U.S. softball ‘cautiously optimistic’ about 2020 Olympic chances

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — As the Women’s College World Series draws to a close, USA Softball officials believe a bigger stage for the sport is on the horizon.

The International Olympic Committee will vote before the Rio Games in August on whether to include baseball and softball in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Softball has not been played at the Olympics since 2008 and won’t be in Rio, but U.S. officials are optimistic that it will be included in 2020. The IOC recommended the inclusion of baseball-softball last week.

“Goosebumps came about,” USA coach Ken Eriksen said. “No question that another big hurdle was cleared.”

A positive vote would result in USOC funding and reintroduce softball as an Olympic sport, a critical selling point in drawing sponsorships.

“It was great,” Eriksen said. “At the same time, I had to tell all the girls on the team and the other people involved in America — cautiously optimistic.”

Craig Cress, executive director of USA Softball, said the positive response from the IOC was welcome.

“It’s never over till it’s over, but just knowing that the executive council endorsed our sports is extremely important to us and gratifying,” Cress said.

Other sports backed for inclusion by the IOC board were surfing, karate, sport climbing and skateboarding for Tokyo. The five sports, which were proposed for inclusion last year by Tokyo organizers, were presented as a package and they will go to a vote of the full IOC at its session in Rio on the eve of the games.

In the meantime, Team USA is already working as if the vote will go its way.

“I think you need to be prepared for it,” Eriksen said. “The plan is in place as we train, not only this year in 2016, but to put into place a skeletal program in 2017, 18, 19, 20, leading up to the Games.”

Part of the preparation is finding players. Many of the nation’s top players were involved in the Women’s College World Series. USA National Team members whose teams qualified for the world series are Alabama’s Haylie McCleney, Auburn’s Kasey Cooper, LSU’s Bianka Bell and UCLA’s Paige Halstead and Delaney Spaulding.

Junior National team members whose teams qualified are Oklahoma’s Sydney Romero, UCLA’s Johanna Grauer, LSU’s Emily Griggs and LSU’s Allie Walljasper.

The college world series is one of Team USA’s most important training grounds.

“I think it showcases some of our best athletes,” Eriksen said. “Team play is a lot different than what can be done at the next level. We utilize the college level as the minor leagues of what we can see can be drafted to the next level.”

If softball gets back into the Olympics, an already growing sport in the United States could get a significant boost.

“At this point, the pinnacle of our sport, the biggest stage is the college stage, but ultimately the goal is to be able to have that opportunity to wear the red, white and blue,” UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said. “It inspires all of those that play this sport to want to get in and have that opportunity to represent their country at the highest level. I believe it will have a ripple effect of growing it at the grassroots.”

It would also stir interest and provide opportunities internationally.

“This will now take off and spread worldwide to many, many other countries, and it will open up a lot of different avenues for coaches that are here, because they’re going to be sought after to try and teach the game,” Auburn coach Clint Myers said. “It will broaden horizons both here and abroad, and adding it back into the Olympics can only make the sport greater.”

MORE: Olympic softball champion manages minor-league baseball team

Gregorio Paltrinieri swims second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history

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Olympic champion Gregorio Paltrinieri swam the second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history, clocking 14:33.10 in his native Italy on Thursday.

Paltrinieri, 25, missed Chinese Sun Yang‘s world record from the 2012 Olympics by 2.08 seconds.

The Italian now owns the second- and third-fastest times in history, including his 14:34.10 from the 2016 European Championships, also held at the 2012 Olympic pool in London.

Paltrinieri is a versatile distance swimmer. At last year’s world championships, he finished sixth in the open-water 10km to qualify for the Olympics, then won the 800m free in the pool in a European record time and finished with 1500m bronze, just missing a third straight world title in that event.

German Florian Wellbrock won the 1500m in 14:36.54 at worlds, with Paltrinieri finishing 2.21 seconds back.

Sun, 28, was in February banned eight years stemming from destroying a drug-test sample with a hammer in September 2018. Sun, who focused more on the 200m and 400m frees in recent years, did not race the 1500m at the 2017 or 2019 Worlds.

Top-level swim meets in the U.S. are scheduled to resume in November with the Tyr Pro Series.

MORE: Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15

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Bianca Andreescu to miss U.S. Open

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Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the U.S. Open, citing “unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic” compromising her ability to prepare to defend her Grand Slam title.

“I have taken this step in order to focus on my match fitness and ensure that I return ready to play at my highest level,” Andreescu, a 20-year-old Canadian, posted on social media. “The US Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. However, I realize that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

Andreescu’s absence means the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be without both 2019 male and female singles champions.

Rafael Nadal previously announced he would not defend his title, saying he would rather not travel given the global situation. Roger Federer is also out after knee surgery. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty didn’t enter, either, citing travel concerns.

Last year, Andreescu made her U.S. Open title run as the 15th seed, sweeping Serena Williams in the final. Ranked 208th a year earlier, she became the first player born in the 2000s to win a Slam and the first teen Slam winner since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Andreescu then missed the Australian Open in January due to rehab from a knee injury that forced her to retire during a match at the WTA Finals on Oct. 30. She also missed the French Open and Wimbledon in 2019 following a rotator cuff tear.

MORE: Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis competition

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