Venezuela’s Stefany Hernandez’s sacrifices pay off for World BMX Championship

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ZOLDER, Belgium — Stefany Hernandez of Venezuela claimed the women’s elite gold after a furious race at the World BMX Championships in rainy Zolder on Saturday.

For Hernandez, a first World title meant all the sacrifices made by her family and the frigid mornings training in France had yielded something she’d long had her sights set on.

“People watch the medals [and] the race, but they don’t look at what is behind it,” Hernandez, 24, said afterward (watch her victory from her helmet GoPro here). “I’m just happy. I feel like I deserve this win, this medal.”

Hernandez, who had third-place finishes this season at World Cups in Manchester, Great Britain, and Papendal, Netherlands, got an earlier start to the sport than most. Her mother, an avid BMX fan, started having contractions before Stefany’s birth while watching a local BMX race, and insisted she watch the end of the race before going to the hospital.

Her father once sold his car to pay for Hernandez’s fare to her first World Championships in 2001. Hernandez was unable to attend most of the World Championships as an amateur because of costs. But at 18, upon receiving funding from the Venezuelan government, she left home to train in France.

“I didn’t speak any French or any English,” she said. “I just wanted to ride my bike. My dream was to go to an Olympic Game.”

Hernandez competed at the London Games, but crashed in the semifinal, ending her chance of winning a medal. Venezuela, which has never had a female Olympic champion, earned one medal overall at the 2012 Olympics, a men’s fencing gold.

After a brief stint away from BMX, Hernandez resumed training in 2013. Her family in Venezuela has already purchased tickets for the Rio Games, Hernandez said.

“They say, ‘Even if we need to drive, we will go over there,’” she said (Venezuela borders Brazil to the northwest but is more than 2,000 miles from Rio de Janeiro, which is on the country’s southeast coast).

Hernandez is focused on landing more podium finishes in the Olympic qualifying cycle, which began in May 2014 and runs through May 2016, to earn a spot in Rio.

In the men’s elite race in Zolder, Dutch rider Niek Kimmann claimed his first World title (watch the race from his helmet GoPro).

Kimmann recently made headlines at the June World Cup in Papendal, where for the final he boldly chose lane eight, normally avoided by riders. He won and was awarded double the prize money for his efforts.

Kimmann, the junior World champion in 2014, edged countryman Jelle Van Gorkom for gold in Zolder. The defending World champion, Australia’s Sam Willoughby, crashed out.

Despite a strong field of Americans, including London Olympians Connor Fields, David Herman and Nic Long, none of the elite men made it into the eight-rider final. Brooke Crain finished just off the women’s podium in fourth, followed by Felicia Stancil in seventh.

Alise Post, who took silver in Friday’s time trial, looked solid heading into the final but tumbled off her bike while turning a corner of the rain-soaked track to place eighth. The BMX Supercross World Cup series continues in Engelholm, Sweden, in August.

Dutch cycling star eyes unprecedented addition for Rio Olympics

Gregorio Paltrinieri swims second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history

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Olympic champion Gregorio Paltrinieri swam the second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history, clocking 14:33.10 in his native Italy on Thursday.

Paltrinieri, 25, missed Chinese Sun Yang‘s world record from the 2012 Olympics by 2.08 seconds.

The Italian now owns the second- and third-fastest times in history, including his 14:34.10 from the 2016 European Championships, also held at the 2012 Olympic pool in London.

Paltrinieri is a versatile distance swimmer. At last year’s world championships, he finished sixth in the open-water 10km to qualify for the Olympics, then won the 800m free in the pool in a European record time and finished with 1500m bronze, just missing a third straight world title in that event.

German Florian Wellbrock won the 1500m in 14:36.54 at worlds, with Paltrinieri finishing 2.21 seconds back.

Sun, 28, was in February banned eight years stemming from destroying a drug-test sample with a hammer in September 2018. Sun, who focused more on the 200m and 400m frees in recent years, did not race the 1500m at the 2017 or 2019 Worlds.

Top-level swim meets in the U.S. are scheduled to resume in November with the Tyr Pro Series.

MORE: Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15

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Bianca Andreescu to miss U.S. Open

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Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the U.S. Open, citing “unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic” compromising her ability to prepare to defend her Grand Slam title.

“I have taken this step in order to focus on my match fitness and ensure that I return ready to play at my highest level,” Andreescu, a 20-year-old Canadian, posted on social media. “The US Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. However, I realize that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

Andreescu’s absence means the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be without both 2019 male and female singles champions.

Rafael Nadal previously announced he would not defend his title, saying he would rather not travel given the global situation. Roger Federer is also out after knee surgery. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty didn’t enter, either, citing travel concerns.

Last year, Andreescu made her U.S. Open title run as the 15th seed, sweeping Serena Williams in the final. Ranked 208th a year earlier, she became the first player born in the 2000s to win a Slam and the first teen Slam winner since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Andreescu then missed the Australian Open in January due to rehab from a knee injury that forced her to retire during a match at the WTA Finals on Oct. 30. She also missed the French Open and Wimbledon in 2019 following a rotator cuff tear.

MORE: Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis competition

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