Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
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Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat reach beach volleyball worlds via the minors

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Kerri Walsh Jennings‘ dedication to beach volleyball is being tested in her sixth and final Olympic cycle like never before. She and new partner Brooke Sweat have flown across continents with no guarantee that they’ll be in tournament main draws or receive full travel stipends.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who announced their partnership in October, became familiar with the term “country quota” en route to the world championships that began Friday in Germany (TV schedule here).

Country quota is “the bane of all U.S. and Brazilian players,” NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong said.

Top international events cap the number of teams per country, usually at three. If more than three pairs want to play, the lowest-ranked aspirants face an international qualifier, which also has a cap per nation. If that’s not enough to accommodate everybody, an even earlier qualifier is held just for teams from that nation — the country quota.

Since it usually happens at an event site days before the main draw, the venue is often still being set up. Crowds are scant: Sometimes just people associated with the two playing teams, and maybe some crew workers setting up for later in the week.

“It’s almost like you’re playing in the minor leagues,” NBC Sports analyst Dain Blanton said. “The match means a lot, but there’s not a lot of fanfare or hype around it. It’s interesting seeing maybe the most decorated female athlete of all time in the sport have to go through it.”

It mostly applies to the U.S. and Brazil, the sport’s longtime world powers with several relevant teams looking to play the tour’s elite events.

Walsh Jennings can’t remember ever playing country quota with Misty May-Treanor, with whom she won three Olympic gold medals, because they were always ranked so high. Nor with April Ross, her 2016 Olympic bronze-medal partner. Sweat, a Rio Olympian with former partner Lauren Fendrick, said she hadn’t played country quota since 2012.

But Walsh Jennings and Sweat were each low on individual ranking points from the start of their partnership. Both missed time since Rio with shoulder surgeries and multiple partner changes. When they teamed up, their combined points weren’t enough to ensure spots in main draws.

So they traveled early for tournaments in Brazil and the Czech Republic this spring to face other U.S. teams for the right to enter qualifiers. Walsh Jennings and Sweat won four matches in Ostrava, Czech Republic, last month just to reach the tournament’s main draw.

They played 11 matches total in Ostrava, finishing third overall. It marked the only time Walsh Jennings played double-digit matches at one event in more than 250 career tournaments dating to 2001, according to BVBinfo.com. Walsh Jennings, a 40-year-old mother of three, is bidding to become the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player in history.

“We looked at it as a gift, an opportunity to get better under the gun,” Walsh Jennings said Saturday by phone from Huntington Beach, where she held a volleyball clinic for about 30 girls from Starlings Volleyball USA and surprised the club with a donation through the Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation. “I would never want to be handed everything freely.”

Walsh Jennings said that any time she considered complaining about their situation, she thought of her husband. Casey Jennings played from 1999 through 2018, including more than 20 country quota matches with five different partners, according to BVBInfo.

“It made him really gnarly,” she said.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat’s country quota days may be over. They worked their way back toward the top of U.S. beach volleyball, reaching the semifinals of three of their last four events. In China, Walsh Jennings notched her first tournament win in nearly three years, and Sweat got the first international title of her career.

They still needed a wild card to get into the world championships, given the automatic entries were based on world rankings from nearly two months ago (and there is no country quota for worlds).

Four U.S. teams were ranked higher back then, led by Ross and Alix Klineman. But now Walsh Jennings and Sweat are second in the most important ranking, the one that will be used to determine the Olympic field in a year. That list will fluctuate the next few weeks with worlds and major events in Europe.

“We can beat anyone in the world when we’re playing our game,” Sweat said. “We’re definitely one of the top teams in the world.”

All those extra matches led to Walsh Jennings and Sweat withdrawing before their last pre-worlds event in Poland. Walsh Jennings said they needed “body maintenance.” Sweat called it precautionary before wearing several strips of black tape on the back of her neck in Friday’s opener of pool play.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat lost to a Dutch pair 21-15, 19-21, 15-9. They could still play nine matches in nine days, if they reach the medal round. They’re certainly prepared for it.

“We feel like we got through the hardest part of the season,” Walsh Jennings said last week.

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

Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 season in ski and snowboard sports

Chris Corning
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Most ski sports don’t hold world championships in even-numbered years, but the coronavirus pandemic brought World Cup campaigns to an early conclusion two years ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

With the seasons over, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team is collecting goggles to provide to health-care workers.

Here’s what we learned in various sports:

ALPINE: Mikaela Shiffrin has company 

The U.S. ski star was on pace to win her fourth straight World Cup season trophy before her father’s sudden passing in early February. She planned to return in March with an outside chance at keeping her title, but the remaining races of the season were canceled. Italy’s Federica Brignone took the trophy, with Shiffrin second.

While Shiffrin held a substantial lead in the World Cup before her hiatus, she wasn’t as unbeatable as she was in the 2018-19 season, when she won a staggering 17 times. That’s an impossible bar to clear, but Shiffrin’s rivals made up enough ground to make future World Cup season titles and the career win record seem less certain than they seemed a year ago.

