Kerri Walsh Jennings
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Kerri Walsh Jennings returns after 4 months off sand, motivated by Karch Kiraly

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Kerri Walsh Jennings rejoined partner April Ross for their first practice of the Olympic year on Jan. 20. It had been a while.

“I had been off the sand the longest I’d ever been off the sand since I started competing in beach volleyball,” said Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion who began her career with the now-retired Misty May-Treanor in 2001.

Walsh Jennings, a 37-year-old mother of three, had the fifth right shoulder surgery of that career Sept. 10, just before the end of the season. It was necessary after Walsh Jennings dislocated it twice during matches on May 27 and July 10.

Before the surgery, Walsh Jennings and Ross put together an inspired run to the final of the World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach, Calif., the biggest annual tournament on American sand.

Walsh Jennings played that August tournament serving underhand and swinging primarily with her opposite left arm. She said the difference was like shooting a basketball with one’s off-hand.

Her spirit was lifted before the event from a phone call with another beach legend, 1996 Olympic champion Karch Kiraly.

Kiraly also suffered mid-match dislocated shoulders in his career, perhaps most notably in 2004. From 2004 partner Mike Lambert in the book, “Karch Kiraly: A Tribute to Excellence:”

“By far the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed on the volleyball court was in 2004 at the Belmar Open in New Jersey. Karch and I were playing Jeff Nygaard and Dain Blanton in the third round of the winner’s bracket. We’re up 20-16 in game one. I served Jeff and ran up to block his line. Karch was sitting in the angle when Jeff put a nice clean line shot over my block to the corner. Off went Karch to lay it out for a diving dig. I turned around having landed from my block to see a diving Karch over-extend his right arm to make the play and BAM, dislocated his shoulder. I clearly remember seeing his wide eyes through his sunglasses and the look on his face as he screamed in pain. The whole stadium court went silent. Time stood still as we all watched him wince in excruciating pain. Finally, someone from the medical staff made it to center to help Karch pop his shoulder back into place. They manage to do so and we help him back to the player’s box. I’m worried for Karch’s health and recovery, and pondering the fact that my season with Karch is over. A five minute medical timeout is called. When the time runs out we are all thinking that we’ll forfeit the match and hurry home to get some medical attention. Karch thinks otherwise. He wants to give it a go. Mike Rangel (coach) and I look at each other in disbelief and protest but Karch insists. We start warming up again and it’s obvious that he’s still in a lot of pain and won’t be able to hit the ball. Whistle blows and Jeff serves the ball long and we win game one 21-17. In game two we’re struggling. They are all over Karch’s shots knowing he can no longer hit the ball. That’s when it happens, Karch tells me to line up in the “eye-formation.” I had only heard of it and now we’re doing it. We’d line up one in front of the other in the middle of the court like a football center and quarterback. Karch would tell me which side he was going to run to and I would break to the other as the opponent served the ball. Half the serves would go to me for easy sideouts and half would go to him where I would try to go over on two or he’d make a crafty shot. The crowd got behind us and we started making some plays. Pretty soon we had the lead and we eventually closed it out in two straight sets. Absolutely amazing! Karch dug so deep, put all his pain away and found a way to win where nobody else could. What a competitor.”

Walsh Jennings, who with Ross beat the reigning World champions from Brazil in that July 10 match where she dislocated the shoulder, said she asked Kiraly for advice on how to finish out the season.

After July 10, Walsh Jennings debated when to undergo season-ending surgery, weighing Olympic qualifying ramifications.

She ultimately decided to play three tournaments with the injured shoulder, attempting to bolster her and Ross’ Olympic qualifying standing, before shutting it down.

“Well the first thing he said was it’s so doable [to keep playing], which I just so appreciated it from the best that’s ever played this game,” Walsh Jennings said. “He won tournaments with a dislocated shoulder, a very unstable shoulder, and that was huge. He just told me to get creative, basically, focus on all the little things like your passing, your ball control, and then just get creative with your shots. Which was really fun for me to hear as well because my game, I’ve always felt like an ABC type player, I want to use my height, I want to beat you with power, and the creative game hasn’t been a part of my game. So it was really fun to tap into that more, and I think it really helped me get out of my head and just kind of take what I was given. It was ugly so much of the time, and it really inspired me, as this season goes on toward Rio, be creative and just enjoy that part of the game. I’m playing like a kid again.

