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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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Shelby Houlihan shatters American 5000m record

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Shelby Houlihan chopped 10.52 seconds off her own American 5000m record, clocking 14:23.92 at a Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet in Portland, Ore., on Friday night.

Houlihan, who was 11th in the Rio Olympic 5000m, has in this Olympic cycle improved to become one of the greatest female distance runners in U.S. history.

She first broke Shannon Rowbury‘s American record in the 5000m by 4.47 seconds in 2018. In 2019, she broke Rowbury’s American record in the 1500m by 1.3 seconds in finishing fourth at the world championships in 3:54.99.

On Friday, Houlihan and second-place Karissa Schweizer both went under the American record. Schweizer, 24 and three years younger than Houlihan, clocked 14:26.34, staying with Houlihan until the winner’s 61-second final lap.

“I knew Karissa was going to try to come up on me and take the lead. She does that every time,” Houlihan told USATF.tv. “I had decided I was not going to let that happen.”

Houlihan improved from 41st to 12th on the world’s all-time 5000m list, 12.77 seconds behind Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba‘s world record.

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Can T.J. Oshie, other established Olympic hockey stars hold on for 2022?

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T.J. Oshie will be 35 years old during the next Winter Olympics. Jonathan Quick will be 36. Now that the NHL is one key step closer to returning to the Winter Games, the question surfaces: which 2014 Olympians will have a difficult time returning to rosters in 2022?

Oshie was the last of the 14 forwards chosen for the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, beating out Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad, in part for his shootout prowess.

In group play against Russia, Oshie was memorably tapped by U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma six times in a shootout, including all five in the sudden-death rounds. Oshie beat Sergei Bobrovsky four times, including the game winner.

“After I went out for my third attempt, I figured I was going to keep going,” Oshie said, according to USA Hockey. “Each time I would look up to see what [Bylsma] had to say, and he would just give me a nod every time. I kind of started laughing toward shot five and six because it was getting kind of ridiculous.”

Oshie became known as “T.J. Sochi” on social media. President Barack Obama congratulated him on Twitter. The U.S. eventually lost to Canada in the semifinals and Finland in the bronze-medal game.

When the NHL chose not to send its players to the PyeongChang Winter Games, it may have spelled the end of Oshie’s Olympic career.

Consider that the oldest forward on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team was 29, six years younger than Oshie will be come 2022. A recent Olympic roster prediction from The Hockey Writers put Oshie in the “Just Missed Out” list.

NBC Sports NHL analyst Pierre McGuire has Oshie among the finalists for the last forward spots in his early U.S. roster prediction.

“I wouldn’t discount T.J. Oshie because shootout is still part of it,” McGuire said. “He still has his shootout moves, even though he’s not getting any younger.”

Quick, the unused third goalie in 2010, played 305 out of 365 minutes in net for the U.S. in Sochi. He was coming off a Stanley Cup in 2012 and en route to another one in 2014.

Since, he was sidelined by a knee injury that required surgery. He remains the Los Angeles Kings’ No. 1 goalie, which almost automatically puts an American in the Olympic roster discussion these days.

“Somebody like Jonathan definitely merits consideration just because of his achievement level over time, but I think he’d be the first person to tell you injuries have definitely affected him,” McGuire said of Quick, looking to become the second-oldest U.S. goalie to play in the Olympics after Tom Barrasso in 2002. “It’s not going to be easy for him.”

The U.S. could bypass Quick for three Olympic rookies in 2022. Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson and Ben Bishop have superior save percentages and goals-against averages and more games played than Quick since the start of the 2018-19 season.

A wild card is Spencer Knight, the 19-year-old No. 1 from the world junior championships who last year became the highest-drafted goalie since 2010 (No. 13 to the Florida Panthers). Knight would break defenseman Bryan Berard‘s record as the youngest U.S. Olympic hockey player in the NHL era.

The Canadian roster has traditionally been deeper than the U.S. The talent is overwhelming at center, led by Sidney CrosbyConnor McDavidPatrice Bergeron and Nathan MacKinnon. The Canadians must get creative if the likes of veterans Jonathan Toews and John Tavares will join them in Beijing.

Toews, then 21, was the best forward at the 2010 Vancouver Games and Canada’s only one on the all-tournament team. While Toews’ last NHL All-Star selection was in 2017, his last two seasons have been his best in terms of points per game since 2011.

“The one thing that Canada is very good at, they do it extremely well, they select players that fit roles,” McGuire said, noting Mike Richards shifting to the wing during the 2010 Olympics. “When you look at the overwhelming depth that Canada has, that’s going to be the thing that’s going that’s going to be very interesting to watch to see how it plays out at center.”

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