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Joss Christensen must battle back from major injury to defend Olympic title

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Olympic ski slopestyle champion Joss Christensen landed awkwardly and felt a pop in his right knee while training three weeks ago.

“The first thought in my mind was, it’s over,” Christensen recalled in a phone interview Thursday.

It’s not.

Christensen, one of the biggest surprises of the Sochi Winter Games, suffered a torn ACL and meniscus, plus an MCL sprain in Mammoth Mountain, Calif., on May 10.

He underwent surgery May 18 and had another knee scope last Friday due to excess swelling.

He expects to be off snow for the next five and a half months.

The 25-year-old plans to be competition ready around mid-December, right around the start of PyeongChang Olympic qualifying. No more than four men will earn Olympic berths after a series of selection events.

Christensen’s initial fear that he wouldn’t be able to defend his Olympic title in February has given way to a fighter’s spirit.

“I know that a lot of the other skiers are probably counting me out right now,” he said. “This puts me right back where I like to be. There’s no target on my back this time. I’m the underdog again. I just want to prove everyone wrong.”

Christensen was overlooked going into the 2013-14 Olympic season. He finished eighth and 12th at the first two Olympic qualifiers but won the last selection event for Sochi, wrapping up the final U.S. berth.

Christensen then led a U.S. Olympic ski slopestyle podium sweep with Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper.

He dedicated the surprise victory to his father, who had died of a congenital heart problem six months earlier.

Christensen struggled with injuries after Sochi. There were rabies and tetanus shots after a dog bit him in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He broke his left hand and bruised his left knee and suffered cartilage damage at the 2016 Winter X Games.

Christensen underwent left knee surgery last summer and was off snow for four months.

He returned to finish sixth at X Games last January. More importantly, he ranked second among Americans behind McRae Williams.

Christensen said last fall he expected the 2017-18 season to be his last. Now, he’s not as sure.

“My goal right now is I’m going to keep competing as long as I’m getting invited to the contests,” he said.

MORE: Mark McMorris’ brother details snowboarder’s life-threatening crash

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Kyle Dake repeats as world wrestling champ; next challenge: Jordan Burroughs

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Kyle Dake recovered from an unspecified freak accident that required surgery, and not wrestling in a meet for eight months, to repeat as world champion at 79kg, a non-Olympic weight class, on Sunday.

The next six months will bring another challenge — beating Jordan Burroughs for an Olympic spot.

“Every year I have a goal of being the best guy in the world. Last year, I proved it. This year, I proved it,” Dake told Trackwrestling.com. “I’ve got my work cut out for me, coming up.”

Dake, a four-time NCAA champion at Cornell who considered quitting after finishing second at U.S. trials year after year, is now in his freestyle prime. He backed up going unscored on at worlds last year by beating his four opponents in Kazakhstan this week by a combined 27-4, capped by topping Azerbaijan’s Jabrayil Hasanov 4-2 in a final rematch.

Kid Dynamite is unquestionably one of the world’s best pound-for-pound wrestlers.

That was not the case four years ago. Then, an internationally inexperienced Dake moved out of the 74kg division, and up to 86kg for the Olympic year, to avoid facing Burroughs because Burroughs had a bye into the Olympic trials final as the reigning world champion. Dake ended up losing the 86kg trials final to J’den Cox, who on Saturday repeated as world champion himself.

The four-year difference would seem to favor Dake over Burroughs at April’s trials, where Dake has a bye into the semifinals and Burroughs into the final.

Burroughs, at 31 years old, is on the back end of his career. He just missed the finals of back-to-back world championships for the first time, though he came back for bronze medals. Burroughs has made every U.S. world or Olympic team at 74kg dating to 2011 and earned a medal every time, save his tearful Rio Olympic exit.

Dake, reluctant four years ago to detail his decision to move out of 74kg, determined before this week’s worlds that he would choose 74kg over 86kg (where Cox likely waits again).

“74 seems like a good spot for me,” Dake told Trackwrestling last month.

The number of weight classes drops from 10 at worlds to six at the Olympics, ensuring that at least two of these Americans will not make the Tokyo team:

Burroughs — 5x Olympic/world champion
Dake — 2x world champion
David Taylor — 2018 World champion (missed 2019 while injured)
Cox — 2x world champion
Kyle Snyder — 2x Olympic/world champion

Later Sunday, Snyder rallied from being upset in the 97kg semifinals on Saturday to snag a bronze medal with a 5-0 win over Georgian Elizbar Odikadze. A potential third straight world final between Snyder and Russian Abdulrashid Sadulayev was the most anticipated match of the championships, but Snyder was beaten one match early by Azerbaijan’s Sharif Sharifov.

Sadulayev, meanwhile, blanked Sharifov 4-0 to complete a 30-3 romp through his four matches to repeat as world champ.

“The hardest part about it I would say is just the fact that I didn’t get to wrestle Sadulayev again,” said Snyder, a Rio Olympic champion and a 2015 and 2017 World champion who shared bus and elevator rides with Sadulayev on Saturday and Sunday. “I felt prepared for him.”

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MORE: Jordan Burroughs: Time is running out

Israel is first nation to qualify for 2020 Olympic baseball tournament

Margo Sugarman
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Israel’s baseball team, which captivated at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, is headed to its first Olympics next summer.

Israel won a joint European-African tournament to become the first nation to qualify for baseball’s return to the Games after the sport was voted off the program after Beijing 2008.

It joins host nation Japan. Four more countries will qualify — two at the global Premier12 in November, another from the Americas and one more from a last-chance qualifier next year.

Israel, ranked 19th in the world, advanced via its best opportunity in Italy this week. It upset the highest-ranked European nations — the Netherlands (No. 8) and host Italy (No. 16) — and wrapped it up with an 11-1 win over South Africa on Sunday.

Its run came two years after Israel, then ranked 41st, beat South Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Cuba before bowing out of the World Baseball Classic. And one week after Israel finished fourth at the European Championship.

Israel’s roster at this week’s Olympic qualifier lacked many of the MLB veterans that it had at the World Baseball Classic. Israeli citizenship was not required at the WBC.

Its most recognizable player is Danny Valencia, an infielder who played parts of nine MLB seasons from 2010-18. Joey Wagman, its starting pitcher for its first and last games this week, plies his trade for the independent-league Milwaukee Milkmen.

MLB players are unlikely to feature at the Tokyo Games, but minor leaguers are expected to be eligible as in the past.

The rest of the Olympic field is likely to be nations from North America (such as the U.S., Cuba, Mexico or Canada) or Asia (South Korea, Chinese Taipei) or Australia.

Baseball will not be on the 2024 Olympic program but could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

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MORE: USA Baseball taps longtime catcher to be Olympic qualifying manager