“I will thank him for my whole life for that conversation.”

Kiraly, now the U.S. women’s indoor volleyball team coach, respectfully declined to discuss the Walsh Jennings conversation.

“I don’t feel like sharing the specific words, but I’ve dealt with some shoulder challenges before, and she is pursuing this historic, never-before-done goal of winning four straight Olympic Games in a team sport like beach volleyball,” said Kiraly, a 1984 and 1988 Olympic indoor champion and a 1996 Olympic beach champion. “And I’m cheering her on.”

In Rio, Walsh Jennings can become the second woman to win four straight gold medals in a team sport after basketball player Lisa Leslie. A few U.S. women’s basketball and soccer players could also chase this feat in August. More men have already accomplished it.

“I dealt with shoulder injuries, shoulder dislocations and there were some strategies that I guess you can use when you don’t have a good shoulder,” Kiraly said. “She employed some good ones to put her and her partner, April Ross, in a really good position to qualify for the Olympics.”

Walsh Jennings and Ross plan to begin their competitive season in about a month with an exhibition in Brazil and a FIVB World Tour Grand Slam in Rio de Janeiro.

They are on pace to qualify as one of the possible two U.S. Olympic pairs, should they continue to post decent results. Walsh Jennings’ health will be key, but making that final in Long Beach in August provided a major boost.

Walsh Jennings said when she and Ross practiced together for the first time in four months last week that she could do everything with her right arm except serve. She expected that motion to return quickly and said that she would be fine waiting until late February to start serving if she had to.

The March tournaments in Brazil could provide a glimpse of the Olympic tournaments, not only because of the setting but also because of the competition.

Walsh Jennings and Ross could go up against the other two best teams in the world, Brazilian pairs World champions Agatha and Barbara and World Series of Beach Volleyball champions Larissa and Talita.

Ross said she pictures playing Larissa and Talita in the Olympic final. That pair has won 11 of 16 international events since debuting in July 2014.

“I want to study Larissa and Talita, because I just feel like they’re beatable, and I don’t know why no one’s really unlocked that yet,” said Ross, who read the New York Times bestseller “You Are a Badass” in September.

Larissa and Talita are 2-0 against Walsh Jennings and Ross, but one win came in a one-set exhibition in Brazil last winter (Brazil’s summer), when Walsh Jennings and Ross weren’t in mid-season form. The other came with Walsh Jennings playing with one good arm in the Long Beach final in August.

Walsh Jennings believes Larissa and Talita are “flappable.” Their greatness lies in their steadiness, but she and Ross can be steady at a higher level.

“Everything we that we have, our whole kit and caboodle, we are the best team in the world,” Walsh Jennings said. “Now it’s just up to us to figure out how to dance together. Even when we’re not dancing well together, we’re still capable of winning a gold medal, but we can absolutely dominate once we get that rhythm.”

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

MORE: Walsh Jennings, Ross forge ahead after notable phone call

Trayvon Bromell emerged from destruction a new sprinter, new man

Trayvon Bromell
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For Trayvon Bromell, July 4 was an independence day. His first race as a rebuilt sprinter, more than four years after he first felt discomfort in his left heel.

It was also much more than that. Bromell, whose training base is Jacksonville, Fla., arrived in Montverde, off Lake Apopka just west of Orlando, for a meet called the Showdown in O-Town.

Exactly four years earlier, Bromell celebrated qualifying for his first Olympics at age 20.

Three years after that, 364 days before the Showdown, Bromell left that Montverde track and had his coach believing he might quit sprinting.

Finally, 10 days before last month’s comeback meet, Bromell learned that the woman who taught him to be a sprinter, from age 4 through high school, had died.

That coach, Garlynn Boyd, was supposed to be in Montverde on July 4 to watch Bromell.

The time came for heat five of the 100m. Bromell leaned into the starting blocks of lane two on a wet track. He felt the weight of the last few years. He sensed his arms shaking.

After at least one false start, Bromell ran. He won the heat in 10.04 seconds.

