Getty Images

U.S. Olympic curling trials preview, broadcast schedule

Leave a comment

John Shuster, the most experienced U.S. Olympic men’s curler in history, is actually the youngest male skip at the Olympic Trials that begin Saturday.

He’s also older than everybody in the women’s trials field — by at least five years.

The two trials tournaments in Omaha are a study in contrast. The results will be similar — one men’s team champion and one women’s team champion will become Olympic team members next week.

Every day of competition will stream live on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app starting with the first matches Saturday at 2 p.m. ET (full schedule here). NBCSN will air coverage of the finals Nov. 16, 17 and 18 (if necessary).

Five men’s teams and three women’s teams play round-robin action from Saturday through Wednesday. The top two on each side make the best-of-three finals, with the winner headed to PyeongChang in February.

Shuster, a 35-year-old with bartending experience, is trying to become the second American to curl at four Olympics.

He earned bronze as a role player in 2006 (the only U.S. Olympic curling team to make the podium). Shuster then led the 2010 and 2014 teams to forgettable performances — 0-4 before being benched in Vancouver, then 2-7 overall in Sochi.

But Shuster’s new team with Tyler GeorgeMatt Hamilton and one Sochi holdover in John Landsteiner qualified to represent the U.S. at the last three worlds.

They were fourth, third and fifth at those championships, marking the best string of U.S. men’s or women’s results at that level in a decade.

Clearly, they are the favorites in Omaha after going undefeated at nationals last season.

But 41-year-old Heath McCormick skips a team slotted one spot behind Shuster in the world rankings (18th, 19th).

Brady Clark, a 40-year-old eyeing his first Olympic berth at his fourth trials, skips a team that swept Shuster and Co. in all three meetings at the 2016 U.S. Championships.

The most interesting team is led by Todd Birr, the oldest athlete in Omaha at 49 years old and potentially the oldest U.S. Winter Olympic competitor in 70 years.

Birr, the head ice maker at Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine, Minn., competed in the first U.S. Olympic curling trials in 1998 and skipped the 2007 national champion team that earned bronze at worlds.

That was the most recent U.S. medal at an Olympics or worlds until Shuster’s bronze in 2016.

Though Birr reached the 2017 U.S. Championships finals, he has the lowest world rank in the men’s field — 51st, more than 20 spots behind everyone else.

Just three teams in the women’s field. All 12 women are from Minnesota or Wisconsin. All are 30 years and younger.

A stark contrast from the 2014 Olympic team that had women ages 40, 41 and 45 (and finished last, just as the 2010 team).

There is reason to believe the team that emerges next week will outperform the last three U.S. Olympic teams that combined to go 5-22 at the Games.

Nina Roth, a 29-year-old nurse, skips a team that finished fifth at last season’s world championships.

Jamie Sinclair, a 25-year-old born in Anchorage and raised in Ontario, leads a foursome that beat Roth at last season’s nationals. Roth was better over the course of the season, so Sinclair didn’t go to worlds.

Then there is Cory Christensen‘s team, the bulk of which won the 2016 World junior silver medal. All ages 22 and 23. They would be the youngest U.S. Olympic curling team ever. But they are also ranked No. 31 in the world, while Roth and Sinclair are 12th and 15th.

Many of the athletes competing next week are also entered in next month’s Olympic Trials for mixed doubles curling, a new Olympic event. One duo will qualify for PyeongChang.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: 100 Olympic storylines 100 days out from PyeongChang

Curling Olympic Trials Schedule

U.S. to play in snow volleyball tour, led by 4-time Olympian

AP
Leave a comment

When USA Volleyball asked four-time Olympian Lloy Ball to put together a team for a snow volleyball tournament in Moscow this week, the 2008 gold medalist was eager to accept.

Never mind that he’s never played on the snow before.

Or that, at 46, he’s not a likely candidate for the U.S. Olympic team if the discipline is eventually added to the Winter Games.

“I’ve been playing volleyball my entire life. It would just be an amazing feeling to know that me and my friends would be able to help volleyball grow,” Ball said. “To help be one of the forefathers, to get another discipline of volleyball into the Olympics, it would be awesome.”

The son of a volleyball coach and a member of the U.S. indoor team that won gold in Beijing, Ball played professionally in Russia for six years and was a natural choice to be a part of first American team to play on the European snow volleyball tour. After what he is calling an exploratory mission, he hopes to report back to the national governing body on how it can help the sport grow.

The ultimate goal: helping snow volleyball earn a spot in the Olympics — perhaps by 2026.

“We want to climb this mountain step by step. We do not want to rush,” said Fabio Azevedo, the general director of the sport’s international governing body, adding that snow volleyball will join the Olympics “as soon as the discipline has an amazing relevance in the world.”

“We have our road map, we have our timeline,” he said. “We really believe it is premature now to mention anything about Winter Olympic Games. I cannot say to you 2026 is realistic or not.”

Still, they are plowing ahead.

