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U.S. softball opens world champs with Olympic return on its mind

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Monica Abbott threw the final U.S. pitch at the last Olympic softball game, nearly 10 years ago.

Over the next 10 days, Abbott can help the U.S. softball team return to the Olympics by winning the world championship to secure the first available spot in the six-nation Tokyo 2020 tournament (not counting automatically qualified host nation Japan).

Softball returns to the Games after 12 years out of the Olympic program. It is not assured to remain in the Games for Paris 2024 and beyond, but what’s at stake the next two weeks makes this tournament arguably the biggest in the sport’s history aside from an Olympics.

“This world championship is more important than when I played,” said U.S. assistant coach Laura Berg, the only American to play all four previous Olympic softball tournaments from 1996 through 2008, earning three golds and one silver.

Berg noted that fewer nations are in the 2020 Olympic field (six) than at previous Olympics (eight) and that only the world champion crowned Aug. 12 in Chiba, Japan, qualifies for Tokyo 2020. (If Japan wins, then the runner-up qualifies.) For 2008, the top four nations from the 2006 Worlds made the Olympic field.

Continental tournaments in 2019 will round out the Olympic field, but nobody wants to wait another year for a last-chance qualifier. Some may see worlds as the beginning of the Olympic run-up. Not Berg. Not the Americans.

“These players have had it in their minds ever since softball got back in,” on Aug. 3, 2016, Berg said.

Baseball and softball were cut from the Olympic program by an IOC members vote in 2005, the first sports axed from the Olympics since polo in 1936. A total of 105 IOC members were eligible to vote “yay” or “nay” on all Olympic sports. A majority was needed to remain in the Games.

Baseball went down 54-50. Softball was 52-52. One member abstained from each vote — American Jim Easton, who cited conflict of interest as he owned Easton Sports, best known for making baseball and softball bats. Had Easton voted for softball, it would still be in the Olympics. Had anybody switched in favor of softball, it would still be in the Olympics.

Critics said softball wasn’t global enough. Not popular in Europe. That the U.S. dominated. With the Olympic program capped at 28 sports at the time, cutting two sports would allow for two new ones to be added. That didn’t happen for 2012, but golf and rugby got onto the 2016 Olympic program.

Softball’s backers — led by longtime International Softball Federation president Don Porter — experienced further heartbreak when the IOC voted it down again in 2006 and 2009 (losing to rugby and golf for the Rio Games).

In 2013, baseball and softball proposed a joint bid with one sport opening for the 2020 and 2024 Olympics. It lost a vote against wrestling and squash, with wrestling keeping its place in the Games after reforms. Wrestling: 49 votes. Baseball-softball: 24 votes. Squash: 22 votes.

“It’s almost like taking a bullet over and over and over again,” Abbott said.

Softball and other sports received new life for the 2020 Olympics when the IOC in December 2014 approved Agenda 2020, which included a provision that an Olympic host city could propose sports to be added for its edition of the Games, starting with Tokyo 2020.

Baseball and softball are among the most popular sports in Japan. Tokyo organizers submitted baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing in 2015. The IOC approved their inclusion for 2020, two days before the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“There was a sense of joy, happiness and also relief,” said Abbott, who watched the presentation and vote on a smartphone stream in an airport and on board a Southwest flight. “Yes, finally, they gave us a chance. … Tears of relief. Tears of joy. And tears of oh my gosh, we did it.”

Abbott was the youngest player on the 2008 Olympic team at age 23, coming off a record-shattering career at Tennessee. She beat Japan in the 2008 Olympic semifinals, then a day later relieved Cat Osterman in the gold-medal game won by the Japanese.

“Afterwards there was this sense that the last [Olympics] pitch was thrown,” said Abbott, the only Olympian on the world championship roster and the oldest player by nearly five years. “No. 1, we didn’t win, we didn’t do what we needed to do, but a sense of sadness and grief because that was going to be it.”

Abbott said her pitching career was saved by the opportunity to move to Japan after the Beijing Games and play in its professional league for a team sponsored by Toyota.

She’s now on her 10th season in the world’s most competitive league. She also suits up in the National Pro Fastpitch League in the U.S. (famously signing the league’s first $1 million contract with the Conroe (Texas) Scrap Yard Dawgs in 2016, spread over six years).

She skipped worlds in 2012, 2014 and 2016 in favor of playing in the NPF and promoting softball in the U.S.

The U.S. and Japan met in each of the last six world championship finals dating to 2002. If that’s the case next week, then the U.S. will clinch an Olympic berth before the first pitch of the gold-medal game.

“She’s got a chip on her shoulder,” Berg said of Abbott. “She wants to be the one with the ball in her hands in the gold-medal game in 2020.”

