medvedeva, in her first competition since November due to a broken foot, fully rotated all of her jumps Saturday, but Zagitova was cleaner. She also stumbled out of a double Axel in her short program.

“I did not feel the injury,” Medvedeva said after the short program, according to the International Skating Union. “Everything has healed.”

Full results are here. NBCSN will air coverage Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.

Zagitova was born three months after the Salt Lake City Olympics and without a name for her first year. Her parents eventually decided on Alina after watching Olympic rhythmic gymnastics champion Alina Kabayeva on TV.

She had been working to this point in her first senior international season. She swept her two fall Grand Prix starts, then won the Grand Prix Final in December, all without Medvedeva in the field.

On Saturday, she landed all of her jumps (including seven triples) in the second half of her program for 10 percent bonuses. It’s the type of technical content layout ambitious enough to challenge Medvedeva.

“I think that Zhenia [Medvedeva] is her role model in life, in behavior, in her way to work,” shared coach Eteri Tutberidze said last year, according to Goldenskate.com. “Alina absolutely tries to copy her way to work, the amount of work and she doesn’t stop. This helps. I can sometimes show Zhenia and say, ‘Look how Alina is working,’ and I tell Alina, ‘Look how Zhenia is working.’”

Medvedeva, whose last defeat was in November 2015, also won both of her Grand Prix starts, posting the world’s highest scores this season, while dealing with foot pain.

She underwent an MRI that revealed a crack, then withdrew from the Grand Prix Final and the Russian Championships in December. She is still expected to be on the Olympic Athlete from Russia team in PyeongChang.

Kostner, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist who made her Europeans debut in 2003, fell on her opening triple Lutz and landed just three triple jumps Saturday.

She hung on to win a medal at her 11th straight European Championships.

Russian Maria Sotskova, the Grand Prix Final silver medalist, fell on her last triple jump, a Lutz, among other landing troubles. She placed fourth.

Those four skaters are the Olympic medal contenders along with Canadians Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman and Japanese Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto.

U.S. champion Bradie Tennell ranks 14th in the world this season.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Julia Marino, Hailey Langland qualify for Olympics; U.S. sweeps possible

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The addition of snowboard big air to the Olympics next month means Jamie AndersonJulia Marino and Hailey Langland have two chances for a U.S. podium sweep in PyeongChang.

Marino and Langland qualified for the U.S. big air and slopestyle team Saturday, joining the already qualified Anderson, who won slopestyle’s debut in Sochi.

Anderson, Marino and Langland swept the podium in that order at the last Olympic qualifier in slopestyle in Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

They also made up three of the top four riders at the 2017 X Games big air and slopestyle.

The U.S. has never swept the Winter Olympic medals in a women’s event but could do so in big air, slopestyle and even snowboard halfpipe in PyeongChang.

MORE: U.S. Olympic roster

While Anderson is the veteran, an X Games medalist 11 of the last 12 years, Marino and Langland represent the new wave of U.S. big air and slopestyle riders.

Marino, a 20-year-old from Connecticut who trains in Quebec, earned slopestyle and big air medals at X Games Aspen and Oslo last year in her debuts at those events.

They included slopestyle gold in Aspen over Anderson.

Langland, a 17-year-old from Southern California who plays the ukulele, guitar and piano, won the first X Games women’s big air title last year and took bronze in slopestyle in 2016.

Born in 2000, she is younger than any previous female Olympic snowboarding medalist.

“She reminds me of a younger me,” Anderson said, according to NBC Olympic Research.

The U.S. could add a fourth woman to the big air/slopestyle team, likely either Jessika Jenson or Ty Walker, a pair of 2014 Olympians in slopestyle.

The U.S. men are not as strong internationally in big air and slopestyle, where the Olympic favorites hail from Canada and Norway.

Kyle Mack won the last qualifier Saturday — without the top international riders in the field — to clinch the third and last automatic spot on the men’s big air/slopestyle team.

Chris Corning and Red Gerard previously qualified for PyeongChang. A fourth rider can be added via discretionary selection.

U.S. Olympic Qualifying Standings
Snowboard Big Air/Slopestyle 
(through five of five events)
Three riders auto qualify per gender; one possible discretionary spot
1. Chris Corning — 2,000* QUALIFIED
1. Red Gerard — 2,000* QUALIFIED
3. Kyle Mack — 1,800* QUALIFIED

4. Chandler Hunt — 1,400* (2nd and 3rd)
5. Ryan Stassel — 1,400 (2nd and 3rd)

1. Jamie Anderson — 2,000* QUALIFIED
2. Julia Marino — 1,800* QUALIFIED
3. Hailey Langland — 1,600* QUALIFIED
4. Jessika Jenson — 1,600 (1st and 3rd)
5. Ty Walker — 1,300 (2nd and 4th)
*Has automatic qualifying minimum of one top-three result against entire field.

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