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How April Ross, Alix Klineman became beach volleyball’s A-Team

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NEW YORK — Two-time Olympic medalist April Ross approached Alix Klineman, a rookie, in summer 2017.

Ross mentioned she would be looking for a new partner after splitting with Kerri Walsh Jennings.

“I said, ‘OK let me know,’” Klineman recalled. “And she said, ‘No, you need to get better first.’”

Additional motivation for Klineman, who had recently transitioned to the sand after a decorated indoor career in which she was named the Volleyball Magazine National Player of the Year for her senior season at Stanford.

Klineman adapted to beach volleyball quickly and was named the top rookie on the domestic AVP Tour.

When the 2017 season ended, Ross invited Klineman to a three-day tryout. After it wrapped, Klineman delivered an impassioned pitch to Ross.

She expressed her desire to go to the Olympics and win a beach volleyball gold medal, after sacrificing a six-figure salary playing indoors in 2016 to make less than 10 percent as much on the sand in 2017.

“It was pretty out of character, because normally I’m more reserved,” Klineman said. “But I didn’t want her to have a reason not to pick me.”

Klineman anxiously waited about a week while Ross traveled abroad. When Ross returned, she asked Klineman to be her partner.

“Our mentalities are so similar,” Ross said about the 6-foot-5 Klineman, the co-tallest woman on the international tour. “That was the deciding factor for me, but it doesn’t hurt that she’s so physical and has so much potential.”

They just needed a team nickname.

Ross solicited ideas from her fans on social media. After combing through hundreds of submissions, she awarded Instagram user tammyjzhao a signed volleyball for suggesting “The A-Team.”

“I know it’s super obvious because of April and Alix,” said Ross, who warms up with nunchucks. “But then you think of the correlations with Mr. T and ‘I pity the fool’ and the missions they went on. We liked how that sounded.”

Success came immediately.

They won their first tournament together in the Netherlands in January 2018. Klineman became just the third woman to win her international debut.

“We saw winning the first tournament as a sign,” Ross said. “We can do this, we have that potential, so let’s keep working towards it.”

“The A-Team” is coached by Jen Kessy, Ross’ 2012 Olympic silver medal teammate.

“Jen brings a nice lightness to our team,” Klineman said in an interview at the AVP New York City Open, which she and Ross won for their fifth straight title on the domestic tour. “April and I can be really intense sometimes. So Jen will say, ‘This is getting really heavy. You guys need to chill out and laugh a little bit.’”

Kessy has influenced everything from preparation to celebration.

Players have just 12 seconds to serve after a point is scored on the international tour, but the clock does not start until the players finish celebrating. Kessy therefore instructed Klineman and Ross to hug after points to maximize rest, earning them a second nickname: “Team Hugs.”

“They’ve taken team hugs to a different level,” Kessy said. “I was thinking after long rallies, but they hug after every single play.”

Klineman and Ross are collecting Olympic qualification points. The top two U.S. pairs come June 15, 2020 go to Tokyo, provided they’re ranked high enough internationally.

Fellow Americans Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat have a higher aggregation of Olympic qualification points, but a lower per-tournament average since they have played in three more events than the A-Team. The final standings will only include each pair’s 12 best results together.

“You don’t necessarily need to play in every event because someone else might get ahead,” Kessy said. “We need to look strategically where we can do the best.”

Ross will be 38 years old during the 2020 Games. She will be the third-oldest woman at this summer’s world championships.

“She doesn’t look like she’s slowing down at all,” said the 29-year-old Klineman. “That’s got to be a little scary for the volleyball world and her opponents.”

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Kitzbuehel hosts Hahnenkamm weekend; Mikaela Shiffrin speeds up; Alpine World Cup TV, live stream info

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The world’s most daring Alpine skiers descend the most famous annual race this weekend, while Mikaela Shiffrin tackles her own challenge, live on NBC Sports.

The men’s World Cup stops in Kitzbuehel, Austria, for the Hahnenkamm. The granddaddy is Saturday’s downhill, sandwiched between Friday’s super-G and Sunday’s slalom.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been among the celebrity attendees in the finish area. Lindsey Vonn will be on hand this weekend, inspecting the course.

