U.S. women's volleyball
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U.S. women’s volleyball team takes risk with peer reviews

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The experiment might have backfired with any other group: A decorated former player-turned-coach asked a team of world-class athletes to share candid feedback about each other through peer reviews.

U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly would have considered scrapping the idea altogether had his players said no way. Instead, they embraced it, and discovered their teammates’ words made them better as individuals and as a whole. Now, the Americans are heading into this summer’s Rio Olympics in search of that elusive gold medal with a stronger sense of what makes each one of them so valuable.

Rachael Adams hadn’t known her teammates so respected her competitive fire and energy.

Megan Easy learned, to her surprise, just how much her teammates admire the way she is handling the balance of her volleyball career and caring for toddler son, Easton.

Setter Alisha Glass accepted some constructive criticism that she could be even more vocal as a leader, and went right to work on it.

“Some people would be, ‘Wow, you guys evaluate each other on some very personal things,'” captain Christa Dietzen said. “We evaluate each other on a number of different things — respect, our ability to compete every day, bring it every day, some really intense things.”

Kiraly and his assistants asked players to review the coaching staff last year, then brought up the idea with the national team in late December of also having the players conduct evaluations. A source of annual apprehension in workplaces, it’s a rare practice on sports teams.

The Americans went for it with open minds.

“I guarantee to you not a lot of teams could,” said Natalie Hagglund, the libero, or back-row specialist. “It’s difficult to hear the things you can improve on because you want to hear, ‘You’re so good, you’re so good.’ It’s really difficult but it’s one of the most important things ever, especially on a 14-person roster or a 16-person training roster where we’re so close. We can affect how each and every one of the people on our team plays just by saying a few things, so that was huge.”

They will never know who said what. It was all anonymous. Still, there was anxiety.

Some players feared it might be just as hard to give critical feedback as it would be to receive it.

“People were a little nervous,” Easy said. “We have a lot of different personalities and some people might not be comfortable saying anything about someone else or some people might be really quick to say, ‘You’re this way and you need to change this,'” Easy said. “We all have each other’s best interests in mind and sometimes it’s hard to hear things that maybe you even know you need to change about yourself. But hearing it from someone else just gives you that confirmation that it is a thing to work on.”

The evaluation forms were mailed out before the Americans reconvened from their club teams in Southern California on Dec. 26 ahead of a January Olympic qualifier in Nebraska, where the U.S. secured its Rio berth after missing an opportunity last year with a pair of World Cup defeats in Japan. It was the group’s lone tournament loss in the last seven.

Once back together training, the women discussed the reviews during team meetings. They also have worked with sports psychologist Michael Gervais.

Kiraly, who won gold as an Olympian in beach and indoor volleyball, was an assistant coach for the women under Hugh McCutcheon at the London Olympics four years ago, and he had hoped to do the peer evaluations earlier. Yet the timing wound up being ideal ahead of the qualifier.

“People call that kind of a 360 review. We created our own, rudimentary version,” Kiraly said. “The neat thing was, lots of players were really excited — and a little apprehensive, understandably — but excited to learn. Our big job is to grow, so this is an opportunity to learn why we can be a little better.”

Many times, team dynamics are tough. Egos might run rampant. Personalities vary. Feelings can get hurt.

“Especially women, too,” Adams said. “Women take things a whole lot differently than men and of course we know there’s probably a comment in everyone’s where like, ‘I feel misunderstood on that one,’ but it’s all coming from a good place and we all want to make each other better.”

Having gone through the process, players realize they are in an environment where taking chances is not only accepted but unitedly encouraged.

“It gives you a little more freedom to try something new and maybe try something that’s not in your comfort zone. When you know that your teammates want that from you, you know you’re in good company and that you can make those risks and try to do different things,” Glass said. “They’re saying, ‘No, go ahead, you have the freedom to grow and expand.'”

The Americans got out of the project just what Kiraly hoped — and he believes it could lead to a special summer ahead. The U.S. women have never won Olympic gold in volleyball after believing they should have brought home a victory from London in 2012 before settling for a second straight silver medal at the hands of Brazil.

“If they were not open to it I would have been far more loathe to go ahead with it,” Kiraly said. “It’s a special group. I’ve told lots of people, it’s an incredible group to work with. I’m very fortunate.”

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Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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