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Ryan Crouser eyed an NFL tryout, then Olympic gold, now the bathroom mirror

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In an alternate universe, Olympic shot put champion Ryan Crouser could be run blocking or pass rushing in the NFL.

Crouser, who continues a historic start to his season Saturday at the Drake Relays on NBC Sports (broadcast schedule here), said he was offered a tryout with the Indianapolis Colts before the 2016 Olympic Trials.

“They have a special scout. He looks for athletes outside of the traditional football realm to come in and maybe play a more specific role, mostly probably on defense or offensive lineman,” Crouser, who is 6 feet, 7 inches and 310 pounds, said in a phone interview this week. “I said, we’ll see how [Olympic] trials goes.”

They went pretty well. Crouser, who came into the meet ranked No. 2 in the nation, won trials at Oregon’s Hayward Field with the second-farthest throw in the world for the year.

The Colts’ special scout, Jon Shaw, was unavailable for comment until next week given hectic NFL Draft prep. But the organization has a history of giving chances to Olympians, including signing sprinters Marvin Bracy and Jeff Demps, though neither played in a regular-season game.

“Then the Olympics went pretty much perfect, so I ended up postponing it after that,” Crouser said of the Colts’ offer. “I’ve had a pretty successful career since then.”

In Rio, Crouser, whose dad, two uncles and two cousins are accomplished discus, javelin or shot put throwers, broke the 28-year-old Olympic record held by his technique idol, East German Ulf Timmermann. Crouser used the glide motion until his senior year at Gresham (Ore.) Barlow High.

“I watched tons of film of Ulf Timmermann,” said Crouser, who was born four years after Timmermann’s Olympic title. “Technically, he was the best glider ever. The throw that I watched literally thousands of times was his Olympic record that I broke in 2016.”

In 1990 and 1991, Timmermann was among many East German athletes reported to have used illegal, performance-enhancing drugs. Timmermann always denied using anabolic steroids, according to Olympic historians.

Crouser, who has a clean testing record, is inching into Timmermann’s territory on the all-time list of farthest throws. At a small meet in California that he rode in a truck to last Saturday, Crouser threw 22.73 and 22.74 meters on consecutive attempts. They marked the longest throws in the world since American Randy Barnes set the still-standing world record of 23.12 in 1990. Barnes tested positive for an anabolic steroid two months later.

“#CleanWR,” Olympic teammate Darrell Hill commented on an Instagram image of Crouser standing next to the 22.74 scoreboard.

Crouser was careful when asked how he views the top names on the all-time list, and whether it would be good for the shot put for Barnes’ record to go down. “I would say just among all the shot putters, everybody would just like to see that,” said Crouser, who is now 15 inches shy of that Barnes mark. “I’d love to get that record off the books, I guess, in a sense. It makes me have to train smarter, chasing the 23.12, instead of saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got the clean world record.'”

There’s reason to believe Crouser can up his personal best again at Drake and certainly later this summer and at the world championships in Doha in late September.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the best I’ve felt,” Crouser, who has gained 20 pounds of “quality weight” since Rio with the well publicized 5,000-calorie-a-day shot putters’ diet, said of that season-opening meet last Saturday. “I really wasn’t tapered down too much.”

Crouser then revealed he suffered a small pectoral tear (the right pec, “the one you don’t want”) six weeks ago and missed two weeks of throws training. It took even longer to rehab strength back into it.

“It’s a really good starting point,” Crouser said, “but hoping to go further this year.”

He celebrated the personal best by eating a Chipotle burrito and, the next day, reeling in a half-dozen crappies near his Olympic training center home in Chula Vista. Fishing is a longtime hobby for Crouser, a Portland native who chose the University of Texas over the University of Oregon because it had a better mechanical engineering program.

He once caught and released a white sturgeon that was 11 feet and 600-plus pounds on the Columbia River. An all-conference basketball player in high school, Crouser broke a rim dunking. He’s also smashed a gingerbread house, Christmas ornament and canned pumpkin pie with a 20-pound sledgehammer (video here).

But to know the man is to be in his bathroom. Crouser has always marked his goal throw distances on that mirror, first with sticky notes (because his mom wouldn’t let him write on it) and recently in dry erase in Southern California. Around late November, when he resumed offseason training, Crouser for the first time penned “23.13” on it.

