Danielle Lawrie
Charles Blackburn

Softball star Danielle Lawrie unretires for sport’s Olympic return

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Two-time NCAA Player of the Year Danielle Lawrie-Locke is coming out of a three-year retirement as softball readies for its Olympic return in 2020.

Lawrie-Locke, a 31-year-old Canadian pitcher with two daughters, advanced from a preliminary national team selection camp in January to a final camp from May 30-June 10 that will determine the 17-player roster for the world championship in August.

“I never thought I would be playing into my 30s, but I also think when you are married and have kids … I think you start to get an itch for some type of competitiveness again,” Lawrie-Locke said, according to the Langley Times in her native British Columbia. “The big light at the end of the tunnel is I want to try and get a medal at the 2020 Olympics with my family in the stands.”

Lawrie-Locke is one of the greatest players in NCAA history, one of three women to earn multiple NCAA Player of the Year Awards along with Cat Osterman and Keilani Ricketts. Before her University of Washington career, Lawrie-Locke made waves at the first World Cup of Softball in 2005, when, at age 18, she handed the U.S. its first defeat in three years.

Lawrie-Locke then led the University of Washington to a national title as a junior, her first of two straight seasons as NCAA Player of the Year. That came after she took a year off from the NCAA to play for Canada at the 2008 Beijing Games, thought to be softball’s final Olympics until the sport was added for Tokyo 2020 almost two years ago.

Lawrie-Locke pitched her final professional game in 2014 after having her first daughter, Madison, on Dec. 16, 2013. She and husband Drew Locke also have a 1-year-old daughter, Audrey.

Lawrie-Locke reportedly said she first thought about a comeback while watching the World Cup of Softball last August. She listened as analyst Michele Smith, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion pitcher, said she believed her own athletic peak came at age 34 or 35.

“At that moment, it hit me,” Lawrie-Locke said, according to the newspaper. “It just hit me when she said that, and it took me a couple of weeks to come to terms with the idea.”

Lawrie-Locke’s motivation partly stemmed from an unsatisfying 2008 Olympics. Canada lost its last four games, including in the semifinals, to finish fourth overall.

“I had a lot of bad emotions based on that ’08 experience,” Lawrie-Locke said, according to the newspaper. “(And) I was probably not as good a teammate as I should have been.” (She clashed with a Canadian coach, according to the Seattle Times.)

The world champion becomes the first nation to qualify for the Tokyo Games (Japan is already in as host nation). Softball, previously on the Olympic program from 1996 through 2008, is not guaranteed to remain in the Games beyond 2020.

The U.S. and Canada, ranked Nos. 1 and 3 in the world, can also qualify for the Olympics by finishing in the top two of the 2019 Pan American Championship.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Mikaela Shiffrin among favorites eliminated early in parallel giant slalom

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Mikaela Shiffrin was upset in the round of 16 of the first World Cup parallel giant slalom by unheralded Frenchwoman Clara Direz, who went on to earn her first win on Sunday.

Shiffrin had the fastest qualifying time but was bounced in the second round of head-to-head racing in Sestriere by Direz. Direz, 24, came into the day with a best career finish of seventh.

Direz was 16th-fastest in qualifying, 1.02 seconds behind Shiffrin combining times from two runs. Direz edged Shiffrin by .13 in their head-to-head run. Shiffrin appeared to be at a disadvantage being put on the red course, which produced just three winners among 20 one-run matchups.

“It is fun; I think I like the parallel GS actually more than the parallel slalom, but it’s a little bit difficult,” Shiffrin said. “I think there’s still a lot of work we have to do, and FIS [the International Ski Federation] has to do to really make the race as even as it can be because for sure you can see, there’s always a faster course. But today it’s like they’re not even the same course at all. Especially in the last four, five gates on the blue course, you can even see just looking up the hill that it’s straighter than the red course.

“Today I would say it’s a day where the luck [of which course you draw randomly] really plays a role.”

Direz eventually beat Austrian Elisa Moerzinger in the final. Direz was on the blue course for three of her four one-run rounds. Full results are here.

Higher-ranked racers used to be have their choice of courses in the parallel format.

“Maybe that wasn’t fair, either, but I think there must be a way to make it something that is more even, but at the same time, yeah, I don’t really have the answers on how to do that, either,” Shiffrin said. “It’s still in its infancy, this event.”

Shiffrin has a track record of success in parallel slaloms and similar city events, winning five of her last six starts. But the parallel GS proved problematic for the world’s best in slalom.

Swiss Wendy Holdener and Slovakian Petra Vlhova were also eliminated before the quarterfinals after being second- and third-fastest in qualifying. Holdener was also on the red course. Vlhova lost in the round of 32, when skiers were taking runs on both the blue and red courses.

Sestriere marked the last weekend of technical races (slaloms/giant slaloms) until mid-February. The next three weekends feature downhills and super-Gs. Shiffrin is expected to travel to Bansko, Bulgaria, for the first set on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

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