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Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross end partnership

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Five-time Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings is looking for a new partner — and a new beach volleyball tour — after rejecting an exclusivity agreement with the AVP that would have locked her into the circuit through the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

In her first public comments since breaking with the biggest, richest and longest-running domestic tour, Walsh Jennings told The Associated Press on Thursday that the deal lacked the vision to grow the game and was “a death sentence for our sport.” Among her complaints: an eight-stop circuit, with what she called minimal growth in prize money or the number of events, dooming athletes to live with their parents or take full-time jobs to support themselves.

“We’re being kept in a small little fishbowl,” Walsh Jennings told the AP. “I know our sport deserves more. We’ve been told we’re small, and we believe it.”

AVP owner Donald Sun declined to respond to the comments. But when Walsh Jennings missed the deadline to sign before this week’s season-opening Huntington Beach (Calif.) Open, he told the AP: “I respect her decisions, and I wish her well.”

The decision to opt out of the AVP tour also means Walsh Jennings will split with April Ross, her partner in Rio de Janeiro when they won the Olympic bronze medal. Walsh Jennings won three straight gold medals with Misty May-Treanor, who retired after the London Games.

Walsh Jennings and Ross could continue to pair up on the international tour, where teams earn points to qualify for the 2020 Games, but that would mean maintaining separate partnerships domestically and abroad. Ross’ decision to sign the deal means she couldn’t play in the competing National Volleyball League, which lists four 2017 events on its website.

Walsh Jennings said she was disappointed the partnership had to end. Asked if the two could get back together before the qualification period for the Tokyo Olympics begins in 2019, she said, “April and I are finished. We’re not competing together anymore.”

“I have a ton of respect for April,” she said. “I just have a different vision for the future.”

With its party atmosphere dropped into picturesque backdrops like London’s Horse Guards Parade and Rio’s Copacabana Beach, beach volleyball emerges every four years as the darling of the Olympics. (The bikinis don’t hurt with the TV audience, either.)

But the sport’s efforts to establish a stable U.S. tour have left it running in the sand.

Beach volleyball athletes have quarreled with USA Volleyball, arguing that the national governing body’s efforts were skewed toward the indoor game. The AVP twice declared bankruptcy, and since emerging from the second reorganization it has found itself in competition with the NVL, even though all agree that one, stable tour would be best for the sport. And, when the NCAA considered adding beach volleyball to its list of sanctioned programs, among the opponents were indoor volleyball coaches who were afraid of losing their top athletes to the sandier, sexier side of the sport.

Walsh Jennings, who has been at the forefront of many of these fights, said her goal remains to do what’s best for her sport. As its most visible and marketable athlete, at least in the United States, she is able to make a living by relying on endorsement deals others don’t have.

“I am in a blessed position,” she said.

Walsh Jennings also said her objection to the deal has nothing to do with a lawsuit she has filed against the AVP, claiming breach of a personal services contract, or with a dispute over rule changes that led her to boycott an event last summer.

“I know my intentions are pure,” she said. “And this is not about not being grateful. This is about knowing there’s more and better out there. I believe in the sport. I believe in the sport at the highest level. That’s what I’m going after. It’s all there for the taking.”

And, she said, she couldn’t bring herself to sign a deal that would hold the sport back.

“I want to believe in what I’m doing,” she said. “I believe in what I’m doing much more than if I had signed this contract.”

Walsh Jennings, who would turn 42 during the Tokyo Games, repeated that she is not retiring and is still determined to attend her sixth Olympics. Asked what’s next, she said: “I get myself a partner; I don’t know who that’s going to be. That’s exciting for me, to grow toward Tokyo.”

And, while Ross and most of the other American professionals are opening the season in Huntington Beach, Walsh Jennings was off to the NCAA beach volleyball championships in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

“I figured I’m not playing this weekend,” she said, “so I want to go support the good stuff.”

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USA Gymnastics closes Karolyi Ranch

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USA Gymnastics said it will no longer use the Karolyi Ranch in Texas as its training center, where athletes said Larry Nassar sexually abused gymnasts.

“USA Gymnastics has terminated its agreement with the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas,” USA Gymnastics CEO and president Kerry Perry said in a press release Thursday. “It will no longer serve as the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center.