“It’s feeling like a much more realistic distance,” he said. “In the past I thought if everything went perfect, I could throw it. Now it’s feeling more and more reasonable.”

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A 1983 world champion will become the oldest Olympic table tennis player ever

Ni Xia Lian
European Table Tennis Union
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Ni Xia Lian, a 55-year-old, Chinese-born table tennis player for Luxembourg, is set to become the oldest Olympian ever in her sport.

Ni earned Luxembourg a quota spot at the 2020 Tokyo Games by bagging bronze at the European Championships on Wednesday. Ni will fill that spot and compete at her fifth Games next summer, according to Luxembourg’s table tennis federation.

Ni’s first senior medal at a global competition came with China at the world team championships in 1983.

Ni moved to Luxembourg in the 1990s, running a hotel with her husband. She kept competing, with a five-year break between 2002 and 2007, and set a record in 2017 for the longest table-tennis match at 1 hour 33 minutes.

She would already be the oldest Olympic table tennis player if not for He Zhiwen, who was born in China and competed for Spain with the nickname Juanito at the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics. He retired after Rio at age 54, according to the International Table Tennis Federation.

Ni will be 57 next summer, older than any previous female Olympians outside of archery, equestrian, shooting and art competitions, according to the OlyMADMen. Her best Olympic finish was ninth in Sydney in 2000.

Chinese-born players represent many countries in table tennis, including European Games gold and silver medalists, Fu Yu of Portugal and Han Ying of Germany.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

MORE: Most experienced Olympian in history retires at age 72

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Phil Dalhausser, tempted by retirement, partner switch, forges to final Olympics

Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena
AVP
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At one point last summer, Nick Lucena made an unusual move for an Olympic beach volleyball player. He suggested to his partner, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser, the best American for the last decade, that Dalhausser might be happier playing with somebody else.

“I thought, man, Phil’s not enjoying this, he wants to retire,” said Lucena, who at the time was sidelined by a minor injury. “The last thing I want to do is slow you down. I was like, if he’s going out, it’s not going to be on my account.”

Lucena even offered a replacement: the up-and-coming Taylor Crabb, who at 27 is 12 years younger than both Lucena and Dalhausser, Floridians who paired at the Rio Olympics (lost in the quarterfinals), for the last four years and to start their careers from 2003-05.

“Taylor is a special player,” Lucena said. “Them together, I thought they’d be a special team.”

Dalhausser agreed to an extent. Crabb is the best defender in the world, he said. But Dalhausser, the bald, 6-foot-9 blocker known as the “Thin Beast,” waved off Lucena’s humility.

“If I were to rate a defender one through 10, Taylor being a 10, say Nick is a nine,” Dalhausser said earlier this month. “But we’re buddies. We get along. We’ve been friends for 20 years. That just adds a point value to him, so now he’s a 10.”

Crabb, based in California, sensed from afar that Dalhausser might be interested in a change last year. So, he called him.

“I’d be crazy not to ask Phil or for us to talk,” said Crabb, in his third season with three-time Olympian Jake Gibb. “We had talked a little bit, but at the end of the day … “

Crabb cut his answer short in a Midtown Manhattan hotel breakfast booth as Lucena walked by.

Even though they didn’t split, Lucena worried that Dalhausser’s heart was not in the sport anymore. Dalhausser isn’t one to show emotion on the sand, but it was clear that 15 years traveling the world took its toll. He’s married now with 4- and 6-year-olds, but he spends more time every summer with Lucena, a fellow 39-year-old father of two.

“I just wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t going to become happy with making a change in volleyball or whatever,” Dalhausser said. “It had to come from inside.”

An epiphany came last offseason. Dalhausser dived into self-help books: Jack Canfield‘s “The Success Principles,” Eckhart Tolle, Tony Robbins.

“One day, I was walking around the kitchen, thinking aloud, what the hell is my purpose?” he said. “I said, I guess it’s volleyball. My wife [former beach volleyball pro Jennifer Corral] was sitting right there and said, you’re an effing idiot if you don’t think it’s volleyball.

“Since then, I was like, all right, I guess I’m going to make a run.”

An Olympic run. Dalhausser and Lucena are about to start a crucial stretch of international tournaments in Tokyo 2020 qualifying. It begins this weekend at the world championships in Hamburg, Germany.

