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April Ross finds new partner for Tokyo 2020 Olympic run

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April Ross, a silver and bronze medalist at the last two Olympics, will try for gold in 2020 with a new partner who has no international beach volleyball experience.

Ross said she and Alix Klineman, a recent beach convert from indoor, are partnering for this Olympic cycle, beginning with the first FIVB World Tour event of 2018 in January.

“It was [either] the safe choice or the choice I thought was challenging but had the most potential,” Ross said on a podcast published Wednesday. “It came down to really intangible things. I decided to go with Alex Klineman, take a shot at Tokyo with her.”

The 35-year-old Ross won silver at the 2012 Olympics with Jennifer Kessy and bronze in Rio with Kerri Walsh Jennings.

Ross and Walsh Jennings split last spring. Ross paired with Rio Olympian Lauren Fendrick for the rest of the season.

They won silver at the world championships, when Ross said they would re-evaluate their partnership at the end of the season.

Ross said she trained with “a couple of people” before partnering with Klineman, a 27-year-old who primarily played indoor over the last decade, including at Stanford from 2007-10.

Klineman was the Gatorade National Player of the Year coming out of high school and the Volleyball Magazine National Player of the Year for her senior season at Stanford.

She then gained some indoor national team experience, including playing as a reserve in the 2014 FIVB World Grand Prix but never at the world championships or Olympics.

Klineman also served a 13-month doping ban in 2013 and 2014 after testing positive for a banned substance found in one of her mom’s pills that she took. USADA, in announcing the 13-month ban, accepted that Klineman’s ingestion was inadvertent, and she did not intentionally cheat.

Klineman, who is 6 feet, 5 inches (three inches taller than Walsh Jennings), moved full-time to the beach in 2017, taking AVP Rookie of the Year honors but not playing any international events.

“I watched her a little bit, just after one season on the beach, I thought she was picking up some really good things, was a lot quicker than I expected her to be,” said Ross, who like Klineman played indoor volleyball in college in California (USC). “She has that chip on her shoulder a little bit. It reminds me of me when I got out onto the beach because I wanted to go to the Olympics indoor. I tried training with the national team a bunch and just felt overlooked, like all the time. Things weren’t objective. … She could keep playing indoor [professionally in Europe or Brazil] and keep making a good amount of money. She’s out here on the beach because she wants to go to the Olympics, and she has something to prove.”

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New generation of male figure skaters owns spotlight at worlds; preview

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Nobody in the men’s field at figure skating worlds owns an Olympic or world title for the first time since 1985. This could lead to the best U.S. men’s results in years.

Yuzuru HanyuJavier Fernandez and Patrick Chan combined to win every gold medal since 2011, but all of them ended their seasons at the Olympics.

This week in Milan, the four leading men, who just competed in their first Olympics, are all 20 years or younger. And that includes two Americans.

Nathan Chen can become the first world singles champion from the U.S. since Evan Lysacek in 2009. Chen and Vincent Zhou could be the first U.S. men to finish in the top five together since Lysacek and Johnny Weir in 2005. Chen, Zhou and Max Aaron could make up the best U.S. trio at a worlds in more than 20 years.

Start with Chen. The 18-year-old said he planned to compete this week regardless of what happened at the Olympics, but after his struggles in the team event and individual short programs, the quad master nailed his free skate, came home to California and said he took maybe one day off of training before this event.

Chen is one of three men in the gold-medal hunt, along with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan and world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China. While Chen largely struggled at the 2017 Worlds and in PyeongChang, Uno and Jin each made the podium at both events. And each can come close to or equal Chen in quad numbers.

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Zhou, 17, has a chance to become the youngest man to earn a world medal since Hanyu in 2012. Or the first man to win the world junior title one season and make the world senior podium the next since Yevgeny Plushenko in 1997-98.

Zhou is riding momentum. He struggled in the fall and entered nationals in January ranked fifth among Americans for the season. He placed third to make the Olympic team and then landed three clean quads in his Olympic free skate to jump from 12th to sixth.

“I did better there than a lot of people thought I would,” Zhou told NBC Sports research last week. “I knew I was capable of that all season.

“I want to reach my ultimate goal of being Olympic champion, and my best chance is in 2022 … because by 2026 I will probably be old and creaky with four prosthetic limbs.”

Aaron made it to Milan after Olympian Adam Rippon gave up his spot, and the top two alternates (Jason Brown and Ross Miner) both declined. Still, Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, is seeded seventh in the men’s field based on top scores this season.

NBC Sports figure skating researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

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Carolina Kostner the sentimental favorite at figure skating worlds

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova is without question the favorite at this week’s world figure skating championships, especially after the sprightly Russian’s training partner and rival Yevgenia Medvedeva withdrew because of injury.

She won’t be the sentimental favorite, though.

That would be Carolina Kostner, the ageless Italian star who could be competing at worlds for the last time on home soil. The 2012 champion and six-time world medalist seemed to indicate that retirement could be looming after she finished fifth at the PyeongChang Games, where she was chosen to carry the Italian flag at the Closing Ceremony.

Kostner will have a huge home crowd behind her when the event begins Wednesday in Milan.

“Decisions like that should never be taken in a hot moment. It will come naturally,” said Kostner, who no longer can compete with the sport’s high-fliers when it comes to technical marks, but whose elegant artistry and presentation often make up the difference.

“She is an example of perseverance, of a long-lasting athlete,” Medvedeva said. “I have trouble imagining how someone can stay in that shape for a very long time. When you see people like Carolina, you understand that if she can do something, then that something is possible. If you love what you do, you put all of yourself into it, like Carolina Kostner.”

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When asked about retirement, Kostner brought up her cousin, Isolde Kostner, who won three Olympic Alpine skiing medals before deciding to step away from competition.

“She stopped skiing shortly before the (2006) Olympics in Italy,” Caroline Kostner said. “Many did not understand why she wouldn’t pull through because it was her home country, and she said, ‘You will feel strongly when it is time to stop.’ And I haven’t felt it yet.”

The biggest story at the world championships in an Olympic year tends to be who is missing rather than who shows up. The grind of competing for an entire season builds toward the quadrennial event, and athletes who medal or intend to retire rarely press on to worlds. Then there are the injuries, which accumulate during the year.

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