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The beach volleyball player who turned down Kerri Walsh Jennings

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VIENNA — A fan holding a large beer gestured to Sara Hughes with his free hand as he watched the world beach volleyball championships.

“That’s her,” the fan was overheard saying. “She’s the one who turned down Kerri Walsh Jennings.”

Word has gotten out that Hughes had the opportunity to partner with Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion, but instead chose to continue with collegiate partner Kelly Claes.

Claes and Hughes met as teenagers at a beach volleyball camp. Hughes, who had played since age 8, approached Claes, who was new to the sand, about a partnership.

“The chemistry was there just like that,” Claes said, snapping her fingers.

When it came time to pick a college, Claes initially committed to Long Beach State for indoor volleyball. But Hughes convinced her to instead play beach volleyball at USC.

They won two national championships as a pair at USC, where Claes, a redhead, and Hughes, a blonde, were nicknamed “Cardinal and Gold” after the school’s official colors. They graduated in May, with Hughes delivering the student-athlete graduation speech (VIDEO).

They describe themselves as “goofballs,” and often turned USC practices into dance parties by blasting their music at full volume over the loudspeakers.

“There are a million funny stories about these two dancing queens,” USC coach Anna Collier said. “I think the humor that they share together helps keep their relationship both on and off the court very solid.”

During their senior season, Hughes was contacted several times by Walsh Jennings, who split with Olympic bronze medal teammate April Ross in April. Walsh Jennings even flew to Alabama to watch Hughes compete at the NCAA championships, and told ESPN.com “all I wanted to do was play with [Hughes].”

But Hughes was not ready to respond to Walsh Jennings.

“I was honest and told her I couldn’t give her an answer right in the middle of the season with my team,” Hughes said.

Hughes was open with Claes about her conversations with Walsh Jennings.

“It’s really cool that my partner got asked by Kerri Walsh Jennings, and she decided to stay with me,” Claes said. “That just shows how much Sara believes in us.”

Walsh Jennings ultimately partnered with Nicole Branagh, but is sidelined after dislocating her five-times surgically repaired right shoulder in a match in July.

It has been a whirlwind couple of months for Claes and Hughes. Immediately after the NCAA Championships, they flew to Rio for an international tournament. Their best international result in their first full season on the FIVB World Tour was a quarterfinal in Porec, Croatia, a month ago.

They are now the top-ranked U.S. team as worlds get under way in the Austrian capital (broadcast schedule here).

“It’s a dream come true to be here,” Claes said. “We thought we would be watching this at home.”

They are enjoying life as professionals. In Vienna, they took a break from training to practice line dancing, and they plan on visiting the Prater, a public park believed to be home to the oldest amusement park in the world.

But they are all business on the sand.

“We want to show everyone that we are a force to be reckoned with,” Hughes said. “We aren’t these college girls that came out to just to have fun and play. We are here to win and be the best team.”

Partner changes are common in beach volleyball. Of the four teams that represented the U.S. at the Rio Olympics, just one is still playing together.

Even their collegiate coach believes they could benefit from a break.

“I think in some ways, after having played together for this many years, that Sara and Kelly might be nearing a ceiling in terms of their growth as a pair,” Collier said. “I think continued growth is important, and if they were to take some time apart, that when they come back together, they would have a new ceiling to reach for.”

Beijing Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser was in a similar position early in his career. In 2005, he turned down 2000 Olympic champion Dain Blanton to continue playing with childhood friend Nick Lucena. The next year, when Dalhausser was approached by another veteran in Todd Rogers, he put his emotions aside and split with Lucena. Dalhausser and Lucena reunited in 2015 and made the Rio Olympic quarterfinals.

If asked, Dalhausser would have advised Hughes to partner with Walsh Jennings and Claes to partner with Ross.

“I try to tell young players to think of themselves as a business,” Dalhausser said. “Sara would have learned so much from Kerri, and Kelly would have learned so much from April, and they would have made money right off the bat.”

But Claes, 21, and Hughes, 22, insist that they will stay together through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I believe in this [partnership] 100 percent,” said Claes, who wears a “Tokyo 2020” necklace that she has not removed in two years. “I believe we can make it to Tokyo. I believe we can take gold. I want to do all that, and I want to go through this process with [Hughes] because I love her and I know we’ve got what it takes.”

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MORE: World Beach Volleyball Championships broadcast schedule

Russian skeleton stars banned from World Cups

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The two Russians who had their medals from the Sochi Games stripped because of doping have been barred from competing in World Cup races, at least temporarily.

It’s the latest sanction against Aleksandr Tretiakov and Elena Nikitina, who had their medals — gold for Tretiakov, bronze for Nikitina — taken away Wednesday after it was determined they were part of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program at the 2014 Olympics. They have already been banned from future Olympics, and now may have no place to slide.

The International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation handed down the suspensions Thursday, effective immediately. Tretiakov and Nikitina were both planning to compete in World Cup races at Whistler, British Columbia, this weekend.

