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Sunny Olympic host Sochi turns into World Cup playground

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Warm weather, beaches, amusement parks.

It’s not exactly what Australian fan Adam McKinley expected to find when he decided to make the trip to Russia for the World Cup.

But that’s exactly what he got in Sochi, the city introduced to the world as a winter destination during the Olympics four years ago, with its coastal location on the Black Sea and its majestic snow-capped peaks a short distance away.

“Whenever I think of Russia, I picture something like cold Siberia. I picture, like, real cold stuff,” McKinley said. “I’ve been blown away by this. We even went for a swim and it was lovely. It was just nice and warm. We’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

Sochi wasn’t so cold during the Olympics, either, with temperatures frequently climbing into the mid-50s in the Olympic Park. The chillier mountains are roughly an hour’s drive away.

But in the summer, the snow is replaced by sun, lots of it, as Russia’s seaside playground explodes into a scene more akin to Southern California or Miami Beach than Siberia.

“The moment we saw Peru was going to play in Sochi, we wanted to come here,” said Peru supporter Luis Medina, one of the thousands of World Cup fans who have come to the city. “We knew this was going to be the place to be.”

Even the teams based in Sochi were taking full advantage of the region’s attractions. Brazil was feeling right at home, enjoying the warm temperatures and a private beach at the team’s hotel in possibly the closest setting to what it had back home before traveling to Russia.

“We are having lunch and breakfast with a view of the sea. That’s a plus for us,” goalkeeper Alisson said shortly after Brazil arrived.

The Brazilians fought hard to secure Sochi as their base. The Austrian federation initially picked the five-star hotel where Brazil is staying, but luckily for the Brazilians, Austria did not end up qualifying for the World Cup.

Germany stayed in Sochi during the Confederations Cup last year, but this time it chose a different location in part because it said it couldn’t secure a proper private training field. After the opening loss to Mexico, some local media questioned whether the decision not to return to Sochi played a part in the team’s disappointing performance.

Poland also is based in Sochi. On a day off, the team visited the city’s dolphin park, one of the most famous in the region.

The micro-district of Adler, where the Olympic Park sits and the World Cup matches are played, is a hub of activities catering to tourists of all ages and tastes.

Many gather at the rock-covered beach by Fisht Stadium, which is hosting six World Cup matches, including one in the round of 16 and another in the quarterfinals.

But if sunbathing isn’t high on the agenda, there is plenty more to do.

Sochi Park, known as the Russian Disneyland, is walking distance from the stadium. Based on local fairy tales, it’s the country’s first modern theme park — and one of the biggest.

It was mostly empty during the Olympics, but four years later it has been popular among World Cup fans. Officials estimate the tournament has added about 2,000 people a day to the park, which annually receives 1 million visitors.

“It’s a shame we can’t stay longer and enjoy more of the park because we have to go to the game,” Panama supporter Nathalie Nielsen Atencio said.

The park includes a “roller-coaster” restaurant, with orders sliding down to customers on metal tracks. It’s believed to be the only restaurant of its type in Russia, and one of nine in the world.

Also near the park is the Sochi Autodrom, which hosts Formula One races but is open to people wanting guided tours and even a chance — for a price — to drive the circuit.

“There are so many things to do in Sochi,” said Alexey Titov, who is in charge of the company that organizes the Russian Grand Prix and operates the track. “It has developed greatly in the past four years since the Olympics have gone. You can see it has changed massively. This place went from a swamp in 2008 to a thriving park with restaurants, food, activities, things to do.”

By the track there’s also a go-karting circuit, and the remaining Olympic venues offer indoor sports like tennis, skating and hockey.

Sochi’s downtown is some 20 miles from the Olympic park, but activities there also revolve around the waterfront, including a lengthy promenade of storefronts, souvenir stands and water-related activities connecting the heart of the city with the seaport where the Fan Fest is taking place.

Beach clubs playing a mix of pop hits from Europe and the United States are mixed with more family-oriented places to enjoy the sun, like waterparks with slides and splash-pads on the shore of the Black Sea.

The train line connecting Adler and Sochi runs mostly along the shore and is filled with small pockets of land teeming with beachgoers.

All those waterfront activities don’t include the resorts of the Krasnaya Polyana mountain cluster 30 miles inland, where the Alpine events of the Winter Olympics were held. They offer a summer attraction for those not as interested in the beach.

Martin Fasth was visiting from Sweden for the World Cup and was impressed with all the options.

“We kind of expected something better than Sweden,” he said, “but not something this nice.”

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

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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.

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Ester Ledecka must decide between ski, snowboard worlds

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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.”

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