U.S. women’s volleyball inspired by Andre Agassi, one step closer to Rio

Jordan Larson
AP
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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — On the back of an extra business card with his name on it, U.S. coach Karch Kiraly scribbled a No. 1 and tucked it in his right pocket to show his players and acknowledge a significant step toward the goal of reaching the Rio Olympics.

One set down against a Canada team defending with tenacity, then two more Thursday night. The world’s top-ranked Americans need nine winning sets in all this week to secure their bid — after missing a chance to do so at last year’s World Cup in Japan.

Kiraly has nine such cards with him, an idea inspired from reading fellow 1996 Olympic champion Andre Agassi‘s autobiography “Open” a few years back and his approach to filing each set away during the course of a tennis Grand Slam.

Kiraly shared that with his team.

“That’s one way to think about it is really go hard for this next point and do that for a set of volleyball,” Kiraly said. “And if we get one of those, they can’t take it away from us. It gets us a little closer to the easiest route to winning this tournament, which is to try to notch nine sets.”

Jordan Larson returned with fanfare to her home state of Nebraska as she helped lead the U.S. to the 25-18, 25-18, 25-15 victory over Canada in the opener of its NORCECA Olympic qualifying tournament, drawing cheers from the crowd of 6,322 every time she served or touched the ball.

“It’s great to be home, the home crowd, they just love volleyball,” Larson said. “It’s so awesome to see.”

The Americans topped the 16th-ranked and lowest seed Canadians with their depth and powerful attack in the victory at Pinnacle Bank Arena to take the first step toward earning a berth into this summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

“We responded well and remembered we’ve been together for 10 days and it’s just not going to be something that comes together like that,” Nicole Fawcett said. “It’s a process.”

In the second set, Fawcett’s service ace put the U.S. up 23-17 and Kelsey Robinson‘s kill soon ended it, then Fawcett made a kill on match point. Kiraly’s 14-player squad this week features five players who settled for silver at the London Olympics in a disappointing loss to Brazil.

The Americans went 41-6 in 2015 but lost twice at the World Cup in Japan in late August and early September to miss a qualifying chance for Rio.

Canada dug out some tough balls, forcing the Americans to play longer points.

“We never shy away from long rallies,” outside hitter Megan Easy said. “We weren’t quite as crisp as we wanted to be. These tournaments are stressful. We found a way to kind of temper our nerves, playing in American finally. I was just proud of everyone that they got control of their nerves and we all just fought together.”

In Friday night’s lineup for the round-robin event, the U.S. takes on No. 15 Puerto Rico, a four-set loser in Thursday’s opening match to the seventh-ranked Dominican Republic — 17-25, 25-13, 25-23, 25-23.

Dominican Republic middle blocker Jineiry Martinez went out with her team down 9-8 in the fourth set and was carried to the bench. She said immediately afterward she hurt her right knee but it was “better” and she expects to play Friday against Canada.

“For our team the game is tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. I think we only have a chance against the U.S. when they play on 80 percent and we play 120,” coach Arnd Ludwig said. “I’m quite satisfied with how my team played today. We played a very good defensive game.”

Canada hasn’t reached the Olympics since 1996.

The public address announcer gave a shout out to the three former Nebraska players — Larson, Kayla Banwarth and Robinson, who spent one year with the recently crowned NCAA volleyball champion Cornhuskers.

“I’m on cloud nine right now, playing in front of the home crowd,” Robinson said. “It’s always special to come home here.”

MORE: U.S. men’s volleyball team clinches Olympic berth

Mikaela Shiffrin heads to world championships with medal records in sight

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Before Mikaela Shiffrin can hold the World Cup wins record, she can become the most decorated Alpine skier in modern world championships history.

Shiffrin takes a respite from World Cup pursuits for the biennial world championships in France. She is expected to race at least four times, beginning with Monday’s combined.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup victories in 23 starts this season, her best since her record 17-win 2018-19 campaign, but world championships do not count toward the World Cup.

Shiffrin remains one career victory behind Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s record 86 World Cup wins until at least her next World Cup start in March.

Shiffrin has been more successful at worlds than at the Olympics and even on the World Cup. She has 11 medals in 13 world championships races dating to her 2013 debut, including making the podium in each of her last 10 events.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

She enters worlds one shy of the modern, post-World War II individual records for total medals (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt won 12) and gold medals (Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson won seven).

Worlds take place exactly one year after Shiffrin missed the medals in all of her Olympic races, but that’s not motivating her.

“If I learned anything last year, it’s that these big events, they can go amazing, and they can go terrible, and you’re going to survive no matter what,” she said after her most recent World Cup last Sunday. “So I kind of don’t care.”

Shiffrin ranks No. 1 in the world this season in the giant slalom (Feb. 16 at worlds) and slalom (Feb. 18).

This year’s combined is one run of super-G coupled with one run of slalom (rather than one downhill and one slalom), which also plays to her strengths. She won that event, with that format, at the last worlds in 2021. The combined isn’t contested on the World Cup, so it’s harder to project favorites.

Shiffrin is also a medal contender in the super-G (Feb. 8), despite starting just two of five World Cup super-Gs this season (winning one of them).

She is not planning to race the downhill (Feb. 11), which she often skips on the World Cup and has never contested at a worlds. Nor is she expected for the individual parallel (Feb. 15), a discipline she hasn’t raced in three years in part due to the strain it puts on her back with the format being several runs for the medalists.

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Lucas Braathen, world’s top male slalom skier, in doubt for world championships

Lucas Braathen
Getty
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Norway’s Lucas Braathen, the world’s top male slalom skier this season, is doubtful to compete in the world championships slalom on Feb. 19 after appendix surgery on Tuesday.

“It’s been a tough couple of days fighting after surprisingly finding out about quite an intense infection on my appendix,” Braathen, a 22-year-old soccer convert with a Brazilian mom, posted on social media. “I’ve been through surgery and I’m blessed that it went successfully.”

The Norway Alpine skiing team doctor said Braathen’s recovery will take a few weeks, but there is a small possibility he can make it back for the world championships slalom, which is on the final day of the two-week competition.

Braathen has two slalom wins and one giant slalom win this World Cup season. He will miss Saturday’s slalom in Chamonix, France, the last race before worlds. Countryman Henrik Kristoffersen and Swiss Daniel Yule can overtake him atop the World Cup slalom standings in Chamonix.

Braathen entered last year’s Olympics as the World Cup slalom leader and skied out in the first run at the Games.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

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