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A maximum of two U.S. pairs can qualify for the Games. Dalhausser and Lucena are outside the world top 25, but, more importantly, third among Americans about halfway through qualifying. They’ve only played four events; most have played at least six. Each team’s 12 best finishes in the two-year qualifying window count when the Olympic field is determined next summer.

“Results wise haven’t been great up to this point,” said Dalhausser, who won at least one international event each of the previous 13 seasons, but none since Olympic qualifying began last June. “I feel like we’re going to hit our stride here, the more we play consistently and get into a rhythm. I think we’ll be fine. I’m not really worried about it.”

Come next summer, Dalhausser and Lucena will both be older than all but one previous Olympic beach volleyball player. Dalhausser said this is his last Olympic cycle and that he will not play internationally after the 2020 season, but could continue on the domestic AVP tour.

“You see these grays here?” Dalhausser said, pointing to his chin stubble. “Obviously, when I was 28 in Beijing [the 2008 Olympics with Todd Rogers], that was probably my peak as far as vertical goes. But I’m not so sure I’m that far under it.”

Still, injuries are creeping up. They withdrew from a recent event in Poland, citing Dalhausser’s ab injury that has limited his jump serving.

While Dalhausser and Lucena were arguably medal favorites going into Rio, there is no debate about the new No. 1 going into worlds.

“Hands down,” Dalhausser said. “Norway.”

Anders Mol, 21, and Christian Sørum, 23, have won eight of their last 11 international events together. Norway has never put a men’s or women’s team into an Olympic beach volleyball quarterfinal. But the Beachvolley Vikings, who honed their skills at a Hogwarts-like academy called Top Volley Norge in a village named Sand, are unlike any team Dalhausser has ever seen.

“They just don’t have any holes in their game,” Dalhausser said.

It was about this time five years ago when Dalhausser was part of the world’s hottest team. He and Sean Rosenthal won three Grand Slams in a four-event stretch in the summer of 2014. But Dalhausser suffered an oblique injury at about this time in the last Olympic cycle, and they plateaued. Lucena emailed Dalhausser about his availability, and they reunited a year before the Rio Games.

Dalhausser actually wanted to retire after he and Lucena lost to eventual gold medalists Alison and Bruno in the Olympic quarterfinals. He spoke with his alma mater, the University of Central Florida. Had the school started a beach volleyball program, he would have left for a job there.

Even up until this past January, Lucena said he was trying to talk Dalhausser into playing this summer’s world championships. Finally, Dalhausser was asked by his agent and USA Volleyball for a 2019 season schedule. He submitted one with 15 events, mostly international ones, and shared it with Lucena.

“It kind of told me, oh damn, we’re going to try to make a run, which I was not ready for, but I was kind of excited,” Lucena said. “I still felt like I had a lot left in the tank. Maybe not a lot, but enough to make a push.”

Lucena said he’s seen a change in Dalhausser’s demeanor. They won for the first time in seven events together this season at the AVP New York City Open earlier this month, rallying past Crabb and Gibb in a three-set semifinal. Lucena, known more for his defense, earned the AVP’s Hammer Award, given to the top offensive player of the tournament.

“A wise man once said,” Dalhausser deadpanned, sitting next to Lucena at the event, “a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”

Lucena and Dalhausser came up together in the early 2000s, playing for a few hundred dollars a tournament and holding part-time jobs, including as substitute teachers. When Dalhausser left to pair with Rogers, Lucena spent nearly a decade with the motivation to become a strong enough player to get Dalhausser back as a partner.

It didn’t surprise NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong that Lucena would willingly let Dalhausser leave for another partner in the middle of their last Olympic cycle.

“Those guys are lifelong friends,” Wong said. “Nick’s that guy who can see the bigger picture, life outside of volleyball. The crazy thing was last year on tour, Phil never told me this, but there were two or three different people saying, hey, we think Phil’s going to retire after this year. His motivation, his energy were pretty low and so the question was, is this like a little lull, recharging the battery before one last Olympic push? Or is this the swan song?”

Now Dalhausser seems firm in pushing ahead for one more year.

“It was tempting [to switch partners], but, again, at the end of the day, family then volleyball,” Dalhausser said, noting that sticking with the Tallahassee-based Lucena allows him to spend more time at home in the Orlando area. Most elite beach volleyball players live in California, including Crabb.

“I guess I can be like, hey, Taylor, you want to make a run? It’s not too late,” Dalhausser said. “But my gut’s not telling me that’s the right thing.”

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