After a demonstration at the PyeongChang Olympics, the European governing body held its first snow championships in March. With its 2018-19 tour starting this weekend in Moscow it has invited teams from the United States to compete. (Teams from Kazakhstan and Brazil were also offered wild-card entries.)

Knowing that he spent time in Russia and would make a good ambassador, USA Volleyball chief Jamie Davis called Ball, who remains active as a coach and a semi-pro grass and beach volleyball player. He pulled together a team with Will Robbins, Kevin Owens and Tomas Goldsmith.

Although they have been training outside in Indiana to get used to the cold, the first time they will play on a snow court will be in Moscow.

“I’m going to rely on my massive amount of repetition and skill training and experience,” Ball said with a laugh. “Hopefully we won’t embarrass ourselves too badly and hopefully we’ll know what to do better next time. I’m going to come back and sit down with Jamie, and maybe say ‘Hey, this is something that can take off.’”

The women’s team for the Moscow tournament, which USA Volleyball put together, consists of Allie Wheeler, Emily Hartong, Katie Spieler and Karissa Cook.

“It’s a milestone for us,” Davis said. “We’re starting at level zero and building this up from scratch.”

“My hope is that we’ll get more and more athletes that are concentrating on snow, in addition to beach and indoor,” he said. “What I would hope for snow volleyball is that we’re going to be able to have players — north, south, east or west — be able to go outdoors to play the sport they love to play.”

Although snow volleyball has kicked around Europe for a decade, its growth accelerated the last five years. The European volleyball federation officially recognized the sport in 2015, and a seven-stop European tour is planned for 2018-19, starting with this week’s event in Moscow.

Azevedo said the FIVB is hoping to add three more events of its own, including one in Argentina that will be the first outside of Europe. Davis said he hopes to host one in the United States next winter.

From there, the FIVB is planning for a snow volleyball competition at the Youth Olympics and World University Games in 2020 and the winter Military World Games in 2021, along with a possible world championship.

“We are really shaping this new discipline around the world,” Azevedo said, adding that it would have much lower barriers to entry than many winter sports, which require ice rinks or luge runs or mountains.

That could help open the Winter Olympics to countries with successful volleyball programs but no ice or snow.

“Possibly snow volleyball is the only winter sport you can just pass by and play,” Azevedo said. “You just need proper clothes, football cleats, and you can play.”

An earlier incarnation of the sport had two-person teams, like beach volleyball, but organizers tinkered with the rules and settled on three-on-three, with a fourth teammate as a substitute. While indoor sets go to 25 and the beach goes to 21, snow volleyball games are up to 15

“Thank God, because it is minus 20 in Russia — Celsius,” Ball said.

Although the court layout is similar to beach, the ball is heavier when it gets wet and players wear thermal clothing and soccer cleats for traction. Ball said the sport puts a premium on ball control and serving, because it’s harder to move quickly in the snow.

“As long as you control the serve receive and serve well, I think on any surface you can be successful,” he said.

Martin Kaswurm, who is credited with inventing the sport when he set up a court outside his restaurant in Austria, said having different rules helps distinguish the sport from “its older brother beach volleyball” and could make it more appealing to Olympic officials.

“This should help to position snow volleyball as a unique version of the game,” he said.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Five-time Olympic volleyball player seriously hurt in stabbing

Ester Ledecka must decide between ski, snowboard worlds

AP
Leave a comment

SELVA DI VAL GARDENA, Italy (AP) — Skier-snowboarder Ester Ledecka will not be able to follow up her dual sport gold-medal performances at the PyeongChang Olympics with a similar haul of world titles this season.

That’s because the schedule won’t allow it, and she’s not happy about it.

The parallel giant slalom at the world freestyle skiing and snowboard championships in Utah is Feb. 4 — the same day downhill training opens at Alpine skiing worlds in Are, Sweden, and a day before the super-G.

“I was a little bit hoping they would reschedule the snowboard race — put it a week earlier so I could do it both — but they didn’t want to so I have to choose,” Ledecka said Tuesday after placing 29th in a World Cup downhill.

In PyeongChang, Ledecka followed her super-G title by winning the parallel GS in snowboarding — becoming the first athlete to win two golds at one Winter Games using two different types of equipment.

The 23-year-old Czech is the reigning world champion in parallel GS.

Ledecka said she brought up the issue with the International Ski Federation, which governs both sports.

“On one side I see their point. For one athlete why should they do that, right? But from the other side I think I made snowboarding a little more popular, and I think a lot of fans would be happy to see me compete in both,” Ledecka said. “It’s their decision, and I have to respect it.”

Ledecka has not decided which worlds she’ll compete in. She’s currently going back and forth between the snowboard and ski circuits.

Last week, she finished first and second in two parallel GS events in Italy and then switched to downhill skis this week. She was fastest in a downhill training run Monday before finishing 29th in Tuesday’s race.

“I think I can decide right before,” Ledecka said. “But it will probably be early, so I’m well prepared.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Is Mikaela Shiffrin chasing records? Not exactly