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The beach volleyball player who turned down Kerri Walsh Jennings

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VIENNA — A fan holding a large beer gestured to Sara Hughes with his free hand as he watched the world beach volleyball championships.

“That’s her,” the fan was overheard saying. “She’s the one who turned down Kerri Walsh Jennings.”

Word has gotten out that Hughes had the opportunity to partner with Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion, but instead chose to continue with collegiate partner Kelly Claes.

Claes and Hughes met as teenagers at a beach volleyball camp. Hughes, who had played since age 8, approached Claes, who was new to the sand, about a partnership.

“The chemistry was there just like that,” Claes said, snapping her fingers.

When it came time to pick a college, Claes initially committed to Long Beach State for indoor volleyball. But Hughes convinced her to instead play beach volleyball at USC.

They won two national championships as a pair at USC, where Claes, a redhead, and Hughes, a blonde, were nicknamed “Cardinal and Gold” after the school’s official colors. They graduated in May, with Hughes delivering the student-athlete graduation speech (VIDEO).

They describe themselves as “goofballs,” and often turned USC practices into dance parties by blasting their music at full volume over the loudspeakers.

“There are a million funny stories about these two dancing queens,” USC coach Anna Collier said. “I think the humor that they share together helps keep their relationship both on and off the court very solid.”

During their senior season, Hughes was contacted several times by Walsh Jennings, who split with Olympic bronze medal teammate April Ross in April. Walsh Jennings even flew to Alabama to watch Hughes compete at the NCAA championships, and told ESPN.com “all I wanted to do was play with [Hughes].”

But Hughes was not ready to respond to Walsh Jennings.

“I was honest and told her I couldn’t give her an answer right in the middle of the season with my team,” Hughes said.

Hughes was open with Claes about her conversations with Walsh Jennings.

“It’s really cool that my partner got asked by Kerri Walsh Jennings, and she decided to stay with me,” Claes said. “That just shows how much Sara believes in us.”

Walsh Jennings ultimately partnered with Nicole Branagh, but is sidelined after dislocating her five-times surgically repaired right shoulder in a match in July.

It has been a whirlwind couple of months for Claes and Hughes. Immediately after the NCAA Championships, they flew to Rio for an international tournament. Their best international result in their first full season on the FIVB World Tour was a quarterfinal in Porec, Croatia, a month ago.

They are now the top-ranked U.S. team as worlds get under way in the Austrian capital (broadcast schedule here).

“It’s a dream come true to be here,” Claes said. “We thought we would be watching this at home.”

They are enjoying life as professionals. In Vienna, they took a break from training to practice line dancing, and they plan on visiting the Prater, a public park believed to be home to the oldest amusement park in the world.

But they are all business on the sand.

“We want to show everyone that we are a force to be reckoned with,” Hughes said. “We aren’t these college girls that came out to just to have fun and play. We are here to win and be the best team.”

Partner changes are common in beach volleyball. Of the four teams that represented the U.S. at the Rio Olympics, just one is still playing together.

Even their collegiate coach believes they could benefit from a break.

“I think in some ways, after having played together for this many years, that Sara and Kelly might be nearing a ceiling in terms of their growth as a pair,” Collier said. “I think continued growth is important, and if they were to take some time apart, that when they come back together, they would have a new ceiling to reach for.”

Beijing Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser was in a similar position early in his career. In 2005, he turned down 2000 Olympic champion Dain Blanton to continue playing with childhood friend Nick Lucena. The next year, when Dalhausser was approached by another veteran in Todd Rogers, he put his emotions aside and split with Lucena. Dalhausser and Lucena reunited in 2015 and made the Rio Olympic quarterfinals.

If asked, Dalhausser would have advised Hughes to partner with Walsh Jennings and Claes to partner with Ross.

“I try to tell young players to think of themselves as a business,” Dalhausser said. “Sara would have learned so much from Kerri, and Kelly would have learned so much from April, and they would have made money right off the bat.”

But Claes, 21, and Hughes, 22, insist that they will stay together through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I believe in this [partnership] 100 percent,” said Claes, who wears a “Tokyo 2020” necklace that she has not removed in two years. “I believe we can make it to Tokyo. I believe we can take gold. I want to do all that, and I want to go through this process with [Hughes] because I love her and I know we’ve got what it takes.”

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MORE: World Beach Volleyball Championships broadcast schedule

Chloe Kim makes it five straight wins with Dew Tour title

Chloe Kim
Dew Tour
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Chloe Kim capped one of the greatest years in snowboarding history by repeating as Dew Tour champion in Breckenridge, Colo., on Sunday.

The 18-year-old PyeongChang gold medalist won a modified halfpipe contest with a 94.67-point first run on a course that combines slopestyle features with a halfpipe. She beat a field that included Olympic silver and bronze medalists Liu Jiayu and Arielle Gold.

Kim has won five straight contests — the X Games in January, the Olympics in February, the U.S. Open in March and, to open this season, victories the last two weekends. No other rider won the X Games, Olympics and U.S. Open in one year.

Kim decided to compete this season rather than enroll in college. She tweeted in March that she was accepted to Princeton.

She is expected to go for a fourth X Games Aspen title in five years next month, which would tie her for second all-time among women behind Kelly Clark, who has six halfpipe crowns.

The retired Gretchen Bleiler also won four X Games golds. Clark, a 35-year-old, five-time Olympian, said last month that she was undecided if she will compete again.

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MORE: Shaun White sets longest snowboard break of career

Brittany Bowe grabs 20th World Cup win, ascends U.S. all-time list

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Olympic bronze medalist Brittany Bowe grabbed her third World Cup win this season and the 20th of her career, moving into solo fifth place on the U.S. all-time list on Sunday.

Bowe, whose PyeongChang medal came in the team pursuit, won a 1000m in Heerenveen, Netherlands, in 1:13.24, beating a field including Olympic silver and bronze medalists Nao Kodaira and Miho Takagi of Japan. She broke her own track record by .66 at the sport’s hallowed Thialf.

“That was one of the most perfect races I’ve skated this far, and I couldn’t be happier to do it here in Thialf,” Bowe said, according to the International Skating Union. “Every stroke was right, no missteps. This was definitely one of the best races in my career.”

Bowe earned a medal of every color in two days of racing in Heerenveen, adding to her 500m bronze and 1500m silver on Saturday. Bowe leads the season standings in the 1000m and is third in the 500m and 1500m.

There are two stops left this season — Hamar, Norway, in February and Salt Lake City in March, with the world championships in between.

“The real show is in February [at words],” Bowe said.

Bowe is returning from a July 2016 concussion that affected her for the entire 2016-17 season, including blood-pressure issues and fainting spells.

She returned in full for the 2017-18 Olympic season but did not make an individual podium between the World Cups and the Olympics, missing a 1000m medal in PyeongChang by .38 and in the 1500m by .28.

Before the concussion, Bowe in 2015 earned world titles and broke world records in the 1000m and 1500m.

On Sunday, the former Florida Atlantic basketball player passed three-time Olympic medalist Chris Witty for fifth on the U.S. World Cup wins list behind Bonnie Blair (69), Shani Davis (58), Dan Jansen (46) and Heather Bergsma (34), according to schaatsstatistieken.nl.

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