Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross return to action, map out next years

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Kerri Walsh Jennings went into the post-Rio offseason thinking she needed a new partner, with April Ross hoping to get pregnant.

So when Ross reached out to say that she had changed her mind and would return for 2017, Walsh Jennings struggled to contain her excitement.

“I was prepared for anything, but I really love playing with April,” Walsh Jennings said Tuesday.

After claiming bronze in Rio, Ross planned on taking time to decompress from the 2016 season and then try to get pregnant. She took a trip to Las Vegas to see The Chainsmokers, and snowboarded with her family in Montana.

But after a couple of weeks away from training, her first true break in years, Ross started itching to return to the sand.

“I thought I was going to be ready to stop and work on having a family, but when it came down to it, I wasn’t ready to stop,” Ross said.

Starting a family is still very much a priority for Ross, 34. She is now hoping to get pregnant after the 2017 season, and sit out in 2018.

2018 is the only year in the upcoming quadrennial without a major global championship. World championships will take place in 2017 and 2019, and 2020 is an Olympic year.

“It aligns perfectly that way,” Ross said.

Ross and Walsh Jennings are competing at the season-opening Fort Lauderdale Major on the FIVB World Tour this week. The most notable difference is that they switched sides, with Walsh Jennings now playing on the left.

“If you keep doing the same thing, you are going to keep getting the same results,” Walsh Jennings said. “We had an amazing year last year, but we always want more and better from ourselves.”

Their short-term focus is on the world championships, which begin July 28 in Vienna, Austria. Ross was the world champion in 2009 with Jennifer Kessy; Walsh Jennings won the 2003, 2005 and 2007 titles with Misty May-Treanor. But they’ve been shut out, separately and then together, since.

“It’s the biggest event of the year,” Walsh Jennings said. “That is goal for the year, but we want to win a lot before that, and a lot after that.”

Their long-term focus is on the 2020 Olympics. Both reiterated that they are committed to attempting to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

Walsh Jennings, who is trying for a sixth Olympics at age 41, believes 2020 will be her final season.

“In my head, I’m thinking I’ve got four years, and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it,” Walsh Jennings said. “And if that changes, it changes, and if it doesn’t, yay.”

Besides Ross and Walsh Jennings, none of the other U.S. teams are established. Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat, the other U.S. pair at the Rio Games, split this offseason. Of the eight other U.S. women in the Fort Lauderdale Major main draw, half are 24 years old or younger.

But Walsh Jennings will not spend this season scouting potential partners for 2018.

“If I start doing that, I’ll be in trouble with April, because I need to focus on us,” Walsh Jennings said. “And things change. Things obviously changed for her this year, and she decided to come back.

“I’m going to take things as they come. I know that whatever happens, I’ll make the best of it, and I’ll have great options.”

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U.S. women’s basketball team, statistically greatest ever, rolls to FIBA World Cup title

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The revamped U.S. women’s basketball team may have been the greatest of all time.

The Americans completed, statistically, their most dominant global championship ever by routing China 83-61 in the FIBA World Cup final on Saturday in Sydney — giving them 60 consecutive wins between the Olympics and worlds dating to 2006.

It marked the largest margin of victory in a World Cup final since the event converted from a fully round-robin format in 1983.

For the tournament, the U.S. drubbed its opponents by an average of 40.75 points per game, beating its previous record between the Olympics and worlds of 37.625 points from the 2008 Beijing Games. It was just off the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Dream Team’s legendary margin 43.8 points per game. This U.S. team scored 98.75 points per game, its largest at worlds since 1994.

“We came here on a mission, a business trip,” tournament MVP A’ja Wilson said in a post-game press conference before turning to coach Cheryl Reeve. “We played pretty good, I think, coach.”

Since the U.S. won a seventh consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired. Tina Charles ceded her national team spot to younger players. Brittney Griner was detained in Russia (and still is). Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury that ruled her out of World Cup participation (who knows if the 40-year-old Taurasi will play for the U.S. again).

Not only that, but Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, implementing a new uptempo system.

“There was probably great concern, and maybe around the world they kind of looked at it and said, ‘Hey, now is the time to get the USA,'” Reeve said Saturday.

The U.S. response was encapsulated by power forward Alyssa Thomas, the oldest player on the roster at age 30 who made the U.S. team for the first time in her career, started every game and was called the team’s glue and MVP going into the final.

Wilson and Tokyo Olympic MVP Breanna Stewart were the leaders. Guard Kelsey Plum, a Tokyo Olympic 3×3 player, blossomed this past WNBA season and was third in the league’s MVP voting. She averaged the most minutes on the team, scored 15.8 points per game and had 17 in the final.

“The depth of talent that we have was on display,” Reeve said. “What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in.”

For the first time since 1994, no player on the U.S. roster was over the age of 30, creating a scary thought for the 2024 Paris Olympics: the Americans could get even better.

“When you say best-ever, I’m always really cautious with that, because, obviously, there are great teams,” Reeve said when asked specifically about the team’s defense. “This group was really hard to play against.”

Earlier Saturday, 41-year-old Australian legend Lauren Jackson turned back the clock with a 30-point performance off the bench in her final game as an Opal, a 95-65 victory over Canada for the bronze. Jackson, who came out of a six-year retirement and played her first major tournament since the 2012 Olympics, had her best scoring performance since the 2008 Olympics.

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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