Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
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Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat partner for 2020 Olympic run

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Kerri Walsh Jennings has a new partner for her 2020 Olympic run — Rio Olympian Brooke Sweat.

“The times I’ve enjoyed the most success, consistent success, that was when there was a true defender behind me, that made me a big blocker,” Walsh Jennings said. “Brooke really sits in the same vein as [retired three-time Olympic champion partner] Misty [May-Treanor]. Brooke is her own athlete and has her own assets and strengths, but largely what Misty and Brooke share in common is their inherent knowledge in the game and the fact it’s in her blood. You can just tell she gets it.

“Brooke, literally, could be the best defender in the world.”

Walsh Jennings, a 40-year-old with three Olympic titles and three children, and Sweat, who went winless in Rio with Lauren Fendrick, are entered in two early Olympic qualifying tournaments this month in Las Vegas and Mexico. The Las Vegas event doubles as a stop on Walsh Jennings’ new p1440 tour.

Walsh Jennings is entered in an event in China this week with 23-year-old Kelly Claes, but 32-year-old Sweat will be her full-time partner for a potential sixth Olympic run.

“She called me, I forget, maybe two months ago, just asked if I’d be interested [in practicing together],” Sweat said, adding that Walsh Jennings was trying out one other player. “Eventually, she made her decision and asked me if I wanted to play and go for gold with her.

“It’s always nice to have one of the best players ever calling you. It was a good day.”

Olympic beach volleyball qualifying runs into 2020, with no more than two pairs per gender per nation earning Tokyo berths.

The best U.S. teams at the moment are Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, who won a top-level international event last month, and April Ross and Alix Klineman, the top team in the 2018 AVP season.

“The toughest thing about our journey right now with Brooke and I is we’re starting at the bottom,” Walsh Jennings said. “I respect all the teams on the American side. I’m not concerned about them. I always want to concern myself with my team and my team only.”

Earlier this year, Walsh Jennings played with fellow mom and 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh, while Sweat was with Summer Ross before Ross partnered with Hughes. Both Walsh Jennings and Sweat split from their Rio Olympic partners less than a year after the Games.

While Walsh Jennings has 55 career international titles (the last with April Ross in 2016 after their Olympic bronze medals), Sweat’s best finish in 58 starts was a runner-up in 2017.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh never found consistency in competition before breaking up in July, in part because Walsh Jennings’ 2017 season ended prematurely with her sixth right shoulder surgery (followed by an ankle surgery).

In 10 FIVB tournaments together, their best finish was fourth, and they had just one other quarterfinal. Walsh Jennings can become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player in history in Tokyo.

“I”m pretty sure that I would have retired had we won [gold in Rio],” Walsh Jennings said on the On Her Turf podcast. “For a year and a bit, I have lived in fear, in fear of regressing, in fear of being that player who showed up that [Rio Olympic] semifinal [loss] night. … I had this [bad] night, and I dragged April down with it, which will always bug me, because she deserves that gold.”

Walsh Jennings said before her 2018 season that the 2020 Olympics would be her last, assuming she qualifies.

“I want to finish on top. I want to go out with a fairytale ending,” she said.

Sweat hasn’t played since the first week of May due to season-ending surgery on a right shoulder that’s bothered her for three years. Sweat had a previous shoulder surgery Sept. 10, 2015, the same day as Walsh Jennings’ fifth right shoulder surgery.

Sweat first saw Walsh Jennings during her freshman year at Florida Gulf Coast University. Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor visited a Fort Myers Toyota dealership for an exhibition. FGCU players were invited to play against the Olympic champions, but Sweat sat out with a knee injury.

Sweat said she and Walsh Jennings had talked about playing together earlier in this Olympic cycle, but the timing was not right.

“It’s not about my shoulder or her shoulder,” Sweat said. “We’re in this for Tokyo gold. That’s my focus.”

MORE: New beach team nets biggest U.S. breakout in a decade

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Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.