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Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue already thinking about worlds in Montreal

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Two-time world medalists Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue chatted with NBCSports.com/figure-skating before a show on the Stars on Ice tour, reviewing the recent season and looking ahead to 2020 and a home world championships.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

NBC Sports: Now that we’re a little bit removed from worlds, how would you evaluate your season?

Hubbell: The season felt really long, this one. Most people find that the Olympic season is very, very long, and that was. We jumped right back into it. We didn’t take any extra time in the winter. We did our usual plan, so I think maybe just like two very intense long seasons in a row took a lot of effort.

NBC Sports: It felt like you had a good chunk of your season early, the way you had your Grand Prix events stacked. [They competed at the first two, in the U.S. and Canada.]

Hubbell: It was in little chunks. We competed a lot at the very beginning with a lot of success and that was exciting, a lot of firsts for us. And then we thought we would have a break, which was foolish, on those five weeks. And instead we changed our free dance. We kind of ended up doing that all along the season. Which was great, it was very cool changes in our program through the year but it made it a very demanding, demanding season.

NBC Sports: How will you try and avoid that this year?

Donohue: My goal this year is to just make a program and slowly let it get better instead of changing it at the slightest sign of discomfort or, you know, a misstep or something.

Hubbell: I think it depends on the program. Last year we went for a different type of “Romeo + Juliet.” That was great, but we also knew that it would be a really challenging championship series with so many talented skaters and our goals. And as we were growing as a team, we kept making it more challenging. Hopefully this year, we’re gonna take a lot of time in the off season to create a program. We don’t have a set plan yet for the Grand Prixes, which ones we’re doing, scheduling. But I think it might be possible that we don’t do a senior B, but we just take a little bit more time to really create programs and debut at the Grand Prix.

NBC Sports: Plus, the senior B in Salt Lake City is at altitude!

Donohue: I’m pretty sure I finished last year and I told [coach] Patrice [Lauzon], I said, “I don’t care what you do to me, I’m not doing this competition ever again. Four years in a row was enough.” We’ll see. He might find a way to trick me into it again. It’s not so much the altitude. It’s a very long season when you have to start that early – because you have to prepare. You don’t just compete. You gotta prepare for months ahead of time and that means rushing a bit at the choreographic process. I think that’s one of the things that our teammates have over us is more time to prepare and train. Their season doesn’t really start until the Grand Prix season or even just before.

Hubbell: It depends on the point of your career. We always wanted to go for some experience and world ranking points and everything. But now with our world ranking, there’s not necessarily a reason that we need to go out and be seen so early. We will be already seen by our federation three or four times before the Grand Prixes. We trust our team and all of them to prepare us. It will be nice … we’ll see what the coaches think. We have not confirmed that with them. My desire would be to be able to take a little more time and just show up at Skate America.

NBC Sports: So, what are you thinking next season? Can you talk about your thoughts about the Broadway themes?

Donohue: It’s something we’ve never done separately or together. We’re looking forward to it. It’s a new chapter for sure.

NBC Sports: Your training group is so big. Have there been times where you said, “I wish I had claimed that music first”?

Hubbell: We put a few things down last year and said, “These are a few ideas we’ve had through the year.” Luckily, I think there’s also a little bit of a hierarchy as well. If we came to [the coaches] with the same ideas, some of our skaters allowed us to have first dibs until we make a choice. That’s nice. And for now, we have several options in the air. Now’s the time to go home and try to move to the music. It sounds great in your headphones until you move to it and you’re like “Hmm. That’s harder,” or, “That didn’t play out like I liked.” I think we’ll be able to make a decision in the next month or so.

Editor’s note: A few days after this interview, Hubbell and Donohue revealed on on Instagram that they’ll use music from “A Star is Born” for a program this season. NBCSports.com/figure-skating confirmed it would be their free dance music.

NBC Sports: This is a long-term question, but how great will it be to have a “home” world championships in Montreal? Can you stay in your own bed?

Hubbell: I had a few people messaging me on Instagram saying that I should make a guide to Montreal and put out some stuff about our favorite places to eat or get groceries, just some information for people that are coming. It made me think, “Oh yeah, it’s true, even though it will feel like competition, it’s kind of like a stay-cation where we get to enjoy the city in a different way.”

NBC Sports: Do you think the U.S. skaters will come to you for that kind of guidebook stuff?

Hubbell: Something like worlds, people are ready to let loose a little bit. They’ll go out, have a nice dinner. Go to a bar. Usually, when we were in Milan [for the 2018 Worlds], we were asking [Italian ice dancers] Anna [Cappellini] and Luca [Lanotte] “Where should we go? What should we do?” People will be interested, but luckily there’s many a skater that are from there and have lived there much longer than we have. People probably won’t rely wholly on our opinion. A fair amount of retired skaters are still in the area. It’ll be a nice reunion.

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue earn bronze at 2019 World Championships

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2019 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships TV schedule

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NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold combine to air live daily coverage of the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, starting Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

The top three per individual event are in line to qualify for the world championships in Doha in late September and early October, should they have the world standard time or mark.

Sprint trio Christian Coleman (100m and 200m), Noah Lyles (200m) and Michael Norman (400m) headline the event. Each is 23 or younger and fastest in the world this year in his primary event.

Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin represent the veterans. Felix, a 33-year-old with 17 combined Olympic and world titles, is entered in her first meet since having daughter Camryn via emergency C-section at 32 weeks on Nov. 28.

Gatlin, 37, has a bye into worlds as the defending 100m champion. He could be Coleman’s biggest threat in the 100m after breaking 9.9 seconds for the first time since the Rio Olympics.