MORE: 49-year-old Olympic champion plays first event in 10 years

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Simone Biles, her name sparkling, extends 6-year win streak

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Simone Biles has long stood out for her gymnastics, but on Saturday she competed with her last name sparkling in silver beads on her World Champions Centre leotard for the first time. The gym’s other athletes had “WCC” on the back.

Biles lived up to the billing, extending her six-year win streak to 19 straight all-arounds, capturing the U.S. Classic, a tune-up for next month’s U.S. Championships.

Biles, the four-time Rio Olympic champion, scored 60 points in Louisville at the meet where she made her comeback last year after nearly two years off from competition. She prevailed by a comfortable 2.1 points over Riley McCusker, her largest margin of victory of her four U.S. Classic titles.

“I’m very satisfied,” she said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “I’m a little sad that I went out of bounds on floor [exercise], but overall I feel like there are improvements to be made.”

Full results are here.

Biles is prepping for nationals in Kansas City in three weeks, when she eyes a sixth U.S. all-around title to tie Clara Schroth Lomady‘s record from the AAU era in the 1940s and ’50s.

Then come the world championships in October in Stuttgart, Germany. Biles could win a fifth all-around to move one shy of Kohei Uchimura‘s record.

The world’s other top gymnasts may be her countrywomen.

Biles was outscored on balance beam on Saturday by 2018 World teammates Kara Eaker and McCusker and beaten on uneven bars by 2017 World all-around champion Morgan HurdSunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and McCusker. Biles swept all the gold medals at last year’s nationals.

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MORE: USA Gymnastics revamps Safe Sport policy amid abuse scandal

Geraint Thomas struggles; Julian Alaphilippe ups Tour de France lead

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LA MONGIE, France (AP) — When the team of Geraint Thomas was in its pomp at the Tour de France, a time trial followed by a big mountain stage would have been playgrounds for Sky — now in new colors as Ineos — to take cycling’s greatest race by the scruff of the neck and leave everyone else fighting for second place.

Not this year.

Thomas, the defending champion, cracked on Saturday on the Tour’s first encounter with a climb to above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), exposing unprecedented weaknesses in his team that has won six Tours in the past seven years.

The time trial on Friday and the climb up to the legendary Tourmalet pass on Saturday seemed primed for Thomas to reel in Julian Alaphilippe, the yellow jersey-holder from France who is setting the Tour alight with his punchy riding and determination to keep the race lead, filling French fans’ heads with dreams of a first homegrown winner since 1985.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

But instead, Thomas has seen Alaphilippe only get further and further away. In two days, the Frenchman has put 50 seconds of extra daylight between him and the Welshman. His lead — up to 2 minutes, 2 seconds — is becoming large enough to start realistically envisioning Alaphilippe in yellow in Paris next weekend as the first French winner since Bernard Hinault.

Fueling the ecstasy of delirious crowds that lined Saturday’s steep uphill finish, French rider Thibaut Pinot won Stage 14, putting him back in the picture to fight for the podium after he lost mountains of time on Stage 10.

Thomas rightly pointed out that the Tour is far from done, with six more ascents to above 2,000 meters still to come.

But his inability to stay with Pinot, Alaphilippe and other title contenders at the top of the Tourmalet — he was eighth, 36 seconds behind Pinot — was a mini-earthquake for the Tour dominated by his British team since 2012 — with champions Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and, in 2018, Thomas.

“Not the best day. I just didn’t feel quite on it from the start. I was quite weak,” Thomas said.

“At the end I knew I just had to pace it. I didn’t really attempt to follow when they kicked. I just thought I should ride my own pace rather than follow them and blow up on the steepest bit at the end. It’s disappointing. I just tried to limit the damage.”

Having taken cycling to a new level since 2012 with its vast budget and attention to the minutest of details, the team run by David Brailsford has been hit both by misfortune and by the inevitability that, eventually, other teams would start to close the gap.

A horror crash in training for four-time winner Froome, now recovering from career-threatening broken bones, robbed the team of its ace. Thomas’ own preparations were hampered by a crash at the Tour of Switzerland last month.

And Egan Bernal, being groomed by Brailsford to succeed Froome and Thomas, looks increasingly unable to compete for the title this year. Bernal was fifth on the Tourmalet and is fourth overall, 3 minutes behind Alaphilippe.

Pinot, now sixth overall and 3:12 behind Alaphilippe, is showing remarkable grit in bouncing back from his Stage 10 misfortune, when he was part of a group that got separated from other title contenders in crosswinds.

“I have this rage inside me, because in my opinion it was an injustice,” said Pinot, a podium finisher in 2014.

“Since the start of the Tour I had this stage in the back of my mind. The Tourmalet, it’s mythical,” said Pinot, who has three career stage wins at the Tour.

French President Emmanuel Macron, on hand at the top of the Tourmalet to see Pinot win and Alaphilippe extend his lead, gushed about the “two fantastic riders.”

“They attack and they have heart,” Macron said.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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