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Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross end partnership

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Five-time Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings is looking for a new partner — and a new beach volleyball tour — after rejecting an exclusivity agreement with the AVP that would have locked her into the circuit through the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

In her first public comments since breaking with the biggest, richest and longest-running domestic tour, Walsh Jennings told The Associated Press on Thursday that the deal lacked the vision to grow the game and was “a death sentence for our sport.” Among her complaints: an eight-stop circuit, with what she called minimal growth in prize money or the number of events, dooming athletes to live with their parents or take full-time jobs to support themselves.

“We’re being kept in a small little fishbowl,” Walsh Jennings told the AP. “I know our sport deserves more. We’ve been told we’re small, and we believe it.”

AVP owner Donald Sun declined to respond to the comments. But when Walsh Jennings missed the deadline to sign before this week’s season-opening Huntington Beach (Calif.) Open, he told the AP: “I respect her decisions, and I wish her well.”

The decision to opt out of the AVP tour also means Walsh Jennings will split with April Ross, her partner in Rio de Janeiro when they won the Olympic bronze medal. Walsh Jennings won three straight gold medals with Misty May-Treanor, who retired after the London Games.

Walsh Jennings and Ross could continue to pair up on the international tour, where teams earn points to qualify for the 2020 Games, but that would mean maintaining separate partnerships domestically and abroad. Ross’ decision to sign the deal means she couldn’t play in the competing National Volleyball League, which lists four 2017 events on its website.

Walsh Jennings said she was disappointed the partnership had to end. Asked if the two could get back together before the qualification period for the Tokyo Olympics begins in 2019, she said, “April and I are finished. We’re not competing together anymore.”

“I have a ton of respect for April,” she said. “I just have a different vision for the future.”

With its party atmosphere dropped into picturesque backdrops like London’s Horse Guards Parade and Rio’s Copacabana Beach, beach volleyball emerges every four years as the darling of the Olympics. (The bikinis don’t hurt with the TV audience, either.)

But the sport’s efforts to establish a stable U.S. tour have left it running in the sand.

Beach volleyball athletes have quarreled with USA Volleyball, arguing that the national governing body’s efforts were skewed toward the indoor game. The AVP twice declared bankruptcy, and since emerging from the second reorganization it has found itself in competition with the NVL, even though all agree that one, stable tour would be best for the sport. And, when the NCAA considered adding beach volleyball to its list of sanctioned programs, among the opponents were indoor volleyball coaches who were afraid of losing their top athletes to the sandier, sexier side of the sport.

Walsh Jennings, who has been at the forefront of many of these fights, said her goal remains to do what’s best for her sport. As its most visible and marketable athlete, at least in the United States, she is able to make a living by relying on endorsement deals others don’t have.

“I am in a blessed position,” she said.

Walsh Jennings also said her objection to the deal has nothing to do with a lawsuit she has filed against the AVP, claiming breach of a personal services contract, or with a dispute over rule changes that led her to boycott an event last summer.

“I know my intentions are pure,” she said. “And this is not about not being grateful. This is about knowing there’s more and better out there. I believe in the sport. I believe in the sport at the highest level. That’s what I’m going after. It’s all there for the taking.”

And, she said, she couldn’t bring herself to sign a deal that would hold the sport back.

“I want to believe in what I’m doing,” she said. “I believe in what I’m doing much more than if I had signed this contract.”

Walsh Jennings, who would turn 42 during the Tokyo Games, repeated that she is not retiring and is still determined to attend her sixth Olympics. Asked what’s next, she said: “I get myself a partner; I don’t know who that’s going to be. That’s exciting for me, to grow toward Tokyo.”

And, while Ross and most of the other American professionals are opening the season in Huntington Beach, Walsh Jennings was off to the NCAA beach volleyball championships in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

“I figured I’m not playing this weekend,” she said, “so I want to go support the good stuff.”

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Geraint Thomas attacks, takes Tour de France lead ahead of Chris Froome

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British Olympic track cycling champion Geraint Thomas grabbed the Tour de France lead, attacking with three and a half miles to win a summit finish on Stage 11 on Wednesday.

Thomas now leads a Team Sky one-two in the overall standings, 85 seconds ahead of four-time Tour winner Chris Froome, as the three-week Grand Tour passed the halfway mark.

“Froome is the [Team Sky] leader here, so there’s no pressure on me,” Thomas said Tuesday, according to Cyclingnews.com. “It’s a bonus for me to be up there, and hopefully I can be there for as long as possible.”

The Tour continues Thursday with stage 12 to Alpe d’Huez, live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold (full broadcast schedule here).

The 109-mile stage features three beyond-category climbs — Col de la Madeleine, Croix-de-Fer and the iconic Alpe d’Huez finish after 21 switchbacks to close out the Tour’s three days in the Alps. The overall standings are sure to change.

Greg Van Avermaet, the Rio Olympic road race champion, went into stage 11 with a 2:22 lead, which he had tripled on the first mountain day Tuesday.

But Van Avermaet, who predicted he would lose the yellow jersey before stages Tuesday and Wednesday, cracked on the second of three major climbs Wednesday. He finished in a group 22 minutes after Thomas.

Van Avermaet is a super one-day racer but not a strong climber.

Thomas dons the yellow jersey for a second straight Tour. The 2008 and 2012 Olympic track cycling gold medalist won the opening stage in 2017 and wore the maillot jaune four days before Froome took over en route to his fourth title in Paris.

There was talk before and during this year’s Tour that Thomas could challenge Froome as Sky’s team leader, even though Froome has won the last three Grand Tours and is going for record-tying fifth Tour de France crown.

But Thomas and Sky have played that down.

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U.S. Olympic, USA Gymnastics leaders set for another Senate hearing

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Recently replaced U.S. Olympic Committee acting CEO Susanne Lyons, USA Gymnastics President and CEO Kerry Perry and Michigan State interim president John Engler are scheduled witnesses for a Senate subcommittee hearing next Tuesday on reforms following the Larry Nassar sexual-abuse crimes.

The hearing is titled, “Strengthening and Empowering U.S. Amateur Athletes: Moving Forward with Solutions” and will stream live at https://www.commerce.senate.gov/ on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. ET.

“The hearing will focus on changes made by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), USA Gymnastics (USAG), and Michigan State University (MSU) to protect Olympic and amateur athletes from abuse,” according to the subcommittee’s website. “It will examine recent reforms to provide safe environments for athletes and how these reforms are being implemented.”

The subcommittee held hearings April 18 and June 5 with testimonies from gymnasts and other athletes who were abused, former Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon and former senior vice president of USA Gymnastics Rhonda Faehn. Former USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny also attended the June 5 hearing but refused to answer questions.

Lyons and Perry were questioned at a House subcommittee hearing May 23.

The USOC last Thursday named Sarah Hirshland its new CEO, replacing Lyons, who had been in the role on an interim basis since Scott Blackmun resigned in February. Blackmun, who had been CEO since January 2010, left citing prostate cancer and the USOC’s need to immediately address the USA Gymnastics sexual-abuse scandal.

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