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Snow volleyball hopes to stake claim in Winter Olympics

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Beach volleyball is moving to the mountains and swapping its sand for snow.

A spinoff of the sun-splashed sport familiar to Summer Olympic fans and seaside frolickers, snow volleyball is spreading from the Alps to the Andes and making a run at the Winter Games. If all goes well, volleyball officials say, their sport would be the first to appear in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

“Our key message is to be the No. 1 family sport in the world,” Fabio Azevedo, the general director of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think it fits perfectly to our plan.”

Itself an offshoot of the more traditional indoor game, beach volleyball has grown into one of biggest attractions of the Summer Games, thanks no doubt to the bikini and boardshorts uniforms and the party atmosphere.

Now the FIVB wants a piece of the Winter Olympics, and it sees snow volleyball as the way in. With a European tour already established, volleyball officials have set out an agenda that would bring the new snow sport to Asia, Argentina and the United States with an eye toward approval as a demonstration sport at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

“They want to push it ultimately to the Winter Olympics,” said Martin Kaswurm, whose company manages the Snow Volleyball European Tour. “It’s not something we put into the mouths of the FIVB. It’s something they had as a goal themselves.”

The continental circuit, which kicks off this weekend in the Czech ski resort of Spindleruv Mlyn, was officially sanctioned by volleyball’s European governing body for the first time last winter. Azevedo said the goal is to have a world tour next year and a fully-fledged world championship in 2019. A spot in the 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne — where the FIVB has its headquarters — is also on the federation’s radar.

From there, snow volleyball could apply for status as a demonstration sport at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Azevedo hopes to have at least an informal display at the Winter Games next year in Pyeongchang, South Korea, even if it’s just stringing up a net in a plaza somewhere.

“We definitely want to be there and show people what snow volleyball is like,” he said. “Being really conservative, in order to climb this mountain step by step, I think the Olympics in 2026.”

While Olympic ice hockey and field hockey have different rules, different equipment and different governing bodies, snow volleyball is almost identical to the beach game. The tactics and rules are also similar to the two-a-side beach sport, and many of the competitors come from beach volleyball.

“Basically, we’ve just changed the surface,” Kaswurm said. “They only thing different is that they wear soccer shoes.”

The atmosphere also resembles beach volleyball, with disc jockeys cranking out music and cheerleaders — in lederhosen instead of bikinis — pumping up the crowd .

“Music, it’s inside our DNA, man,” Azevedo said.

Usually there is a hot tub courtside, and traditionally the winners will jump in after their matches to celebrate (and warm up).

“If you’re brave enough and have your swimsuit — or not — you can just jump in. And with the drinks and other friends you can enjoy the view on the center court and all the mountains around,” said Bobb Kufa, the 2016 Czech beach champion. “Pure happiness.”

Austrian national champion Flo Schnetzer said the crowd especially loves the post-match hot tub celebration.

“The people laugh when they see people in their underwear jumping into the whirlpool,” he said. “It’s so much fun to play in such an amazing atmosphere and to play in such an amazing place. The crowd is really crazy; they love it. They like to party and they like to celebrate in the mountains.”

But playing on a mountain has its own challenges.

Mostly, because the snow is slicker than sand there is more of a premium on players who can read and react quickly than on tall ones who can block. It’s also easier to jump on the compacted snow, so shorter players can be more effective blockers and height is less of an advantage.

“Snow volleyball is for smart and flexible players,” Kufa said. “All the moves are much slower. That means you have to be smarter – especially in defense. You have to decide the direction you want to go, and that’s all. You can’t take it back – otherwise you find yourself on your back with the shoes up to the air.”

The thinner air also slows the players down.

“You can really feel it,” Schnetzer said. “It’s really intense after just a short time. So you need to be physically really well prepared to be able to play on the mountains.”

And let’s not forget the cold.

“It is a mountain, so you should be ready for weather changes and be prepared for all kinds of weather,” Kufa said.

So far, the tournaments have been scheduled at resorts — with free admission — as something for the skiers to watch when they need a break. For the players at an event in Iran earlier this month, it was a quick diversion from the Kish Island beach event scheduled the following week.

