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49-year-old Olympic beach volleyball champion plays first event in 10 years

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Eric Fonoimoana, a 49-year-old who earned 2000 Olympic beach volleyball gold, played his first pro tournament since 2008 at the AVP stop in Hermosa Beach, Calif., this week.

Fonoimoana teamed with Jeremy Casebeer, who sought a last-minute sub for his injured partner, Reid Priddy, a 40-year-old who earned Olympic indoor gold at Beijing 2008 and Priddy’s injured replacement, Matt Olson.

Casebeer called Fonoimoana on Wednesday to ask if he would play, two days before the tournament.

“I was like, what? You sure you got the right number?” said Fonoimoana, who had never teamed with Casebeer but knew him a little bit from beach volleyball circles.

Fonoimoana, who still plays recreationally to stay in shape, signed up.

“I do play still at a high level, but more than anything my body’s healthy, which it’s been like four years since I could actually say that,” said Fonoimoana, who underwent left and right knee surgeries and rotator cuff surgery, as well as stem-cell and PRP knee injections until finding a balance that allowed him to jump and land on the sand. “It was a chance to see if I could still take it on and compete at that level.”

The pair won their first match over Bobby Jacobs and Michael Boag 21-16, 21-14 before losing to 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Jason Lochhead 21-10, 21-12 and then dropping a relegation bracket three-setter.

“Fans were excited to see me get back out there,” Fonoimoana said. “My friends were excited to root me on and see if I could beat some of those guys.”

Lochhead is actually the coach of Dalhausser and Rio Olympic partner Nick Lucena, but Lucena is out injured, too.

Fonoimoana, who lives in Southern California and works in real estate, is open to playing a one-off tournament again. It would be reminiscent of Misty May-Treanor, who came out of a three-year retirement to play three AVP events between 2015 and 2016 with no intention of getting back on the international level.

“The issue for me is about the start, stop and recovery,” Fonoimoana said. “If it was to play one match at a high level, I know I can play at a high level. It’s diminishing returns as far as me being able to get back and warm up and recover at that same level.”

NBCSN airs the Hermosa Beach Open on Sunday night/Monday morning at 12 a.m. ET. Dain Blanton, Fonoimana’s 2000 Olympic gold-medal partner, is a reporter on the coverage.

Fonoimoana, nicknamed “The Body” for his tremendous physique before retiring, and Blanton had a stunning run to gold at the 2000 Sydney Games, the second edition of Olympic beach volleyball. Neither player had previously won an international tournament, and Fonoimoana never won another international event before retiring.

He keeps the gold medal in a safe deposit box, bringing it out for speaking events or to show younger players and students. Fonoimoana provided inspiration on the sand on Friday without wearing it.

“The thing I got most out of it is so many players, ex-players, the fans, they said, my gosh, you relay motivated me,” he said. “At this point in my carer or journey of life, it’s great to be a motivator again.”

MORE: Kerri Walsh Jennings looking for a new partner again

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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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MORE: Olympic champions, world-record holder to miss USATF Outdoors

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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