Brittney Griner returns as Olympic finalist, this time without fear

Brittney Griner
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Brittney Griner unfurled from her vacation hammock in Cabo San Lucas last week to fly into snowy Storrs, Conn., and a three-day training camp for U.S. Olympic team finalists.

The towering center was not warmly received by all.

“Got my shot blocked a couple of times out here with the guys,” Griner said Tuesday, laughing, of male practice players, typical partners for elite-level women’s workouts. “It only counts when it happens in a game. This doesn’t count, so it’s cool.”

Griner was then asked the last time she was blocked in a game that does count.

She paused a few seconds, determined her answer, stared down at the reporter and delivered a deep pitch.

“B.G. doesn’t get blocked,” Griner boomed, paused again and then briefly chuckled and grinned.

Griner, at 6 feet, 8 inches, was three inches taller than the next-biggest player among 16 in red Team USA jerseys at the University of Connecticut practice facility.

She is the can’t-miss of the 25 finalists overall to make the U.S. Olympic team, not only for her unmistakable presence but also for her story. The narrative is highlighted by but not limited to her decision four years ago to pull her name out of Olympic team consideration while a Baylor University junior.

Sixteen Rio Olympic hopefuls took part in two-hour practices on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, led by UConn and Olympic coach Geno Auriemma and overseen by USA Basketball officials who will choose the 12-woman team later this year to go to Brazil.

Nine of the 25 finalists missed the camp for various reasons, including injuries and professional seasons overseas. It’s expected to be the final camp before the team is named for the Olympics, where the U.S. will seek its sixth straight gold medal.

Griner wore No. 23 and defended her paint in a one-year-old practice gym, surrounded by a combined 36 UConn banners adorning three of the four walls — 10 NCAA titles, eight Olympic gold medalists, eight NCAA Players of the Year and 10 first-team All-Americans (not counting the NCAA Players of the Year).

She wasn’t intimidated.

“I definitely feel a lot more confident this go-around, at a different place [than 2012],” Griner said at the end of the camp. “I hate sounding cocky, but I just feel like I should be here. It feels right.”

Griner had the chance four years ago to become the first college basketball player to make a U.S. Olympic team since 1988.

On March 30, 2012, USA Basketball announced 11 of the 12 players for the London Olympic team. Griner, leading undefeated Baylor into the Final Four at the time, wasn’t one of the 11. But she was seen as a candidate to be named to the team after Baylor won the NCAA title four days later.

Before the 12th player was named, Griner announced on April 19 her withdrawal from Olympic team consideration due to a family illness (she later said her mother had been diagnosed with lupus two years earlier) and her summer school schedule.

Griner said Tuesday that a “fear of being away from what was going on at home” was on her mind before she withdrew.

“That was a hard decision,” she said. “Sitting there, just missing out, just, like, dang, I wish I was there. That feeling. Hopefully, this time I get a chance.”

Griner watched the U.S.’ 86-50 rout of France in the London Olympic gold-medal game on a computer screen in her bed.

“I’m kind of lazy,” she said. “I lay in the bed a lot.”

Griner joined the WNBA one year later and the U.S. national team for the next major tournament — the World Championship in 2014.

At Worlds in Turkey, Griner started all six games with four former UConn stars — Sue BirdDiana TaurasiMaya Moore and Tina Charles — who were four of the primary starters at the 2012 Olympics. When they huddled, the coach delivering instructions was UConn’s Auriemma.

“The UConn squad,” joked Griner, who wore glasses at Worlds after suffering an eye injury in the WNBA Finals.

Griner ranked second on the team per game in points (12.3) and rebounds (6.2) and blocked two shots per game while averaging 19 minutes per contest (sixth on the team).

She also bumped chests and shared technical fouls in a tense moment with Spain forward Laura Nicholls in the third quarter of the final.

“Somebody stares at me, I’m not going to back down,” said Griner, listed five inches taller than Nicholls.

That’s the type of presence Auriemma stressed on Griner as she’s dug into international basketball — both professionally and for her country — the last two years.

“I’m always after Brittney to, you know, you’ve got be tougher, you’ve got be stronger, you’ve got to be more aggressive, you’ve got to be more assertive, because there’s no give when you’re playing in the Olympics,” Auriemma said. “Sometimes when I think you’re a big kid in women’s basketball, you’re kind of a little bit reluctant to be. Little by little, she’s starting to understand that we need her physical presence to be dominant — to be dominant.”

U.S. national team director Carol Callan said she’s known Griner since she was a dunking Houston high school phenom.

Since London, Callan said she’s had more conversations with Griner than the older national team veterans.

“I’m just thrilled that we got her into the World Championship, and she got some experience there,” Callan said. “Now this [the Olympics] is another step on that stage, but it’s not as big a step because she had that transition World Championship year.”

In September, Griner was suspended for a portion of a USA Basketball European training camp due to a domestic violence arrest.

“Brittney, with her struggles a year ago, she’s, as they all are, valuable to us, and we just like to check in and make sure things are OK all along the way,” Callan said.

At the end of the Connecticut camp, Griner was largely jocular during a five-minute interview. Even when looking ahead to a possible appearance at the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“I heard it’s a really long walk,” Griner said of marching in the Parade of Nations. “I’ve got to get ready for that one. Get some stretch on, some Icy Hot.”

MORE: Auriemma: UConn ‘wouldn’t make it at the Olympics’

Mo Farah likely to retire this year

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British track legend Mo Farah will likely retire by the end of this year.

“I’m not going to go to the Olympics, and I think 2023 will probably be my last year,” the 39-year-old Farah said, according to multiple British media reports.

Farah, who swept the 5000m and 10,000m golds at the Olympics in 2012 and 2016, was announced Tuesday as part of the field for the London Marathon on April 23.

Last May, Farah reportedly said he believed his career on the track was over, but not the roads.

London might not be his last marathon. Farah also said that if, toward the end of this year, he was capable of being picked to run for Britain again, he would “never turn that down,” according to Tuesday’s reports.

It’s not clear if Farah was referencing the world track and field championships, which include a marathon and are in Budapest in August. Or selection for the 2024 British Olympic marathon team.

The fastest British male marathoner last year ran 2:10:46, ranking outside the top 300 in the world. Farah broke 2:10 in all five marathons that he’s finished, but he hasn’t run one since October 2019 (aside from pacing the 2020 London Marathon).

Farah withdrew four days before the last London Marathon on Oct. 2, citing a right hip injury.

Farah switched from the track to the marathon after the 2017 World Championships and won the 2018 Chicago Marathon in a then-European record time of 2:05:11. Belgium’s Bashir Abdi now holds the record at 2:03:36.

Farah’s best London Marathon finish in four starts was third place in 2018.

Farah returned to the track in a failed bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, then shifted back to the roads.

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Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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