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April Ross details future after split with Kerri Walsh Jennings

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April Ross said her decision to sign with the AVP last week, and Kerri Walsh Jennings‘ decision not to, was “the final nail in the coffin” for their partnership.

Walsh Jennings announced Thursday that she and Ross split up, nine months after they earned bronze at the Rio Olympics.

“It’s not like a negative thing, and I don’t think [Walsh Jennings] views it as a negative thing,” Ross said. “So I think we’re both excited for the future in our different ways.”

Walsh Jennings made her admiration for Ross clear in a Facebook post later Saturday night.

“I have so much love in my heart for April,” was posted on the three-time Olympic champion’s page. “We fall on different sides of this situation, but that does not change my high opinion of her nor can it change the amazing times we shared together. April has made my life better. Period. … April is on the top of my list of beautiful blessings in my life.”

The pair’s split became official nine days ago, Ross said in a phone interview Saturday following a match at the AVP season-opening Huntington Beach (Calif.) Open. NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will air Huntington Beach Open coverage Sunday at 5 p.m. ET.

Before they split, Ross said she and Walsh Jennings discussed and considered for a while keeping their partnership for FIVB World Tour events. Under that plan, Ross would play with a different partner in AVP tournaments.

Walsh Jennings refused to sign an exclusivity agreement with AVP for domestic events leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, according to The Associated Press.

“Things got a little bit hairy at the end, and me deciding to play AVP just ended up being the nail in the coffin for us,” Ross said. “Our paths just took us in two very different directions. It was pretty clear towards the end that we weren’t going to play together, and a lot of it stemmed I think from me being so pro-AVP and wanting to support this tour and her having other ideas.”

Ross is playing with longtime friend Whitney Pavlik in Huntington Beach. She plans to play the rest of her AVP and international events this season with Lauren Fendrick, who played with Brooke Sweat at the Rio Olympics.

“The timing [of splitting with Walsh Jennings] was a little rough because it was right before the season, but I’m really excited for the opportunities this summer with Lauren,” Ross said. “I feel like this is just the next step for me on my journey to being the best I can be and for growth. I just feel like the future is exciting for me.”

Ross said she and Fendrick will debut at the FIVB World Tour’s stop in Moscow in early June. Walsh Jennings said she will next play with a to-be-determined partner in an event in Porec, Croatia, in late June, according to volleyballmag.com.

The world championships are in Vienna, Austria, in late July and early August.

Ross, an Olympic silver and bronze medalist and 2009 World champion, said she will figure out her long-term partner plans for Tokyo 2020 after this season. Ross, 34, has said she hopes to start a family with husband Brad Keenan, and that could still be in the cards.

While Walsh Jennings’ differences with the AVP have been reported (and some detailed in a lawsuit), Ross said it was a “no-brainer” to sign her AVP contract.

“Just being here this weekend completely validated that thought,” she said. “No. 1, it has the sentimental value. I grew up watching the AVP. Even when I hated to play beach volleyball, I loved coming to AVPs to watch. The AVP is just where I cut my teeth. AVP has always been really great to me and treated me really well. It’s an established brand, and they’re growing, and they’re doing really good things.”

Walsh Jennings and Ross last played on opposite sides of the net internationally at the 2012 Olympic final between Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor and Ross and Jennifer Kessy.

Walsh Jennings, after winning her third straight gold medal, told Ross at the net, “Let’s go win gold in Rio,” both knowing May-Treanor was retiring.

Walsh Jennings and Ross debuted in July 2013 and played together for most of the Rio Olympic cycle. They won 11 of their 32 international tournaments.

They almost didn’t qualify for Rio. Walsh Jennings twice dislocated her then-four-times surgically repaired right shoulder in 2015 and even suggested Ross might want to find a new partner.

Ross chose to stick with Walsh Jennings, who underwent a fifth right shoulder surgery in September 2015 and returned to go into the Rio Games as a medal favorite with Ross.

“I’ll look back on it fondly,” Ross said of their four years together. “It was a period of a lot of growth for me. … I loved our journey through the Olympics, and I’m so proud of what we did there. I have good feelings about the last four years.”

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MORE: AVP season broadcast schedule on NBC Sports

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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