Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross meet Olympic qualification

Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross
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Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross mathematically qualified for the Rio Olympics with their first serve Wednesday, capping an obstacle-filled year that at one point included doubts about Walsh Jennings’ availability for a fifth Olympic run.

All six U.S. beach volleyball pairs still in Olympic qualifying contention (for four total spots) are entered in the Cincinnati Open this week (results here). The finals will air on NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.

Walsh Jennings and Ross met the minimum number of tournaments played for Olympic qualifying by competing in Cincinnati.

That also gave them a qualifying point total that only one other U.S. team — Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat — could possibly pass by the June 13 deadline.

And with the U.S. set to send two pairs per gender to the Olympics, that means Walsh Jennings and Ross will go to Rio. The U.S. Olympic beach volleyball teams are expected to be officially named after the June 13 deadline.

Walsh Jennings and Ross’ Olympic qualification was clouded last spring and summer.

Walsh Jennings, a 37-year-old mother of three, dislocated her right shoulder during matches May 27 and July 10 and required a fifth career right shoulder surgery.

Not knowing immediately when she would have surgery — and the uncertainty of how it would impact their Olympic qualifying — Walsh Jennings told Ross to pick a substitute partner “you picture yourself winning a gold medal with” while the three-time Olympic champion was sidelined.

But Walsh Jennings endured through the injury to play three tournaments with Ross in August and September, with minimal right arm use, before surgery. Those results ensured they would meet the minimum number of tournaments after Walsh Jennings returned this season.

Walsh Jennings and Ross have two titles in four FIVB tournaments this year, including semifinal appearances in every event. They are Olympic medal favorites along with Brazilian pairs Larissa and Talita and Agatha and Barbara.

Ross said their coach, Brazil native Marcio Sicoli, has a three-block plan. The second block concluded with qualification Wednesday.

“We don’t know what that consists of, but he’s got a plan,” Ross said, according to USA Volleyball. “The first block was preseason, the second block was qualifying through the tournaments and block three will be after qualification, preparing for and through the Olympics.”

Fendrick and Sweat are likely to qualify for their first Olympic team, unless 2012 Olympic silver medalist Jennifer Kessy and Emily Day perform extremely well in the final three qualifying tournaments.

The picture is similar on the U.S. men’s side. Beijing Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena will likely clinch an Olympic berth once they achieve the minimum tournaments played.

They are two events short with three events remaining, including Cincinnati, where they are entered.

Two-time Olympian Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson hold a comfortable edge over John Hyden and Tri Bourne for the likely No. 2 spot.

MORE: ‘Mammoth,’ ‘Magician’ lead Brazil’s climb back to top of beach volleyball

Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

Ilia Malinin
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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

FIGURE SKATING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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Lara Gut-Behrami wins Killington giant slalom, and the overall title race may be on

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Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami rallied from third place after the first run for her 35th career World Cup victory, taking a giant slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Saturday.

Gut-Behrami, 31, earned her fifth World Cup giant slalom win and first in six years. She prevailed by .07 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino combining times from two windy runs. Sweden’s Sara Hector, the Olympic champion and first-run leader, ended up third.

“Last two years I’ve been getting better in GS again,” said Gut-Behrami, who won the GS at the last world championships in 2021. “Last year I was struggling with my health. I was all the time sick.”

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Gut-Behrami’s best events are downhill and super-G, so a strong start to the season in GS could put her on a path to winning the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. She previously lifted that crystal globe in 2016.

Reigning World Cup overall champ Mikaela Shiffrin, who previously placed second, third, fourth and fifth in Killington giant slaloms, finished 13th after winning the season’s first two races, slaloms in Finland last week. It marked her lowest World Cup GS finish since December 2019.

“[Finland] was a spectacular weekend,” Shiffrin, who has not had much recent GS training, said after her 10th-place opening run Saturday. “Every race is a different story.”

Shiffrin won all five World Cup slaloms in Killington dating to 2016 and will go for her 50th career World Cup slalom victory across all venues on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

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