In all, four Russians have been suspended by the IBSF. Along with Tretiakov and Nikitina, Mariia Orlova and Olga Potylitsyna — who have been racing on the lesser-tier Intercontinental Cup Circuit this season — were also banned, just as they were by the IOC. All four are expected to appeal, and the IBSF said they will be entitled to a hearing if that happens.

“Sport is all about who’s the best on that day and if anything compromises that, like the situations in Sochi, it taints everything and kind of undermines the fundamental belief in the system and the competition itself,” said USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO Darrin Steele, also is a vice president with the IBSF. “This is kind of righting the ship.”

The IBSF’s decision is a strong one and is in stark contrast to one made by the International Ski Federation, which is allowing Russian cross-country skiers who were found guilty of doping at the Sochi Olympics to compete in World Cup events this weekend. The FIS wants to see detailed reasons why the IOC disciplinary panel reached its decisions about the Russian athletes.

The IBSF isn’t waiting.

“I understand that it was a difference of culture and that the Russians don’t believe they did anything wrong,” U.S. women’s skeleton veteran Katie Uhlaender said after the IOC decision to strip the medals and issue the Olympic bans was announced Wednesday. “But this was the only way to fix it.”

Uhlaender will be promoted to the bronze medal spot once Nikitina, as the IOC has ordered, surrenders what had been her bronze from Sochi and the IBSF updates the results. Tretiakov was the men’s gold-medalist; the revised order of finish for that event will now have Latvia’s Martins Dukurs getting gold, Matt Antoine of the U.S. bumped up to silver and Latvia’s Tomass Dukurs, Martins’ brother, will become the bronze medalist.

Uhlaender, who was fourth, will soon officially be third behind gold medalist Lizzy Yarnold of Britain and silver medalist Noelle Pikus-Pace of the U.S.

Sliders have lauded the IOC for doing the right thing, though noted that racers like Uhlaender and Tomass Dukurs — even once they have medals in hand — will never be able to replicate the moment on a podium that they should have had in Sochi.

“Having the physical medal’s cool, but most of it in my opinion is the experience of everything that happens,” Antoine said. “That’s what you cherish the most.”

Not having the top Russians on the World Cup circuit figures to have a major impact on the points standings.

Nikitina was the World Cup women’s points leader after the first two races of the season, and was coming off a victory last weekend in Park City, Utah. Tretiakov was fourth so far in the men’s standings, including a bronze at the season-opening race in Lake Placid, New York.

Russian skiers banned from Olympics allowed to race World Cup opener

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian cross-country skiers found guilty of doping at the Sochi Olympics can compete in World Cup races this weekend because the International Ski Federation (FIS) has been unable to prosecute its own cases in time.

Six Russians, including two Sochi medalists, were retroactively disqualified from the Winter Games this month and banned from the Olympics for life by the IOC.

FIS previously blocked all six from competing with interim suspensions, but those expired on Oct. 31. The International Olympic Committee judging panel then reached its verdicts this month.

However, FIS said Thursday that its own judicial body lacks key IOC documents to process cases.

“Consequently, the FIS Doping Panel is obliged to wait until the IOC Disciplinary Commission reasoned decisions are submitted with details of the evidence relied on,” said the governing body, which is responsible for imposing competition bans.

“As a consequence the active athletes are eligible to compete in FIS including World Cup competitions for the time being,” FIS said.

The World Cup season for men and women begins Friday in Ruka, Finland, with sprint and long-distance racing.

Organizers had not published starting lists Thursday for the three-day meeting and it was unclear which of the six intend to start.

Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin both won multiple medals in Sochi but were stripped by the IOC. The others suspended by the IOC were Evgeny Belov, Alexei Petukhov, Yulia Ivanova and Evgenia Shapovalova.

FIS said rules governed by the World Anti-Doping Agency meant it could not re-impose interim bans without “a specific allegation” plus evidence.

Attempting to assure cross-country skiers they will not be competing against doped rivals, FIS said an additional and independent testing program for Russians has been in operation since June and has taken about 250 blood and urine samples.

The three-man IOC disciplinary panel — chaired by Denis Oswald, a Swiss lawyer and member of the Olympic body’s executive board — has not issued detailed reasons for judgments in 10 cases from Sochi so far completed in cross-country skiing and skeleton.

Without positive doping tests, the panel used evidence of state-backed cover-ups and tampering of sample bottles in the Sochi laboratory first gathered last year by WADA investigator Richard McLaren.

At least 18 more Russian athletes are having their cases prosecuted in an ongoing series of hearings in Lausanne, Switzerland.

On Wednesday, the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation said it would update “within the next days” action against four Russians, including the Sochi gold medalist Alexander Tretiyakov and bronze medalist Elena Nikitina.

Nikitina won a skeleton World Cup race last weekend in Park City, Utah — a result which may soon be overturned by the IBSF.

All the Russian athletes disqualified by the IOC can appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

On Dec. 5, IOC President Thomas Bach will announce after a board meeting if the Russian team will be banned from the Olympics, which open Feb. 9 in PyeongChang.

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MORE: IOC sets date, time to announce Russia Olympic decision