Kelly Slater, Bethany Hamilton
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Kelly Slater, Bethany Hamilton on new movies, Olympic surfing hopes

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NEW YORK — On consecutive days, the most well-known surfers in the U.S. appeared at the Tribeca Film Festival to promote documentaries of a sport that makes its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.

Whether either Kelly Slater or Bethany Hamilton plans to compete at the Games is in question.

“I’m 50-50,” the 46-year-old Slater said Saturday at the premiere of “Momentum Generation,” a film about a band of teen surfers whose bonds brought the sport to new heights in the 1990s. “If I make the team, I’ll compete.”

That’s the hard part. The Olympic qualifying procedures, published last month, limit the U.S. to no more than three surfers per gender in the Olympic fields of 20 men and 20 women.

The top two Americans per gender from the 2019 World Surf League standings would be guaranteed spots. If the world’s dominant surf nations take up the top 34 spots in either 2019 standings, the third-ranked U.S. surfer could get in if the U.S. wins the 2020 World Surfing Games.

Slater was hopeful for more athletes from the world’s top surfing nations. Australia, Brazil, and the U.S. dominate the World Surf League standings.

“They’re going to have to change that a little bit, I think,” Slater said of the quota maximum (It’s too late to change this for 2020, and surfing is not guaranteed in the Olympics for 2024 and beyond.). “It’s hard to look past Brazil, Australia and America for talent in surfing.”

Slater, an 11-time world champion, dropped to the third-ranked American in 2016 and missed four of 11 events last season after breaking his foot. His best finish in the other seven events was a fifth. He hopes to return to competition in July, about a year since suffering the injury that required two surgeries.

The U.S. boasts the two-time reigning world champion — 25-year-old John John Florence of Hawaii — but no other men from last season’s top six or this season’s (early) top seven.

Slater said he hopes that Olympic surfing organizers would adopt his company’s wave-pool technology for the Games rather than holding it on the Pacific Coast. It was previously announced by the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 that the Olympic competition will be held at Tsurigasaki Beach rather than a wave pool.

“It’s almost a test sport for the first year when you get into the Olympics,” Slater said. “I think it will obviously broaden the audience that watches us. There’s a lot of potential things that can happen with that.”

Slater was one of several surfing icons featured in “Momentum Generation,” along with Rob MachadoShane Dorian and others.

“[It’s about] the convergence of all our friendships coming together,” said Slater, before he watched the film for the first time at the premiere. “Everyone’s got these kinds of stories in their lives that are interesting. Somebody found ours interesting enough to cover it, dig in and spend a lot of time on it.”

The night before, Hamilton walked the red carpet for her biopic, “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable.” The Hawaiian’s left arm was bitten off in a 2003 shark attack when she was a promising 13-year-old surfer. She came back and continued winning contests.

“We started making a smaller, action sports compilation of my surfing,” five years ago, Hamilton said. “It grew into a more story/documentary.”

Hamilton, now 28 and a mother of two, last competed in the top-level World Surf League last May before she became pregnant with her second child, son Wesley, who was born six weeks ago.

She, too, was undecided about ramping up her schedule next year for an Olympic bid.

“I don’t know if I could qualify, but I’m not really competing enough to be the top-two pick of the USA team,” she said, adding that the type of wave at the Olympics plays a role in her interest.

Hamilton, between those two pregnancies, competed four times total on tour in the last four seasons with a best finish of third. Last season, four U.S. women were in the top eight of the World Surf League standings. Hamilton was tied for 20th with one start in 11 events.

Hamilton said she hopes to compete at least twice later this year, including at a Slater wave-pool event.

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MORE: World’s top surfer: World title bigger than Olympics

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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