Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross
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Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross meet Olympic qualification

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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.

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Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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