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

Noah Lyles’ unbelievable time comes with an oops at Inspiration Games

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Noah Lyles may one day break Usain Bolt‘s world record, but Thursday wasn’t going to be that day. Even if, for about five minutes, Lyles was the first man to break 19 seconds over 200m.

Lyles registered 18.90 seconds, racing alone against competitors simultaneously sprinting on tracks in Europe. The time was unbelievable, given Bolt’s world record was 19.19 seconds. Turns out, it was too good to be true.

Minutes later on the broadcast, commentator Steve Cram said that Lyles only ran 185 meters, starting from an incorrect place on his Florida track.

“You can’t be playing with my emotions like this,” tweeted Lyles, who raced in Sonic the Hedgehog socks. “Got me in the wrong lane smh.”

Lyles, 22, has run 66 official 200m races dating to 2013, according to Tilastopaja.org. He is the reigning world champion and the fourth-fastest man in history with a personal best of 19.50 seconds.

But he had never experienced what came Thursday, with few spectators and nobody else in adjacent lanes for the Inspiration Games, a socially distanced meet with Olympians competing against each other on different continents.

Perhaps the setting played a role in the mistake.

“It actually felt pretty good besides getting that full gust of wind,” Lyles, who ran into a registered 3.7 meter/second headwind, said before he knew his time or that he was 15 meters short.

Christophe Lemaitre, the Olympic bronze medalist from France, got the win in 20.65 seconds.

Earlier Thursday, Allyson Felix had a succinct reaction to the strangest victory of her sterling career.

“That’s weird,” she said after running 150 meters alone, in front of few spectators on a track in Walnut, California.

Officially, Felix ran 16.81 seconds — impressive, especially if the reported 2.6 meter/second headwind reading was accurate — to defeat Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and world 200m bronze medalist Mujinga Kambundji.

Miller-Uibo raced alone in Florida. Kambundji was on her own in Zurich, the base of the Inspiration Games, a repurposed version of an annual Diamond League stop. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing meet organizers to get creative this summer.

Full meet results are here.

Felix, a 34-year-old mom with nine Olympic medals, called her event “very strange.”

“It feels sort of like practice, but not even because there’s really no teammates or anything,” she told 1996 Olympic decathlon champion Dan O’Brien at Mt. San Antonio College. “It’s hard to challenge yourself. I think that’s the big thing with running solo.”

Canadian Olympic medalist Andre De Grasse won a 100-yard race in 9.68 seconds, defeating French veteran Jimmy Vicaut (9.72) and Olympic 110m hurdles champion Omar McLeod of Jamaica (9.87). De Grasse, Vicaut and McLeod raced together, in every other lane at a Florida track.

The 100 yards is scantly contested in top-level meets. Nobody has broken nine seconds in a 100-yard (91.44-meter) race, according to World Athletics. But Usain Bolt‘s estimated 100-yard time en route to his 2009 world record in the 100m was 8.87 seconds.

The regular Diamond League calendar is scheduled to resume in August.

“This was fun,” Felix said. “I can’t wait until we can do it in person.”

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Jeff Gadley, Willie Davenport changed bobsled as Winter Olympic pioneers

Jeff Gadley
Photos courtesy Jeff Jordan
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Jeff Gadley‘s life changed when a stranger in a car tailed him on a decathlon training run in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in 1978.

The driver was Al Hachigian, a veteran U.S. bobsledder on the lookout for new talent.

Hachigian found the right man. Gadley had just won the first Empire State Games decathlon and set sights on the 1980 U.S. Summer Olympic Trials. Once Hachigian got his attention, he asked the 23-year-old Gadley if he ever considered pushing a bobsled.

“Of course,” Gadley said. “I grew up in Buffalo.”

Hachigian looked at Gadley — undersized for a bobsledder at 5 feet, 8 inches, and no more than 180 pounds — and decided he was worth extending an invitation to a trials event for the 1978-79 season.

“I think you could do well,” Hachigian told Gadley. “But there are no Black bobsledders, so you kind of have to be a little bit prepared for some things.”

No problem, Gadley said.

A year and a half later, Gadley and a later bobsled convert — Willie Davenport, the 1968 Olympic 110m hurdles champion — became the first Black men to compete on a U.S. Winter Olympic team in any sport.

