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.”

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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. 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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