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

Softball
AP
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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

Mikaela Shiffrin heads to world championships with medal records in sight

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Before Mikaela Shiffrin can hold the World Cup wins record, she can become the most decorated Alpine skier in modern world championships history.

Shiffrin takes a respite from World Cup pursuits for the biennial world championships in France. She is expected to race at least four times, beginning with Monday’s combined.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup victories in 23 starts this season, her best since her record 17-win 2018-19 campaign, but world championships do not count toward the World Cup.

Shiffrin remains one career victory behind Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s record 86 World Cup wins until at least her next World Cup start in March.

Shiffrin has been more successful at worlds than at the Olympics and even on the World Cup. She has 11 medals in 13 world championships races dating to her 2013 debut, including making the podium in each of her last 10 events.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

She enters worlds one shy of the modern, post-World War II individual records for total medals (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt won 12) and gold medals (Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson won seven).

Worlds take place exactly one year after Shiffrin missed the medals in all of her Olympic races, but that’s not motivating her.

“If I learned anything last year, it’s that these big events, they can go amazing, and they can go terrible, and you’re going to survive no matter what,” she said after her most recent World Cup last Sunday. “So I kind of don’t care.”

Shiffrin ranks No. 1 in the world this season in the giant slalom (Feb. 16 at worlds) and slalom (Feb. 18).

This year’s combined is one run of super-G coupled with one run of slalom (rather than one downhill and one slalom), which also plays to her strengths. She won that event, with that format, at the last worlds in 2021. The combined isn’t contested on the World Cup, so it’s harder to project favorites.

Shiffrin is also a medal contender in the super-G (Feb. 8), despite starting just two of five World Cup super-Gs this season (winning one of them).

She is not planning to race the downhill (Feb. 11), which she often skips on the World Cup and has never contested at a worlds. Nor is she expected for the individual parallel (Feb. 15), a discipline she hasn’t raced in three years in part due to the strain it puts on her back with the format being several runs for the medalists.

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Lucas Braathen, world’s top male slalom skier, in doubt for world championships

Lucas Braathen
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Norway’s Lucas Braathen, the world’s top male slalom skier this season, is doubtful to compete in the world championships slalom on Feb. 19 after appendix surgery on Tuesday.

“It’s been a tough couple of days fighting after surprisingly finding out about quite an intense infection on my appendix,” Braathen, a 22-year-old soccer convert with a Brazilian mom, posted on social media. “I’ve been through surgery and I’m blessed that it went successfully.”

The Norway Alpine skiing team doctor said Braathen’s recovery will take a few weeks, but there is a small possibility he can make it back for the world championships slalom, which is on the final day of the two-week competition.

Braathen has two slalom wins and one giant slalom win this World Cup season. He will miss Saturday’s slalom in Chamonix, France, the last race before worlds. Countryman Henrik Kristoffersen and Swiss Daniel Yule can overtake him atop the World Cup slalom standings in Chamonix.

Braathen entered last year’s Olympics as the World Cup slalom leader and skied out in the first run at the Games.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

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