“It was a huge story,” leading up to the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games, Gadley said in a recent interview. “Since we were the first, people wanted to know how we felt. What you thought about the sport being traditionally white. My answer was always, look, I can’t attribute a particular color to playing out in the cold. To be the first African American ever to compete in the Winter Olympics, I think it’s nice. I think it broadens the thought process of people and maybe will bring, one day, stronger and faster athletes to the sport.”

Gadley and Davenport, push athletes in driver Bob Hickey‘s 12th-place sled at those Olympics, accelerated a line of accomplished athletes converting from track to bobsled. They were followed by, most famously, Edwin Moses, Renaldo NehemiahLauryn Williams and Lolo Jones. NFL players Willie Gault and Herschel Walker also pushed sleds.

“There is a myth in this country that says Blacks can’t make the American Winter Olympic team,” Davenport said, according to Jet magazine in 1980. “Jeff and I proved this to be wrong that you don’t have to be rich and white to make it.”

Back when Gadley joined the national team, it was all white and mostly men from around Lake Placid, home of the only Olympic-level bobsled track in the country.

“I’m sure a lot of these people had not been around African Americans before,” said Jeff Jordan, Gadley’s best friend from SUNY Plattsburgh who rounded out the four-man Olympic sled with Hickey, Gadley and Davenport.

Gadley excelled from the start, earning a spot at the 1979 World Championships. Not everyone on the team was excited about his quick rise. Gadley estimated that out of about 20 national team members, seven or eight didn’t like him because of his skin color. He knew about two definitively, witnessing a conversation at the worlds in Germany.

“The worst thing I heard is that someone didn’t want a Black guy on the back of their sled,” Gadley said. “The saddest part is knowing that, at the world championships, your own teammates don’t like you because of your color.

“I said, I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to ride on the back of his sled anyway, even if I’m told to. I said, I don’t want to be on the back of your sled, either, and I just left it at that.”

Gadley competed in another sled at worlds, finishing 10th.

“It wasn’t all about skin color,” Gadley said. “Part of it was about you’re breaking up a culture.”

The next season, Hickey, a veteran driver from Upstate New York, was looking to fill his sled with push athletes. He chose the new group of Gadley, Jordan and Davenport. They won the Olympic Trials, despite Jordan and Davenport being rookies (Davenport reportedly pushed a bobsled for the first time a month or two before trials).

“They were the first real world-class athletes to hit bobsledding,” Jordan said of Gadley and Davenport. “We pretty much crushed them [the local bobsledders at Trials], and they did not like it. I don’t know if they would have liked it, period. It didn’t matter what nationality or color.

“The only thing they knew was they were getting their butts kicked. I can’t say we were mistreated other than they would rather have their buddies on the Olympic team.”

Davenport, at 36, was 12 years removed from his Summer Olympic title and the oldest U.S. bobsledder in Lake Placid. While his speed was an asset, his lack of experience was evident, his teammates said.

“Willie was on the other side of his career,” Jordan said. “He brought a lot of notoriety. We were in People magazine, on Good Morning America. None of that would have happened without Willie’s presence. He wasn’t there for the same reason Jeff [Gadley] was there.

“If Willie had just been another Jeff Gadley, would we have gotten that attention? Maybe, eventually, but there was quite a bit of attention early on.”

Gadley, Hickey and Jordan, in recent interviews, remembered the buzz at the Lake Placid Games. Curt Gowdy, the Hall of Fame sportscaster, called bobsled for ABC. President Jimmy Carter‘s 12-year-old daughter, Amy, showed up one day.

The Americans finished more than six seconds behind the winning East German quartet, but were slowed to an unknown degree by inferior equipment. Hickey said that the East German driver, 39-year-old Meinhard Nehmer, told Gowdy that the Americans would have won if they had his sled.

“They came and went quick,” Hickey said of the Olympics. “We weren’t prepared.”

It marked the end of the Olympic careers for Davenport and Gadley. Davenport died in 2002.

Gadley gave up the decathlon after the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games was announced. He now lives in Texas with his wife.

Most of his Olympic mementos and photos were discarded or lost over the last 40 years. But Gadley was glad for the experience and feels fortunate for the opportunity, back when bobsled was a regional, if not local, sport.

“I would say pioneers would be a good word to use,” for Davenport and I, he said. “It was just a matter of exposure where I was and what I was doing [at the time]. It made an example to others that, hey, as a Black guy, if he’s doing it, I can do it, too.”

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Jeff Gadley