Bromell’s personal best is 9.84, but that he approached the 10-second barrier, which separates fast sprinters from medal-contending ones, after what he endured the last four years was very promising.

Bromell found his mom, Shri Sanders. She raised him, his two brothers and his sister, by herself in St. Petersburg. She prayed over him after the victory.

He raced again three weeks later. He ran 9.90 seconds, which would have earned bronze at the most recent Olympics and world championships.

Bromell’s speed was back, but in interviews he’s reflected more on a recent personal transformation. Aside from sprinting, Bromell told  Flotrack that he crawled out of “the destruction of my past,” “the downfall of my career” and “a real dark alleyway” in this Olympic cycle.

Bromell declined to discuss specifics last week.

“I’ve got something coming out in the near future that’s going to speak and answer all the questions that people want to know,” he said, noting that it’s mostly related to mental health.

By 2013, the track world began to learn about Bromell, a 5-foot-8 high schooler who sprinted in shorts, not tights, and a headband.

He broke his left knee in eighth grade doing backflips, broke his right knee and forearm in ninth grade playing basketball and in 10th grade cracked a hip during a race.

Through all of that, he was coached by Boyd of the Lightning Bolt Track Club. Boyd began teaching Bromell how to be a sprinter before he started elementary school.

“We come from a bad area where poverty is big, and we didn’t really have a lot,” Bromell said of his family. “[My mom] worked all the time to make sure I was good, to make sure we had somewhere to live. When I went to practice, coach G was like another mom, to everyone, to every kid in the city who came in connection with us. She loved us. With my injuries in high school, my mom and coach G were the only people who believed I was special, even in times when I didn’t feel I was special.”

She fought diabetes for years — both of her legs were amputated — but Bromell didn’t know for sure her cause of death. St. Petersburg Times obituary reported she contracted the coronavirus before she died at age 54.

“I don’t even have the words to explain this pain I’m feeling,” was posted on Bromell’s Instagram the day of her death. “God knows that with everything in me, the world will know the lives you help change!”

In 12th grade, he became the first U.S. high schooler to break 10 seconds over 100m (albeit with too much wind for record purposes). Matthew Boling later broke Bromell’s record by .02.

Bromell, also a slot receiver at Gibbs High, passed on football interest from schools including West Virginia. He took a track scholarship at Baylor, known for producing Olympic 400m champions Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner.

“I don’t really like to put a kid in a box and say we expect this or that,” legendary Baylor coach Clyde Hart said in 2014. “I think he’s going to get better. He’s going to get a lot stronger. In my opinion, most sprinters don’t get their prime until 24, 25 years old. He’s only 18.”

As a freshman, Bromell won the NCAA 100m title in 9.97 seconds, becoming the first 18-year-old to break 10 seconds with legal wind (and still the only one to do so). As a sophomore, Bromell clocked 9.84, a time faster than anything Carl Lewis ever recorded.

Later that summer, Bromell shared 100m bronze with Canadian Andre De Grasse at the world championships, behind Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin, becoming the second-youngest medalist in that event’s history. He turned professional, signing a contract with New Balance, which he said is still in place today.

In March 2016, Bromell won the world indoor 60m title (Bolt, Gatlin and De Grasse were absent). His coach at Baylor, Mike Ford, still calls it the best Bromell race he’s seen in person. The Olympics were five months away.

In Bromell’s first top-level meet of the spring, he led a 200m in Rome coming off the turn. Then he slowed down considerably and finished seventh.

Three days later, he felt left heel pain while warming up at a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain. He withdrew and flew back to Texas.

An X-ray revealed a bone spur growing near his Achilles. The Olympic Trials were in four weeks. They had to modify training and hope to minimize the pain, putting off potential surgery until after Rio.

Bromell made the Olympic team, placing second at Trials to Gatlin in 9.84 seconds. He trained for Rio in a pool and on an anti-gravity treadmill. When he sprinted, it was often on grass and not in spikes.

Ford felt it was a victory that Bromell even qualified for the Olympic final, where he finished last in 10.06 seconds.

“I wasn’t going to run,” Bromell said. “I was telling myself that I was just in too much pain.”

Five nights later, Bromell lined up against Bolt for the anchor leg of the 4x100m relay. He felt no pain.