“It has been my intent to terminate this agreement since I began as president and CEO in December. Our most important priority is our athletes, and their training environment must reflect this. We are committed to a culture that empowers and supports our athletes.

“We have cancelled next week’s training camp for the U.S. Women’s National Team. We are exploring alternative sites to host training activities and camps until a permanent location is determined. We thank all those in the gymnastics community assisting in these efforts.”

MORE: Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

World champions Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols said that Nassar sexually abused gymnasts at the ranch.

“When I was 15 I started to have back problems while at a National Team Camp at the Karolyi Ranch,” Nichols wrote in a victim impact statement read at one of Nassar’s sentencing hearings on Wednesday and published last week. “This is when the changes in his medical treatments occurred.

“I trusted what he was doing at first, but then he started touching me in places I really didn’t think he should. He didn’t have gloves on and he didn’t tell me what he was doing. There was no one else in the room and I accepted what he was doing because I was told by adults that he was the best doctor and he could help relieve my pain.

“He did this ‘treatment’ on me, on numerous occasions.”

Raisman, a three-time Olympic champion, urged USA Gymnastics to close the ranch in a Tuesday interview on ESPN.

“I hope USA Gymnastics listens because they haven’t listened to us so far,” she said. “I hope they listen, and I hope they don’t make any of the girls go back to the ranch. No one should have to go back there after, you know, so many of us were abused there.”

Simone Biles did not specifically name the Karolyi Ranch in her Monday statement, but Raisman said Tuesday that Biles was referring to that site.

“It is impossibly difficult to relive these experiences and it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing at Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused,” was posted on Biles’ social media.

Jamie Dantzscher, a 2000 Olympian, said Nassar was alone with her in her bed at the ranch.

“There was no one else sent with him,” she said on CBS last year. “The treatment was in the bed, in my bed that I slept on at the ranch.”

USA Gymnastics said in July 2016 that it reached an agreement with former national team coordinators Bela and Martha Karolyi to purchase the training facility the couple owned.

The national governing body backed out of the purchase in May “for a variety of reasons” but continued under its current lease agreement while exploring alternative locations for camps. It held national team camps there in September and November.

The Karolyis established the ranch in 1983 after defecting from Romania. It had been a national team training center since 2001.

Larry Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A statement from McKayla Maroney read Thursday repeated that sexual assault by Larry Nassar “left scars” in her mind that may never fade as a judge heard a third day of testimony from victims.

Nassar could be sentenced Friday in Lansing. Since Tuesday, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has been listening to dozens of young women who were molested after seeking his help for injuries.

Aquilina started the hearing Thursday by saying Nassar had written a letter fearing that his mental health wasn’t strong enough to sit and listen to a parade of victims. He called the hearing “a media circus.”

The judge dismissed it as “mumbo jumbo.”

“Spending four or five days listening to them is minor, considering the hours of pleasure you’ve had at their expense, ruining their lives,” Aquilina said.

Nassar, 54, faces a minimum sentence of 25 to 40 years in prison for molesting girls as a doctor for Michigan State University and at his home.

He also was a team doctor at USA Gymnastics for nearly two decades. He’s already been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for child pornography crimes.

“Dr. Nassar was not a doctor,” Maroney said in a statement read by a prosecutor (Maroney’s statement was previously posted in the fall). “He left scars on my psyche that may never go away.”

USA Gymnastics in 2016 reached a financial settlement with Maroney that barred her from making disparaging remarks. But the organization this week said it would not seek any money for her “brave statements.”

A 2000 Olympian, Jamie Dantzscher, looked at Nassar and said, “How dare you ask any of us for forgiveness.”

“Your days of manipulation are over,” she said. “We have a voice. We have the power now.”

Nassar wasn’t the only target. Victims also criticized Michigan State and USA Gymnastics.

Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon attended part of the session Wednesday. The school is being sued by dozens of women, who say campus officials wrote off complaints about the popular doctor.

“Guess what? You’re a coward, too,” current student and former gymnast Lindsey Lemke said Thursday, referring to Simon.

The judge has been praising each speaker and criticizing Nassar.

It’s “about their control over other human beings and feeling like God and they can do anything,” Aquilina said of sex offenders.

On Jan. 31, Nassar will get another sentence for sexual assaults at a Lansing-area gymnastics club in a different county.