Alison, Bruno
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‘Mammoth,’ ‘Magician’ lead Brazil’s climb back to top of beach volleyball

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — No other beach volleyball player looks quite like Alison Cerutti.

The bearded Brazilian is 6-foot-8 with muscles that make him look like “a football tight end playing beach volleyball,” as U.S. Olympic silver medalist Jennifer Kessy said. He is simply known as “Mammoth,” and he has a large tattoo of the animal on his side to prove it.

“He is the strongest guy on the [FIVB] World Tour,” said his teammate, Bruno Schmidt.

Bruno, on the other hand, is soft-spoken and one of the shortest players on the FIVB World Tour at 6-foot-1, despite being the nephew of 6-foot-9 Oscar Schmidt, the emotive, five-time Olympic basketball player who holds the Olympic record for career points.

Bruno is known as the “Magician” for his ability to dig balls that seem destined to hit the sand beyond his reach.

Together, the duo has won more FIVB World Tour titles in 2015 than any other pair, and they are the top-seeded team in this week’s FIVB World Tour Finals. NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will broadcast the finals live Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET.

“They are the best team in the world,” Canadian player Chaim Schalk said. “No doubt about it.”

Their strength is defense.

When an opponent rises to spike the ball, Alison meets him at the net. The 2011 FIVB World Tour’s best blocker uses his height and reach to stuff the ball back onto the other side of the court.

But even when Alison does not make direct contact, he often intimidates attackers into lobbing the ball at a slower speed over his outstretched arms, like a tall basketball defender who causes a driving player to change the trajectory of a lay-up.

This gives Bruno, the FIVB World Tour’s best defensive player in 2013 and 2014, more time to adjust and dig the attack. Not that he needs a lot of time.

Phil Dalhausser, a 2008 U.S. Olympic champion and the World Tour’s reigning best blocker, best setter and most outstanding player, called Bruno the world’s best defender, by far.

“He’s explosive,” Dalhausser said. “After two steps, he is at full speed.”

Alison, 29, and Bruno, 28, played together in their island hometown of Vitoria in their early 20s but had teamed with separate partners at the international level since 2008. They rejoined in spring 2014 after Alison returned home to be closer to his sick father and reached out to Bruno.

Chemistry came quickly.

They won every international tournament they entered this July and August, including the World Championship. They became the first pair since 1999 to win five straight international events.

The “Mammoth” and the “Magician” clinched their Olympic berth this summer and will likely be favorites on home sand at Copacabana Beach at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

But there will be pressure.

Volleyball, beach or indoor, is arguably the most popular sport in Brazil save soccer. A Brazil pair hasn’t won an Olympic title since Athens 2004. Teams lost in the 2008 and 2012 finals, including Alison with the legendary Emanuel in 2012.

“They expect us to win every single tournament,” said Bruno, who with Alison lost to Dalhausser and Nick Lucena in World Tour Finals group play Wednesday but are still expected to advance to the weekend’s elimination rounds.

MORE BEACH VOLLEYBALL: Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross forge ahead after notable phone conversation

U.S. junior champions crowned in ladies’ and men’s events

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Gabriella Izzo is the newest junior ladies’ national champion, crowned this week at the U.S. Championships in Detroit. Junior ladies’ national champions of the past include eventual Olympians Mirai Nagasu, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Bradie Tennell.

Izzo had a commanding lead after the short program, with 60.97 points, where she pulled off her first-ever triple Lutz, triple loop combination in competition. (However, it was deemed under-rotated.) Regardless, her 111.45 points in the free skate combined for 172.42 points and the gold medal.

Audrey Shin, who actually won the free skate by just over a point, earned the silver medal with 165.61 points. Emilia Murdock took home the bronze with 154.48 points.

On the junior men’s side, Ryan Dunk rebounded from second after the short program to win the event. His 132.85-point free skate was enough to crack the 200-point overall score, the only man in the field to do so, and win the gold.

Men’s junior champions include eventual world champion Nathan Chen (twice) as well as Olympians Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown.

Dinh Tran finished second with 196.03 points after a fourth-place short program. Joonsoo Kim, who lead after the short program on Tuesday, ended up with the bronze medal with 187.95 points.

NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will live stream each junior competition and replays will also be available on-demand. Check out the full schedule and live streaming information here.

The junior rhythm dance took place earlier Wednesday. Siblings Caroline and Gordon Green lead the field with 70.82 points, while Avonley Nguyen and Vadym Kolesnik are second with 65.92 points. The brother-sister team of Oona and Gage Brown are in third with 63.34 heading into Friday’s junior free dance.

Also Wednesday, Laiken Lockley and Keenan Prochnow took the lead in the junior pairs’ short program. The junior pairs’ free skate is Thursday. Kate Finster and Balazs Nagy are second, followed by Isabelle Martins and Ryan Bedard in third.

MORE: Full streaming schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the junior and senior U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Chloe Kim, David Wise among X Games headliners

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The X Games return to Aspen, Colorado, this week at Buttermilk Mountain. A marquee event on the yearly snowboarding and freeskiing calendar, the X Games will feature a handful of Olympic gold medalists and notable names in action sports. Below are a few storylines to watch for this week:

Nearly full field of Olympic gold medalists will compete in Aspen

All four freestyle skiing gold medalists in X Games events (halfpipe, slopestyle) and five of six Olympic snowboarding champions (slopestyle, halfpipe, big air) are expected to compete in Aspen. Among them is Chloe Kim, who has not lost a contest since the Olympics. She finished last season with a win at the US Open, and has three victories already this season, including at the Dew Tour in December. Since the Olympics, Kim’s star has only grown: she’s thrown out the first pitch at a Dodgers game and become an awards show regular, but her ability to crush her competition on the pipe remains unchanged.

In addition to Kim, the three other U.S. gold medalists from 2018 should all contend: in men’s ski halfpipe, two-time defending Olympic gold medalist David Wise has continued to impress this season, but as in previous years, he’ll be challenged by his teammates, Aaron Blunck and Aspen native Alex Ferreira, who would skip school as a kid to watch the X Games in person. Snowboard slopestyle gold medalists Red Gerard and Jamie Anderson are both podium threats as well.

After missing Olympics, can Sildaru sweep in Aspen?

Three years ago, a quiet and unassuming Kelly Sildaru won her first X Games title at 13, becoming the youngest ever winner in a winter event. Pegged early as a star for the PyeongChang Games in both slopestyle and halfpipe, the Estonian teenager missed the Olympics with a torn left ACL. Sildaru, who hails from a country with no mountains, will attempt a rare triple in Aspen: she’ll compete in slopestyle, halfpipe, and big air. No winter sports athlete has ever won three gold medals at the same X Games contest. Sildaru missed last year’s event due to her knee injury and has looked sharp so far this season: she won the U.S. Grand Prix in halfpipe and the Dew Tour in slopestyle. Sildaru has four X Games medals in total: two in slopestyle and two in big air.

White’s protégé awaits his big moment

Toby Miller learned from the best: the 18-year-old was mentored by three-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, who brought Miller to PyeongChang as his guest. White hasn’t competed since the Olympics, focusing instead on skateboarding, while Miller is having a notable season of his own: he finished third at the Dew Tour and second at the U.S. Grand Prix. The U.S. halfpipe contingent remains deep: Olympians Jake Pates, Ben Ferguson and Chase Josey are all contenders on any given day, though PyeongChang bronze medalist Scotty James will likely be the favorite.

Big tricks

The X Games are often a staging point for new tricks: in 2017, Norway’s Marcus Kleveland became the first to land a quad in competition, only to be topped by Canadian Max Parrot, who won the event with a quad of his own. Chloe Kim and PyeongChang big air gold medalist Anna Gasser have been at the forefront of innovative tricks this season. Kim, a four-time X Games winner, is still far ahead of the field with back-to-back 1080s, which she used last weekend at a World Cup event in Laax. In October 2018, she became the first woman to land a frontside double cork 1080, though she has yet to execute it in competition. Kim can win easily with the arsenal of tricks she already has – but she’d make a bit of history if she decides to go for it.

In November, Gasser became the first woman to land a cab triple underflip, though like Kim, she has not done so in competition. Known for her progressive approach to the sport and impressive arsenal of difficult tricks, Gasser could attempt the triple at the X Games.