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Ashley Wagner’s pain not limited to Olympic years

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Ashley Wagner said she is prepared to face “demons” at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, given public nightmares at nationals in 2010 and 2014.

What the three-time U.S. champion kept more private were the struggles she endured at the last two world championships — mental and physical.

About a month before the 2016 World Championships in Boston, Wagner had what she called “a freak accident” after performing at an ice show in Canada.

“I caught my toe pick and just body slammed myself down onto the ice,” Wagner said recently while promoting Bridgestone, one of her sponsors. “Immediately, I knew that I had done something terrible.”

She partially tore the quad muscle in her landing leg. Wagner rated the initial pain as a seven out of 10. It lessened, but it would bother her for two months.

Wagner never considered withdrawing from the world championships team. A worlds in a skater’s home country is a rare opportunity.

“I was careful in training and knew that if I could get through a long program in training, competing wasn’t going to be an issue,” she said.

Wagner had the performance of her life at worlds, ending a 10-year U.S. women’s medal drought by taking silver.

“You’re going into a jump, and you just know it’s going to hurt,” Wagner remembered. “There’s a lot of anxiety that comes with an injury like that, but you have to turn your head off at that point.”

Wagner chose not to discuss the injury in interviews before or right after worlds. She did reportedly mention it at Skate America six months later.

“I didn’t want that to be the story [at worlds],” Wagner said. “I was already mentally dealing with so much. The last thing that I wanted to see was a reminder of my injury left and right.”

Then came the 2016-17 season. On paper, it was Wagner’s least successful campaign in six years.

She recently disclosed that her boyfriend of three years, Olympic short track speed skater Eddy Alvarez, broke up with her right before worlds last March.

“It wasn’t just my relationship,” she said. “I was really struggling last season with finding the heart.”

She placed seventh at worlds, matching her lowest finish at the annual event in her last five starts.

“I feel like things are always crumbling down around me,” she said. “But as soon as that was done, I finally felt like I was working toward something [the Olympic year] and that conviction in what I wanted to accomplish in the sport.”

In Wagner’s 11 years at the senior international level, she also endured five or six concussions from her head hitting the ice in falls, according to reports earlier this year.

In 2009, Wagner was the best U.S. woman in the fall Grand Prix season. She placed third at nationals in January 2010, missing the two-woman Olympic team.

In January 2014, Wagner went to nationals as the two-time defending champion. She placed fourth and was put on the three-woman Olympic team, due to merit from previous years, the next day. But it was a stressful night’s wait, and many fans disagreed with U.S. Figure Skating’s decision.

Sochi didn’t go as planned either. She became a meme in the team event and was seventh individually, after making top five at worlds the previous two years.

Wagner opened this fall with a third-place finish at Skate Canada three weeks ago. Her score ranks 25th among all women among the four Grand Prix series events thus far, but it’s early. The Olympics are in three months.

“The only reason why I signed on for four more years in the sport is because I think I’m capable of getting an individual medal,” she said when asked to rate her medal chances after Skate Canada. “How I skated at Skate Canada isn’t going to get me a medal, but also Skate Canada isn’t the bar that I’m setting for myself at the Olympics. I will be better. I will be prepared.”

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Beach volleyball player’s dog becomes social media sensation

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Norwegian beach volleyball player Mathias Berntsen‘s dog, Kiara, captivated social media this weekend.

A video of Kiara peppering with Berntsen and a pair across the net on a grass field spread from Berntsen’s Instagram across platforms. Kiara now has 12,000 Instagram followers, more than twice the total of Berntsen.

Berntsen, 24, is one half of Norway’s second-best beach volleyball team.

He and partner Hendrik Mol are ranked 45th in the world and well outside the Tokyo Olympic picture (24 teams go to the Games), but could get in the mix depending on how qualification is amended once sports resume.

Berntsen and his cousin Mol are part of a group called the Beach Volley Vikings. Mol’s younger brother, Anders, and family friend Christian Sorum are the world’s top-ranked team (profiled here).

MORE: Beach volleyball players fly to Australia, learn event is canceled

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FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

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