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Five takeaways from world figure skating championships

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Five thoughts wrapping up the figure skating season after the world championships ended in Milan last weekend … 

1. Nathan Chen finished one program shy of a perfect season

Chen had the best season imaginable for somebody who did not earn an individual Olympic medal. Though the Olympic short program disaster made the podium unreachable, he rebounded with the best free skate by nearly nine points. He won his other six competitions and in the finale, worlds, had his best showing of them all to become the second man to break the 320-point barrier.

It creates a dichotomy going into next season and the next Olympic cycle. Chen clearly had the best overall season in men’s skating (Yuzuru Hanyu won the Olympics but was second in his other two competitions before missing two months due to injury), but to the casual fan the next four years will be a comeback from a fifth-place finish in PyeongChang.

About next season: No Olympics, but Chen’s task is tall. The world championships will be on home ice for Hanyu and Olympic and world silver medalist Shoma Uno.

2. Russian dominance defeated

After going one-two at the Olympics, Russia nearly failed to qualify the maximum three spots for 2019 Worlds.

Olympic champion Alina Zagitova‘s three-fall free skate dropped her to fifth overall in Milan. Olympian Maria Sotskova also fell and had four jumps called under rotated, sliding from fifth to eighth. If either Zagitova or Sotskova slipped one more place, Russia would have two women instead of three at next year’s worlds.

Credit Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond for being the only gold-medal contender to deliver in the free skate. It had been her nemesis early this eason. For all the praise Zagitova received leading into and during PyeongChang (deserved), Osmond actually beat her in the short program at Grand Prix France and the Grand Prix Final in the autumn before struggling with late jumps in her free skates.

Osmond will benefit next season from this: Russia’s two best junior skaters can’t compete at senior worlds until 2020. So it will be up to Zagitova and Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva to keep it rolling, each coming off a defeat to end her season.

3. Bradie Tennell is the U.S. hope

Tennell, who was not on the Olympic radar until late last summer, was the top U.S. finisher at all of her competitions this season (not done since Ashley Wagner in 2012-13), closing with a solid sixth-place finish at worlds.

Mirai Nagasu (10th at the Olympics and worlds) is about to turn 25. Ashley Wagner is soon to be 27. Neither has publicly committed to skating next season. Tennell is the new face of U.S. women’s skating now and perhaps for years to come.

The 20-year-old from suburban Chicago had the benefit of her first healthy year as a senior. She went into the Olympics as the only woman without a fall the entire season. Tennell finally looked human at her last two events — a fall in her Olympic short program, two under rotations in her Olympic free skate and four negatively graded jumping passes in her world free skate. Not surprising for a skater at the end of by far the busiest season her young career.

4. Rivalry missing at the top of ice dance

Ice dance was defined by rivalries between training partners at the last two Olympics, but now it looks like the discipline with the clearest No. 1 heading into next season (pending rule changes that could impact scoring).

By all indications (but not official yet), PyeongChang gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are done competing. The silver medalists, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, haven’t lost to anybody other than Virtue and Moir in more than three years. And that included a world title on Saturday with the highest score under the current points system.

Papadakis and Cizeron, who three years ago became the youngest ice dance world champs in 40 years, scored 200-plus points at all six of their top-level international events this season. Minus Virtue and Moir, no other couple has ever scored 197.

As for everyone else, keep this in mind: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue may have missed the Olympic medals with Donohue’s free-dance fall, but they finished the season with the world’s best score in the non-Virtue/Moir/Papadakis/Cizeron division. Their world-silver-medal score would have beaten Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani for bronze at the Olympics by four points.

5. Questions for pairs

Russia missed the pairs’ medals at an Olympics for just the second time since 1964, but by next season could be back atop the discipline.

PyeongChang bronze medalists Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford retired after the Olympics.

PyeongChang silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong missed worlds due reportedly to another significant foot injury for Sui. In 2016, Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries and was unable to stand for three months. Though she is only 22 and came back from those surgeries to win a world title in 2017, this is a concern.

The Olympic and world champions from Germany, Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, could continue to dominate, but the 34-year-old Savchenko hasn’t committed to skating next season.

Russia had two of the top four pairs at worlds — Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Natalya Zabiyako and Aleksandr Enbert. None are older than 28.

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MORE: Best figure skating moments from PyeongChang

2019 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships TV schedule

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NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold combine to air live daily coverage of the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, starting Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

The top three per individual event are in line to qualify for the world championships in Doha in late September and early October, should they have the world standard time or mark.

Sprint trio Christian Coleman (100m and 200m), Noah Lyles (200m) and Michael Norman (400m) headline the event. Each is 23 or younger and fastest in the world this year in his primary event.

Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin represent the veterans. Felix, a 33-year-old with 17 combined Olympic and world titles, is entered in her first meet since having daughter Camryn via emergency C-section at 32 weeks on Nov. 28.

Gatlin, 37, has a bye into worlds as the defending 100m champion. He could be Coleman’s biggest threat in the 100m after breaking 9.9 seconds for the first time since the Rio Olympics.