The Streif downhill track is a two-minute, two-mile test of guts: a 3,000-foot drop at an average 65 miles per hour (and maxing out much faster than that). Crashes are commonplace. A helicopter is at the ready to airlift skiers to the nearest hospital.

“You go into the starting gate, and it’s intimidating,” said American Ryan Cochran-Siegle, who makes his Kitzbuehel downhill debut on Saturday. “You don’t really know how it’s going to go. You think it’s just going to be kind of chaos.”

Cochran-Siegle, whose uncle Bob Cochran was the first American to earn a World Cup podium in the race in 1973, used two words to describe the Streif: fun … and fear.

The only American to win the Hahnenkamm downhill was Daron Rahlves in 2003. The last podium finisher was Bode Miller in 2014. The best U.S. finish the last four years was 10th.

Bryce Bennett took confidence from finishing seventh at a World Cup downhill in Wengen, Switzerland, last Saturday. That’s the best U.S. downhill finish this season outside of the home snow of Beaver Creek, Colo.

“Team morale is good, and it’s been great all season long,” said Steven Nyman, who was fifth in 2015. “We’re looking for those top-tier performances. Bryce’s seventh is a good step forward. We all know we can ski well, and it’s cool as a team we’re pushing toward the top, but we’re not there yet.”

Over in Bansko, Bulgaria, Shiffrin is expected to race downhills Friday and Saturday and a super-G on Sunday. They would mark the slalom ace’s first downhills outside of Lake Louise and Cortina d’Ampezzo, which she’s contested a combined 10 times.

Shiffrin made the podium of her last super-G in St. Moritz and her last downhill in Lake Louise, both in December. She’s coming off surprising results in slaloms and giant slaloms, not having won in her last five starts overall.

Still, Shiffrin leads the World Cup overall standings by a substantial 199 points with a tour-leading four outright victories this season.

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MORE: Alpine skiing season TV schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Friday 3:30 a.m. Women’s Downhill Olympic Channel | NBC Sports Gold
5:30 a.m. Men’s Super-G NBC Sports Gold
Saturday 3:30 a.m. Women’s Downhill Olympic Channel | NBC Sports Gold
5:30 a.m. Men’s Downhill NBC Sports Gold
9 a.m.* Women’s Downhill NBCSN
Sunday 3:30 a.m. Women’s Super-G Olympic Channel | NBC Sports Gold
4:30 a.m. Men’s Slalom Run 1 NBC Sports Gold
7:30 a.m. Men’s Slalom Run 2 NBC Sports Gold
12:30 p.m.* Women’s Super-G NBCSN
Monday 1 p.m.* Kitzbuehel Highlights NBCSN

*Delayed broadcast

Maya Moore withdraws from Olympic consideration

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Maya Moore, the U.S. second-leading scorer at the Rio Olympics, withdrew her name from Tokyo Olympic consideration and will skip a second straight WNBA season.

Moore is on hiatus from competitive basketball to focus on criminal justice reform. Specifically, the case of a man who was sentenced to 50 years in prison but Moore believes is innocent, according to The New York Times.

USA Basketball confirmed Wednesday’s Times report that Moore took her name out of consideration for the 12-player Tokyo Olympic team, which is expected to be named in late spring or early summer.

“We are going to miss Maya tremendously, but we also respect her decision,” U.S. women’s national team director Carol Callan said, according to the report. “A player of Maya’s ability does not walk away from the gym lightly. Everyone feels it. The thing that makes her so special is her approach, her dedication, which has always been contagious for our team.”

Moore last played for the U.S. in major competition at the Rio Olympics. She was one of the leaders on a team that earned a sixth straight gold medal. Moore started all eight games and averaged 12 points per game, second on the team behind fellow former University of Connecticut star Diana Taurasi.

Breanna Stewart, another former UConn standout, entered the starting lineup at the 2018 FIBA World Cup in Moore’s absence and earned tournament MVP. Stewart is returning after missing the entire 2019 WNBA season with an Achilles tear.

Moore also started five games at the 2012 London Olympics as the team’s youngest player.

Moore, 30, said “this is not the time” to retire, according to the Times, but it’s unknown when she might return to the national team or to the WNBA, where she won four titles and an MVP with the Minnesota Lynx from 2011-18.

“I got to experience the best of my craft, and I did that multiple times,” Moore said, according to the report. “There is nothing more I wish I could experience.”

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