Morgan Hurd, Simone Biles, Riley McCusker
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U.S. women’s gymnastics team named for world championships

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Simone Biles was joined on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team for the world championships in two weeks by all of the other big names, including the 2017 U.S. and world all-around champions during her break from the sport.

Morgan Hurd (2017 World all-around champ), Ragan Smith (2017 U.S. all-around champ), Riley McCuskerGrace McCallum and Kara Eaker were named to the worlds team on Friday by USA Gymnastics. Biles clinched a spot by winning the all-around at a selection camp in Sarasota, Fla., on Thursday.

USA Gymnastics must designate one of the six gymnasts as its alternate before world competition begins in Doha. The Americans are clear favorites to earn the team title, which they have done at the last two Olympics and last three world championships.

Four women can compete per apparatus in qualifying. In the team final, it’s the same three-up, three-count format as at the Olympics. No more than two gymnasts per nation qualify for individual finals.

If the U.S. team final roster went straight off best scores from Thursday’s selection camp all-around, it would look like this:

Vault — Biles, Hurd, McCallum
Uneven Bars — McCusker, Biles, Hurd
Balance Beam — Eaker, McCusker, Biles
Floor Exercise — Biles, McCallum, McCusker
Alternate: Smith

If it went off best average scores from the U.S. Championships and Thursday’s camp, it would be:

Vault — Biles, McCallum, Hurd
Uneven Bars — McCusker, Biles, Hurd
Balance Beam — Biles, Eaker, McCusker
Floor Exercise — Biles, McCallum, Hurd/McCusker (tie)
Alternate: Smith

A look at each of the six gymnasts:

Simone Biles
Four-time Olympic champion
Three-time world all-around champion
Undefeated for five years in the all-around

An overwhelming favorite for a fourth world all-around title, which would break her tie with Russian Svetlana Khorkina for the most titles by a woman. Biles has a chance to earn medals in every event after she swept the five golds at the U.S. Championships in August. The toughest is uneven bars, the only event Biles did not earn a medal in Rio (and has never done so at a worlds).

Morgan Hurd
2017 World all-around champion
2018 U.S. all-around silver medalist

The surprise world’s best gymnast in 2017. The Delaware resident went from fifth at 2016 junior nationals to sixth at 2017 senior nationals to winning the world all-around title in Montreal last October. She’s followed that with a strong season, winning the American Cup in March and placing second to Biles at nationals. However, McCusker beat Hurd at the U.S. Classic in July, and McCusker and McCallum outscored her at the selection camp.

Ragan Smith
2017 U.S. all-around champion
2016 Olympic alternate

Smith looked unlikely to make this team back at nationals in August. She placed 10th there, competing with broken toes and lingering pain from an ankle injury that knocked her out of the 2017 Worlds, where she was the favorite. She bounced back at the selection camp with a fifth-place finish. Smith is an all-arounder, but with Biles, Hurd and McCusker posting the top scores this season, it would be hard to get into all four events at worlds, assuming she isn’t named the alternate. Smith is coached by 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

Riley McCusker
2017, 2018 U.S. all-around bronze medalist

McCusker made her first world team after withdrawing before last year’s selection camp with an injury. She was second to Biles at the U.S. Classic in July and the selection camp Thursday, making a strong bid to join Biles in the all-around in Doha. It looks to come down to Hurd and McCusker for that second and last all-around spot in the world final. McCusker is coached by Maggie Haney, who guided Laurie Hernandez to the Rio Olympics.

Grace McCallum
2018 U.S. all-around, fourth place

With Eaker, one of two first-year seniors on the world team. Last year’s promising juniors were Maile O’Keefe and Emma Malabuyo, whose scores at 2017 Nationals would have placed second and third in the senior division. But neither O’Keefe nor Malabuyo were healthy for the whole selection season and didn’t make it to the camp. Enter McCallum, who was 11th at 2017 junior nationals before her senior breakout in August. She was third in the selection camp all-around and second to Biles on floor exercise.

Kara Eaker
2018 U.S. balance beam silver medalist

Eaker, 15 years old like McCallum, was third at 2017 junior nationals but has established herself within the U.S. senior team as one of its best beam workers. Only Biles outscored her there at nationals, and she had the highest score in the selection camp all-around on beam by 1.05 points. If neither is the alternate, Eaker and McCallum would be the first pair of 15-year-olds to compete at an Olympics or worlds for the U.S. since Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney in 2011.

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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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