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Day Time (ET) Network Key Events
Thursday 3:45-11 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m first round, 10,000m finals
Friday 1:30-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m finals, 400m semifinals
7-9 p.m. NBCSN
Saturday 2-6 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 400m, women’s 1500m, 100m hurdles
4-6 p.m. NBC
Sunday 4-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 200m, men’s 1500m, 110m hurdles
7-8 p.m. NBCSN
8-9 p.m. NBC

Beachvolley Vikings, sport’s top team, inspired by Kerri Walsh Jennings

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HAMBURG, Germany — Kerri Walsh Jennings smiled at the decade-old picture of her posing with a young Anders Mol.

Since Walsh Jennings met Mol, the now-22-year-old and his 23-year-old Norwegian partner Christian Sorum have become the top-ranked team in the world.

“Those boys inspire me a lot,” she said. “That’s how I want Brooke [Sweat] and I to play, really.”

Walsh Jennings met Mol in his native country at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Stavanger. Mol attended with his father, Kare, who was coaching the Norwegian teams, as well as his brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias Berntsen.

Walsh Jennings noticed the young Norwegians, who are now nicknamed the “Beachvolley Vikings,” eagerly doing the pepper drill on the sand between matches from 6 a.m. until well after dark.   

“She walked by and told us, ‘Hey, you guys are so good that if you guys keep practicing, you’re going to be playing on this stage one day,’” Mol recalled.

Mol’s passion for the sport only increased as he hit puberty.

As a teenager, he derailed his family’s vacation plans in San Diego by making them battle traffic up to Los Angeles to hear Walsh Jennings give a speech.

Childhood photo of Mol and Walsh Jennings. Courtesy of Anders Mol.

At 13 or 14, Mol and his brother beat their parents for the first time. Impressive, considering Mol’s father was a former national indoor team player and his mother, Merita Mol (née Berntsen), competed in beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics.

At 16, he enrolled in ToppVolley Norway, a beach and indoor volleyball school that is a two-hour boat ride north from Stavanger. For three years, the boys would attend classes, lift weights and train for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Free time often meant pick-up soccer matches, which occasionally proves useful on the sand.

“It doesn’t look like Hogwarts,” Mol said, “but it sounds like Hogwarts because everybody is like a big family in this school.”

When Mol graduated, he played a year of professional indoor volleyball in Belgium. But he quickly realized that he preferred the freedom of beach volleyball, where players book their own travel, hire their own coaches and schedule their own practices.

In 2017, Mol was named the international tour’s top rookie. By the end of the 2018 season, Mol and Sorum had firmly established themselves as the world’s top team, winning their final three international tournaments including the FIVB World Tour Finals.

They have not slowed down in 2019, winning three tournaments on three different continents over three weeks in May. They have won 36 of their last 38 matches.

“The best blocker right now is Anders, and the best defender is Christian,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb. “It’s not really fair.”

The only two teams who have defeated the Norwegians since April 28 — Germany’s Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler and Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt/Evandro Goncalves — did not offer any clues on how to do it.

Wickler admitted that “in no other stadium would we have won this game” after the Hamburg world championships semifinal played July 6 in front of more than 12,000 hometown fans, the largest crowd either team had ever experienced. Mol and Sorum rebounded to claim the bronze medal the next day over Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Bruno rebuffed multiple teams who approached him looking for the secret to beating Norway.

“I’ve never seen a player like Anders who is so powerful and so skilled at the same time,” said Bruno, the 2016 Olympic champion with former partner Alison. “Players like that raise the level of this sport.”

Much of their success can be attributed to their defensive scheme. Most teams play a “zone defense,” with each player defending half of the court. The Norwegians play a “read defense” that gives each player the freedom to react and move to where they think the attacking player will hit the ball.

NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong compared the Norwegians to “free safeties” in football.

“They are the most innovative defensive team we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

The pair is relatively unknown outside Norway — neither has a Wikipedia page in English — and even in Norway they claim they are nowhere near as famous as the Alpine skiers nicknamed the “Attacking Vikings.”

But that will change.

At worlds, the pair hired a videographer to capture content for their YouTube and Instagram channels. They launched a Beachvolley Vikings clothing line that includes a “Sleeping Christian” shirt. They patiently fulfilled each and every request for pictures and autographs after matches.

“They are like rock stars,” said American Taylor Crabb, talking extra loud to be heard over a crowd of teenage girls hoping to take a selfie with the tall, blonde Norwegians. “Fans can relate to them because they see guys around their age becoming the No. 1 team the world.”

It is not just fans who are lining up to see the Norwegians.

“I love to watch them play,” said 2016 Brazilian Olympian Pedro Solberg, who made his international debut when Mol was just 8. “Every chance I get to watch them I do, because I learn a lot from them.”

Whether Mol and Sorum struggle with anything is up for debate. When asked, Kare boasted about beating them at the card game “President and the bum.”

“They are really smart in beach volleyball,” he said, “but they are really stupid in card playing.”

But both players disputed their coach’s claim.

“It’s not true at all,” Sorum said. “He loses even when he has the best cards.”

The Beachvolley Vikings are just getting started. 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser pointed out that beach volleyball players typically do not peak until their late 20s or early 30s.

“In my book, they are already among the top teams to ever play,” he said. “There are no holes in their game. I don’t see why they can’t keep this going.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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