FIVB

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

Abdulrashid Sadulayev pins Kyle Snyder in Rematch of the Century

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Kyle Snyder called out Abdulrashid Sadulayev in the spring, saying he could beat the Russian more soundly than in the 2017 Match of the Century. That Sadulayev was getting bad advice from those who told him he could beat Snyder if he entered the world championships in the 97kg freestyle division again this year.

Turns out, Sadulayev’s advisers were right.

The Russian Tank pinned Snyder for gold in the Rematch of the Century at wrestling worlds in Budapest on Tuesday. It was over in 70 seconds.

Sadulayev took control with a single-leg shot at 40 seconds, quickly took Snyder down and, after 20 seconds of jostling, used his 215 pounds on top of Snyder to get the American’s shoulders on the mat.

“Ended quickly,” Snyder said. “That stunk. Everybody knows Sadulayev’s a very talented wrestler. He hit me in a good move, and it worked out well for him. … This one doesn’t even really hurt too much right now.”

Snyder, 22, lost on the global championship stage for the first time. In 2015, he became the youngest American to win a world title. In 2016, he became the youngest U.S. Olympic wrestling champion. In 2017, he beat Sadulayev in the worlds final 6-5, overcoming a two-point deficit in the final minute in a battle of Olympic gold medalists.

Former Russian freestyle coach Magomed Guseynov was proven prophetic Tuesday.

“Sadulayev wasn’t prepared well last time,” he told United World Wrestling. “[Sadulayev] is 10 times better than Snyder. … Being a coach with 47 years of experience, I guarantee that Sadulayev won’t give him a chance to score a single point. Sadulayev will wrestle as if Snyder is an amateur.”

Sadulayev, a 22-year-old from Dagestan, was undefeated at the senior international level from November 2013 up to that 2017 World final. He beat four Rio Olympic 86kg opponents by a combined 28-1.

Sadulayev was more impressive than Snyder in Monday’s early rounds, winning all four matches by the 10-point mercy rule. Snyder’s closest match was his semifinal, a 3-0 win over two-time world medalist Pavlo Oliynyk of Hungary.

In other divisions Tuesday, three-time world champion Adeline Gray beat Olympic gold medalist Erica Wiebe of Canada to reach Wednesday’s 76kg final. Gray took 2017 off to recover from injuries after surprisingly missing the medals at her first Olympics in Rio.

Helen Maroulis, a 2015 and 2017 World champion and Rio gold medalist, opens her bid Wednesday to tie Tricia Saunders for the U.S. female record of four combined Olympic and world titles.

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MORE: Wrestling worlds TV schedule

Skate America champ Satoko Miyahara hopes to challenge Russians

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Like many elite figure skating coaches, Mie Hamada trains two of her country’s top athletes: Satoko Miyahara, the four-time and reigning Japanese champion who won her second straight Skate America title on Sunday; and Rika Kihira, the sport’s leading female proponent of the triple axel.

Also in common with many of her colleagues, both of Hamada’s star pupils will compete at the same Grand Prix event: NHK Trophy, held Nov. 9-11 in Hiroshima, Japan.

Unlike most coaches, though, Hamada is clear about which student she wants to win, be it at NHK or this season’s Japanese and world championships.

“I hope the champion is 18, because we want to see a senior lady, not a senior girl, don’t you think?” Hamada said in Everett. “A skater who has a story, not only jumps.”

A skater like Miyahara, who at age 20 is about four years Kihira’s senior.

“Jumps are very important, we know that, but the five (program) components, the artistry, should also count,” Hamada said.

“This is figure skating,” she added, drawing out each syllable for emphasis.I hope judges understand what is important for the sport.”

In Everett, Miyahara had it all: two intricate, elegant programs; gorgeous spins and steps; clean triple jumps – everything except a triple axel. She was the only lady in the event to land a triple lutz, triple toe combination that wasn’t judged under rotated. In fact, none of her jumps received the dreaded “<” – quite a feat, given some of her prior results and the new, more stringent international judging system (IJS) guidelines.

“During the off-season I did some training with very light weights, and it was very new for me,” said the tiny Miyahara, who is listed in her ISU bio as five feet tall. “I was training to make my hamstrings stronger. I had a bad habit of not using the butt and the hamstrings, only to use the front side (of my thighs), and that was not good for big jumps.”

Hamada, weary of the under rotations that have cost Miyahara dearly in the past, is behind the new regimen.

“This year, Satoko has a new strength trainer, and she worked very hard in the summer time, so she gets extra muscle,” Hamada said. “Then in October, we just relaxed and did some easier exercises before (Skate America).”

Miyahara has grown stronger in other ways. At last season’s Skate America, the skater spoke of her dangerous calcium deficiency, for which she was taking supplements. That has improved, but Miyahara remains underweight. Off-ice in Everett, she was never without a small canvas bag packed with snacks, and she apologetically delayed our interview so she could sit down and eat some.

“I like to eat, so it’s not hard for me, but I don’t know why I lose weight when I come to competitions,” Miyahara said. “There is no practice like the usual practice, it’s a lot less, but I think maybe I am using my mind a lot and I need food.”

Hamada speculates the weight problem is due to her skater’s deep work ethic, which includes her studies at Kansai University in Osaka.

“Each day, every day, every moment, she is working hard,” Hamada said. “She has to think about nutrition all of the time. Most skaters her age are trying to lose weight, but she is the opposite. She has to take carbohydrates, she has to take everything.”

Both coach and skater hope the increased strength – plus a revised judging system that includes grades of execution (GOE) for elements ranging from -5 to +5 – help Miyahara challenge the Russian contingent this season, including Olympic champion Alina Zagitova and two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva.

“It is not a very easy thing, but I think I have to improve my programs and jumps, and everything, to get more (GOE) pluses,” Miyahara said. “When I compete with Russians, I always watch them and think, ‘why do they jump like machines?’”

For now, though, Miyahara’s main competition is training partner Kihara. In the few weeks leading up to NHK, they will share the ice in Osaka, where they always skate together in the same sessions.

“Rika learns how to use her edges from Satoko, who has beautiful edges and skates without any noise,” Hamada said. “But Satoko learns how to jump from Rika, so it’s a good situation. They are not enemies, they are good rivals. It is very important to have a good rival.”

Kihira – the first lady to land a triple axel-triple toe loop combination in history, at the Junior Grand Prix Final last season – plans two triple axels in her free skate at NHK, Hamada said. Although she is working on quadruple jumps, including toe loop and salchow, she likely will not attempt them this season.

“(Kihira) is working very hard on the artistry, because I want her to become a very beautiful lady skater with triple axel and quad,” Hamada said. “This year I am not planning to have quads in her programs but I want beautiful edges, beautiful flow.”

And Miyahara, as always, vows to work harder.

“It’s a very good environment for me to practice (with Kihira), because she pushes me and I feel like I have to do more,” she said.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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