As Tyson Gay neared with the baton, a dashing Bromell turned his head back for a moment to ensure the handoff. Bolt, in the adjacent lane, opened a slight lead and extended it down the straightaway.

Bromell, in dipping to try to edge Japan’s Asuka Cambridge for silver, stumbled and tumbled on the blue track. As Bolt made the final decelerating pose of his Olympic career, Bromell’s loose orange baton flew in the background.

As Bromell tried to catch himself hitting the ground, the heel pain returned. He couldn’t walk off the track. Officials brought out a wheelchair. Bromell departed believing his anchor secured the bronze medal.

Minutes later, he left a medical room on crutches and was told the team was disqualified. Mike Rodgers and Justin Gatlin exchanged the baton out of the zone.

“I gave everything that I could, almost just throwing myself just to try to get the medal, then it was just like, dang, we got DQed,” Bromell said. “I just couldn’t win in the situation. I got hurt going into the Olympics, then I couldn’t really perform how I wanted to in the 100m and then this. I’m taking an L after L after L right now.”

He underwent the post-Olympic surgery. Bromell was in a boot for two months. He said he did no rehab exercises for six months, per doctor’s instructions. Scar tissue built up. He went 10 months between races and, in his return, was eliminated in the first round at the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships. Bromell didn’t feel right and had the heel re-examined.

I don’t see how you can run 10.2, a new doctor told him. Your tendon should have torn off the bone.

Bromell underwent another surgery and started over again. This time, he went two years between races. On July 6, 2019, Bromell took a misstep about 70 meters into a 100m heat in Montverde and eased up, clocking 10.54 seconds.

Ford feared it was the Achilles, but Bromell taped up the foot and lined up for his final. Halfway through that race, he blew an adductor muscle in his upper leg. Bromell returned to his hotel and spoke with Ford.

“I thought he may quit,” said Ford, who had coached Bromell for nearly four years.

Bromell stayed in Florida to consider his next move. Ford flew back to Texas. They decided a change was best. Bromell spoke with Reider, who developed a knack for helping athletes return from leg injuries.

Christian Taylor, the 2012 Olympic triple jump champion, switched takeoff legs after knee pain and repeated as gold medalist in Rio. De Grasse joined Reider’s group in November 2018 after a pair of season-ending right hamstring injuries. In 2019, the Canadian earned 100m bronze and 200m silver at the world championships.

“[Bromell’s] expectations were just to be like he was before, at some point,” Reider said. “The expectations for me were just to get him to a point where we could see if we could actually train. When we got in, there were some basic functions he couldn’t do.”

Bromell did what Reider called rudimentary strength and conditioning exercises those first months. He began sprinting in earnest in March.

That Independence Day race — the 10.04 — was his first in four years without pain, Reider said. Neither Ford nor Reider was surprised by that time or the 9.90 on July 24.

“We made some steps to be able to be an athlete and not a rehab project,” Reider said. “I think he can run faster than he’s ever run.”

Bromell lives by himself in Jacksonville. He has other passions, notably photography.

He sees a counselor regularly after a difficult stretch of years. He emerged from what he called “situations I probably shouldn’t have been in.” He plans to reveal specifics later.

“I stopped doing a lot of things in my life that was destroying me,” he said. “I stopped having pain and hurt in my heart and having it consume me. … I started reading my Bible more. I started reading books more. A lot of things that helped me evolve as a human. To have more peace, live properly and not destroy myself from within.”

Bromell doesn’t know where his 2015 or 2016 World Championships medals are. He doesn’t assign as much value to them as he does three-page essays that he received from college fund applicants in 2018. He promised $10,000 each to five students, choosing the recipients based on their submitted life stories.

“There’s people out here that were literally writing in their essays, Tray, your fighting, your drive to not give up helped me to not commit suicide tomorrow,” Bromell said. “Imagine reading something like that. Who would’ve thought this little kid from south side St. Pete could have an impact just by running 100 meters. That’s my gold medal.”

MORE: Usain Bolt would unretire if one man called

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Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

Yuzuru Hanyu
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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

MORE: Looking back at Yuna Kim’s 10-year gold medal anniversary

Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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