That’s one big advantage snow volleyball has over other sports trying to join the Olympic program: It already has a strong federation and a ready pool of potential players from the beach game, including 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Martins Plavins of Latvia and the top beach players from several European countries.

Three-time Olympian Phil Dalhausser, a 2008 gold medalist, said he would wait until his beach career is over to give it a try.

“I would be too afraid of hurting myself,” said Dalhausser, who was born in Switzerland but has spent most of his life near the beaches of Florida and California. “The snow probably would be pretty slippery.”

Dalhausser said anything that gets people to watch and play any form of volleyball is good for the sport. And once fans see snow volleyball, Azevedo said, they will be hooked — just like those who have come to follow the beach version every four years at the Summer Olympics.

“Both of them are two parties,” Azevedo said. “But if you organize a party in your home, it’s probably different than a party I am organizing in my home. So, there are two different energies. But I can tell you you are going to enjoy both of them.”

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Bernard Lagat commits to Olympic marathon trials, eyes age record

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Bernard Lagat, a 44-year-old, five-time Olympian, reportedly said he will race the Olympic marathon trials on Feb. 29 in a bid to break his own record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner.

“I feel like I can still improve,” Lagat said, according to Runner’s World. “I’m going to give it my best.”

Lagat, a two-time Olympic 1500m medalist, moved to the marathon after becoming the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history at the Rio Games, placing fifth in the 5000m.

He clocked 2:17:20 in his 26.2-mile debut at the 2018 New York City Marathon. He lowered it to 2:12:10 at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia on July 7 but did not previously commit to entering the trials.

If Lagat finishes in the top three at the marathon trials, he is in line to become the third-oldest U.S. Olympic track and field athlete in history. The oldest are race walker John Deni (49 years old in 1952) and hammer thrower Matt McGrath (48 years old in 1924), according to the OlyMADMen.

Lagat ranks outside the top 20 among U.S. marathoners in this Olympic cycle. The fastest are Galen Rupp (2:06:07), Leonard Korir (2:07:56, from Sunday’s Amsterdam Marathon) and Scott Fauble (2:09:09).

No American has competed in six Olympics in track and field. Lagat’s first two Olympic appearances were for Kenya.

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Natalie Geisenberger, Olympic luge champion, will not race this season

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For the first time in eight years, there will be a new World Cup women’s luge champion.

Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger — the seven-time defending champion and two-time defending Olympic singles gold medalist — announced that she isn’t sliding this season because she and her husband are expecting their first child in April.

“Our happiness is on the way,” Geisenberger said on her Facebook page.

Geisenberger plans to return next season and still has hopes to compete at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, where she could match fellow German great Georg Hackl’s feat of winning three consecutive singles golds.

With Geisenberger not sliding this season, the top returning women from last year’s World Cup standings now are Julia Taubitz of Germany and Summer Britcher of the U.S. — second and third, respectively, in 2018-19.

Geisenberger has a luge record-tying four Olympic golds in all, being part of Germany’s victories in the team relays in Sochi in 2014 and Pyeongchang in 2018 as well.

Her 49 World Cup singles wins are another record, and she’s one of two sliders to win seven consecutive World Cup titles — Austria’s Markus Prock took the men’s championships each year from 1990-91 through 1996-97.

Geisenberger’s break from sliding only adds to how the World Cup standings — and the German roster — will look very different this season. Dajana Eitberger, who was fourth in last season’s World Cup standings, is also pregnant and expecting a baby in February. And Tatjana Huefner, who was sixth overall last season, has retired.

Huefner won five consecutive World Cup titles before Geisenberger took over and began her seven-year streak of championships. Geisenberger earned medals 11 times in 12 singles races last year — six golds, four silvers and one bronze.

“We are so happy for you even though we will miss you this season!” two-time Olympic singles gold medalist Felix Loch of Germany wrote in a message to Geisenberger on Instagram.

Geisenberger has been in the top three of the World Cup standings in 12 consecutive seasons. She was third in 2007-08, finished second in each of the next four seasons, and then began her title streak in 2012-13.

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