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MORE: Olympic champions, world-record holder to miss USATF Outdoors

Day Time (ET) Network Key Events
Thursday 3:45-11 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m first round, 10,000m finals
Friday 1:30-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold 100m finals, 400m semifinals
7-9 p.m. NBCSN
Saturday 2-6 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 400m, women’s 1500m, 100m hurdles
4-6 p.m. NBC
Sunday 4-9 p.m. NBC Sports Gold Finals: 200m, men’s 1500m, 110m hurdles
7-8 p.m. NBCSN
8-9 p.m. NBC

Beachvolley Vikings, sport’s top team, inspired by Kerri Walsh Jennings

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HAMBURG, Germany — Kerri Walsh Jennings smiled at the decade-old picture of her posing with a young Anders Mol.

Since Walsh Jennings met Mol, the now-22-year-old and his 23-year-old Norwegian partner Christian Sorum have become the top-ranked team in the world.

“Those boys inspire me a lot,” she said. “That’s how I want Brooke [Sweat] and I to play, really.”

Walsh Jennings met Mol in his native country at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Stavanger. Mol attended with his father, Kare, who was coaching the Norwegian teams, as well as his brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias Berntsen.

Walsh Jennings noticed the young Norwegians, who are now nicknamed the “Beachvolley Vikings,” eagerly doing the pepper drill on the sand between matches from 6 a.m. until well after dark.   

“She walked by and told us, ‘Hey, you guys are so good that if you guys keep practicing, you’re going to be playing on this stage one day,’” Mol recalled.

Mol’s passion for the sport only increased as he hit puberty.

As a teenager, he derailed his family’s vacation plans in San Diego by making them battle traffic up to Los Angeles to hear Walsh Jennings give a speech.

Childhood photo of Mol and Walsh Jennings. Courtesy of Anders Mol.

At 13 or 14, Mol and his brother beat their parents for the first time. Impressive, considering Mol’s father was a former national indoor team player and his mother, Merita Mol (née Berntsen), competed in beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics.

At 16, he enrolled in ToppVolley Norway, a beach and indoor volleyball school that is a two-hour boat ride north from Stavanger. For three years, the boys would attend classes, lift weights and train for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Free time often meant pick-up soccer matches, which occasionally proves useful on the sand.

“It doesn’t look like Hogwarts,” Mol said, “but it sounds like Hogwarts because everybody is like a big family in this school.”

When Mol graduated, he played a year of professional indoor volleyball in Belgium. But he quickly realized that he preferred the freedom of beach volleyball, where players book their own travel, hire their own coaches and schedule their own practices.

In 2017, Mol was named the international tour’s top rookie. By the end of the 2018 season, Mol and Sorum had firmly established themselves as the world’s top team, winning their final three international tournaments including the FIVB World Tour Finals.

They have not slowed down in 2019, winning three tournaments on three different continents over three weeks in May. They have won 36 of their last 38 matches.

“The best blocker right now is Anders, and the best defender is Christian,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb. “It’s not really fair.”

The only two teams who have defeated the Norwegians since April 28 — Germany’s Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler and Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt/Evandro Goncalves — did not offer any clues on how to do it.

Wickler admitted that “in no other stadium would we have won this game” after the Hamburg world championships semifinal played July 6 in front of more than 12,000 hometown fans, the largest crowd either team had ever experienced. Mol and Sorum rebounded to claim the bronze medal the next day over Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Bruno rebuffed multiple teams who approached him looking for the secret to beating Norway.

“I’ve never seen a player like Anders who is so powerful and so skilled at the same time,” said Bruno, the 2016 Olympic champion with former partner Alison. “Players like that raise the level of this sport.”

Much of their success can be attributed to their defensive scheme. Most teams play a “zone defense,” with each player defending half of the court. The Norwegians play a “read defense” that gives each player the freedom to react and move to where they think the attacking player will hit the ball.

NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong compared the Norwegians to “free safeties” in football.

“They are the most innovative defensive team we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

The pair is relatively unknown outside Norway — neither has a Wikipedia page in English — and even in Norway they claim they are nowhere near as famous as the Alpine skiers nicknamed the “Attacking Vikings.”

But that will change.

At worlds, the pair hired a videographer to capture content for their YouTube and Instagram channels. They launched a Beachvolley Vikings clothing line that includes a “Sleeping Christian” shirt. They patiently fulfilled each and every request for pictures and autographs after matches.

“They are like rock stars,” said American Taylor Crabb, talking extra loud to be heard over a crowd of teenage girls hoping to take a selfie with the tall, blonde Norwegians. “Fans can relate to them because they see guys around their age becoming the No. 1 team the world.”

It is not just fans who are lining up to see the Norwegians.

“I love to watch them play,” said 2016 Brazilian Olympian Pedro Solberg, who made his international debut when Mol was just 8. “Every chance I get to watch them I do, because I learn a lot from them.”

Whether Mol and Sorum struggle with anything is up for debate. When asked, Kare boasted about beating them at the card game “President and the bum.”

“They are really smart in beach volleyball,” he said, “but they are really stupid in card playing.”

But both players disputed their coach’s claim.

“It’s not true at all,” Sorum said. “He loses even when he has the best cards.”

The Beachvolley Vikings are just getting started. 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser pointed out that beach volleyball players typically do not peak until their late 20s or early 30s.

“In my book, they are already among the top teams to ever play,” he said. “There are no holes in their game. I don’t see why they can’t keep this going.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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MORE: Brazil Olympic beach volleyball champs form dangerous teams after split