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Five events to watch at Pan Pacific Swimming Championships

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Five races to watch at the Pan Pacific Championships, the major international meet of 2018 for the U.S. (TV/stream schedule here) …

Women’s 200m Freestyle
Thursday (Olympic Channel, 5 a.m. ET)

If Katie Ledecky is going to be tested in any of her four individual events, it will be this one, her shortest race. Though Ledecky is the Olympic champion, Swede Sarah Sjöström was fastest in the world in 2015 and Italian Federica Pellegrini beat Ledecky for the 2017 World title. Of course, neither Sjöström nor Pellegrini is at Pan Pacs, a meet for non-European nations (neither is racing the 200m free at the concurrent European Championships, either).

No matter, the four fastest women in the world this year are from Pan Pacs nations — Ledecky (1:54.56), Canadian Taylor Ruck (1:54.81), Australian Ariarne Titmus (1:54.85) and Japanese Rikako Ikee (1:55.04). Ruck, Titmus and Ikee were all born in 2000, three years after Ledecky, who is now most certainly a veteran swimmer at age 21. Titmus, also ranked No. 2 in the world to Ledecky in the 400m free, is reportedly skipping the 200m free this week, though.

Men’s 400m Individual Medley
Thursday (Olympic Channel, 5 a.m. ET)

Arguably the most anticipated race for the home crowd. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino and Daiya Seto earned gold and bronze medals in the decathlon of swimming at the Rio Olympics, with American Chase Kalisz sandwiched for silver. Kalisz then swept the IMs at the 2017 Worlds and goes into Pan Pacs with the fastest time in the world this year by .73. Seto is ranked No. 2 in the world this year, followed by American Jay Litherland and then Hagino.

A Japanese film crew, including retired four-time Olympic breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima, has followed Kalisz from his training base in Athens, Ga., to covering him at nationals in California two weeks ago. Kalisz plans to host Seto for a trip to Athens in the fall, highlighted by a University of Georgia football game.

Women’s 100m Freestyle
Friday, (Olympic Channel, 6 a.m. ET)

Co-Olympic champion Simone Manuel gets her first head-to-head with Australian Cate Campbell since the Rio Games, where Campbell went in as the world-record holder and finished a disappointing sixth (later saying she swam with a hernia). Campbell skipped the 2017 Worlds, which Manuel won outright. Campbell stormed back this year, clocking 52.37 in March, good for No. 2 in the world this year. This would be an even bigger event if not for the absence of Cate’s younger sister, Bronte Campbell (No. 1 in the world this year), and Canadian Penny Oleksiak, who shared gold with Manuel in Rio. Both are skipping Pan Pacs.

Men’s 100m Freestyle
Friday (Olympic Channel, 6 a.m. ET)

Features the reigning Olympic champion (Australian Kyle Chalmers) and world champion (American Caeleb Dressel), plus the second-fastest in the world this year (Japanese Katsumi Nakamura). The story within the race is the fight for the two U.S. spots in the 100m free at the 2019 Worlds. Dressel, who went under the previous American record three times at the 2017 Worlds, was only sixth at nationals. If Dressel wants to defend his title at 2019 Worlds, he must be one of the two fastest Americans in the Pan Pacs finals and clock no slower than 48.25 seconds. Nathan Adrian, the 2012 Olympic 100m free champ, is under some pressure here, too, as the runner-up at nationals to Blake Pieroni.

Women’s 100m Backstroke
Friday (Olympic Channel, 6 a.m. ET)

Olympic and world silver medalist Kathleen Baker took the world record along with the U.S. title in this event two weeks ago. Canadian Kylie Masse, who broke the eight-year-old record at the 2017 Worlds, gets her chance to reclaim it in Tokyo. Baker, who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2010, has never won an individual event at a major international meet. If either Baker or Masse lowers the record, she will become the first woman to break 58 seconds in the event. In 2008, an 11-year-old Baker was a spectator at the U.S. Olympic Trials, where Natalie Coughlin became the first woman to break 59 seconds.

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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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