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.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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Mikaela Shiffrin runner-up in Lake Louise downhill

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LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — Here’s a scary thought for her competition: Mikaela Shiffrin is still getting comfortable with the intensity and the speed of the downhill.

That’s why podium finishes are still a little surprising even to her.

The American three-time overall World Cup champion finished runner-up to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria in a downhill race Saturday. Schmidhofer cruised through the course in 1 minute, 49.92 seconds to edge Shiffrin by 0.13 seconds. Francesca Marsaglia of Italy wound up third.

Schmidhofer has four career World Cup wins, with three of them arriving at Lake Louise.

Known as a tech specialist, Shiffrin is steadily getting up to speed in the speed events. This was Shiffrin’s fourth career World Cup podium finish in the downhill, which includes a Lake Louise win in 2017.

So, does Shiffrin anticipate this kind of downhill success?

“No, no, no,” the 24-year-old from Colorado said. “It’s certainly not normal (for a downhill podium). Even racing downhill doesn’t feel normal. But I feel every year like I have more experience and get more comfortable.”

Shiffrin currently sits at 62 World Cup wins, which ties her with Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second-most on the women’s side. Lindsey Vonn had 82 wins before her retirement.

“I’m certainly more comfortable with the long skis,” Shiffrin said of downhill racing. “Right now, it’s enjoying it, because speed is a little bit extra for me. My goal is to be able to succeed in speed as well. It’s making the transition and trying to have fun with it.”

Czech Republic skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka finished fourth Saturday. She was the surprise winner of Friday’s season-opening downhill, which was delayed and shortened by heavy snowfall on the mountain. The race Saturday was restored to its full length.

Next up, a super-G on Sunday.

“It’s always been a little bit tricky for me from downhill skis to super-G skis and to change the timing a little bit,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to have fun.”

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