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

Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena
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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.

MORE: Beach Volleyball Worlds TV/Stream Schedule

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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MORE: The origins of beach volleyball’s A-Team

Chicago Marathon features Emily Sisson’s return, Conner Mantz’s debut, live on Peacock

Emily Sisson
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At Sunday’s Chicago Marathon, Emily Sisson makes her return, nearly three years after Olympic Trials disappointment. Conner Mantz makes one of the most anticipated U.S. men’s debuts in 26.2-mile racing.

It is not the norm, but an American will be one of the spotlight runners in both the men’s and women’s elite races at a major marathon. Peacock airs live coverage at 8 a.m. ET.

Sisson, 30, starts her first mass marathon since dropping out of the Olympic Trials on Feb. 29, 2020, her legs “destroyed” on the hilly Atlanta course where she started as arguably the favorite. She ran the virtual New York City Marathon later in 2020, but that was solo (and not in New York City). Her 2:38:00 isn’t recorded in her official results on her World Athletics bio.

Since, Sisson won the Olympic Trials 10,000m on the track and was the top American in Tokyo in 10th place. She moved back to the roads, winning national titles at 15km and the half marathon and breaking the American record in the latter.

Sisson vaulted into the elite group of U.S. female marathoners in 2019, when she clocked the second-fastest debut marathon in American history, a 2:23:08 on a windy day in London, where the early pace was slow.

At the time, it was the 12th-best U.S. performance all-time. In the last two years, Keira D’Amato, 37, and Sara Hall, 39, combined to run seven faster marathons. At Chicago, a flat course that produced a world record three years ago, Sisson can answer them and perhaps get close to D’Amato’s American record 2:19:12.

“I’m hoping sub-2:20,” coach Ray Treacy said, according to LetsRun.com. “With the [super] shoes and the training behind her, I would think that’s [worth] at least three minutes.”

It is less likely that Sisson can challenge for the win on Sunday given the presence of Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich, the 2019 World champion and defending champion in the Windy City. The 28-year-old mom is the fifth-fastest woman in history with a personal best of 2:17:08. And Ethiopian Ruti Aga, a podium finisher in Berlin, New York City and Tokyo with a best time of 2:18:34, though she has one marathon finish since the pandemic (a seventh place).

Like Sisson, Mantz has shown strong recent road racing form. The American men’s debut marathon record of 2:07:56 (Leonard Korir) is in play. If he can break that, Mantz will be among the five fastest U.S. marathoners in history.

Rarely has a U.S. male distance runner as accomplished as Mantz moved up to the marathon at such a young age (25). At BYU, he won NCAA cross-country titles in 2020 and 2021 and placed fifth in the Olympic Trials 10,000m, then turned pro and won the U.S. Half Marathon Championships last December.

“If everything goes as planned, I think sub-2:08 is realistic,” Mantz said in a Citius Mag video interview last month. “If everything goes perfect on the day, I think a sub-2:07, that’s a big stretch goal.”

The men’s field doesn’t have the singular star power of Chepngetich, but a large group of East Africans with personal bests around 2:05. The most notable: defending champion Seifu Tura of Ethiopia and 2021 Boston Marathon winner Benson Kipruto of Kenya.

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Alpine skiing to test new format for combined race

Alpine Skiing Combined
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Alpine skiing officials will test a new format for the combined event, a race that is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

French newspaper L’Equipe reported that the International Ski Federation (FIS) will test a new team format for the combined, which has been an individual event on the Olympic program since 1988. L’Equipe reported that a nation can use a different skier for the downhill and slalom in the new setup, quoting FIS secretary general Michel Vion.

For example, the U.S. could use Breezy Johnson in the downhill run and sub her out for Mikaela Shiffrin in the slalom run, should the format be adopted into senior competition.

The format will be tested at the world junior championships in January in St. Anton, Austria, according to the report.

In response to the report, a FIS spokesperson said, “Regarding the new format of the combined is correct, and our directors are working on the rules so for the moment the only thing we can confirm is that there will be this new format for the Alpine combined that has been proposed by the athletes’ commission.”

Some version of the combined event has been provisionally included on the 2026 Olympic program, with a final IOC decision on its place coming by April.

This will be the third consecutive World Cup season with no combined events. Instead, FIS has included more parallel races in recent years. The individual combined remains on the biennial world championships program.

L’Equipe also reported that the mixed team parallel event, which is being dropped from the Olympics, will also be dropped from the biennial world championships after this season.

“There is nothing definitive about that yet, but it is a project in the making,” a FIS spokesperson said in commenting on the report.

Vion said the mixed team event, which debuted at the Olympics in 2018, was not a hit at the Beijing Games and did not draw a strong audience, according to L’Equipe.

The World Cup season starts in two weeks with the traditional opening giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria.

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