In Shiffrin’s final slalom race, a discipline in which she has rarely lost in recent years, she placed third behind Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova and Sweden’s Anna Swenn Larsson. Ten days before that, she was second to Vlhova, whose progress impressed Shiffrin. That marked that first time since 2014 that she lost two straight slaloms in the same season. (She was second in the 2016-17 season finale and second again in the 2017-18 season opener, then won 12 of the next 13 slaloms.)

Shiffrin’s ability to get on the podium in any race, no matter the discipline, will make her the World Cup favorite for years to come. But the big prize won’t be as easy as she has made it seem in recent years, and at 66 career victories, she’ll need time to catch Lindsey Vonn‘s women’s record of 82 wins and Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record of 86.

CROSS-COUNTRY: Diggins, Bjornsen stay in world’s elite 

Jessie Diggins will forever be remembered for winning the 2018 Olympic team sprint with Kikkan Randall as NBC’s Chad Salmela screamed “HERE COMES DIGGINS,” but she also has a strong World Cup resume that she continues to build.

Diggins finished sixth in the season standings for the second straight year, a drop from her second-place finish in 2018 but still comfortably in the top 10. She was joined there by Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, who eighth-place season put her in the top 10 for the second time.

Bjornsen led the three-stage season opener in Ruka, Finland, after taking third in the sprint and finished fourth overall, one place ahead of Diggins, who took third in the pursuit. Diggins added four more podium finishes before the end of the season.

NORDIC COMBINED: Norway takes control 

Jarl Magnus Riiber won his second straight World Cup title at age 22, with fellow Norwegian Joergen Graabak taking a career-high second. Two more Norwegians were in the top six Jens Luraas Oftebro (fourth) and Espen Bjoernstad (sixth). 

In women’s Nordic combined, which is on track to become an Olympic event, U.S. athlete Tara Geraghty-Moats was a close second to Russia’s Stefaniya Nadymova.

READ: Geraghty-Moats has eyes on 2026

SKI JUMPING: U.S. women shut out 

A decade after leading the charge to get women’s ski jumping in the Olympics and eight years after teenager Sarah Hendrickson won the World Cup, the U.S. women went a whole season without an athlete picking up World Cup points. Hendrickson postponed her retirement but competed only on the Continental Cup this season.

U.S. women also won two of the first three ski jumping world championships Lindsey Van in 2009 and Hendrickson in 2013.

In men’s jumping, Austria’s Stefan Kraft edged out Germany’s Karl Geiger to reclaim the World Cup title he last held in 2017. Geiger’s previous career best was 10th in 2019. Japan’s Ryoyu Kobayashi, last year’s champion, took third.

FREESTYLE SKIING: Blunck keeps flying

U.S. halfpipe skier Aaron Blunck followed up his second straight world championship in 2019 with his first World Cup season title. Blunck won both events in the U.S. — December’s competition at Copper Mountain and February’s event at Mammoth Mountain. 

Colby Stevenson (slopestyle) and Alexander Hall (big air) were second in their events. Hall won twice, landing a switch left double 1800 to win in the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park. Stevenson also won at the X Games in Aspen.

In women’s competition, 18-year-old Marin Hamill was second in slopestyle, and Jaelin Kauf finished in the top three for the third straight year.

French skier Perrine Laffont had a dominant season in women’s moguls, winning all six regular moguls events and two of four dual moguls, to take her second straight World Cup title.

SNOWBOARDING: Corning wins in Atlanta and in World Cup

Atlanta’s SunTrust Park hosted a World Cup big air competition, with Chris Corning and Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi winning. Corning also won in Cardrona, New Zealand, and took his second big air season title to go along with slopestyle titles in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

Dusty Henricksen was third in World Cup slopestyle on the strength of a win at Mammoth Mountain, followed by fellow U.S. teen Justus Henkes.

U.S. women’s snowboarders Jamie Anderson and Julia Marino won the only World Cup slopestyle events each one entered. Anderson also won the X Games slopestyle.

Olympic and world halfpipe champion Chloe Kim sat out the season after breaking an ankle in March 2019 and enrolling at Princeton.

BIATHLON: Never count out Dunklee 

Susan Dunklee hasn’t had great success on the World Cup circuit since taking a world championship silver medal in 2017, when she finished a career-best 10th in the World Cup, but she once again took world championship silver in the sprint at Antholz.

Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Boe won the men’s World Cup title despite missing two weeks after the birth of his first child, edging Frenchman Martin Fourcade by two points to spoil the seven-time World Cup champion’s final season.

Boe won his second straight World Cup title, as did Italy’s Dorothea Weirer in the women’s competition.

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Simon Ammann ramps up for one more run at Olympic ski jumping

Simon Ammann
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Simon Ammann, the Swiss ski jumper who gained fame for his resemblance to Harry Potter in 2002 and went to win all four Olympic ski jumps on North American soil this century, has walked back talk of retirement and now says he wants to continue through the 2022 Olympics.

Ammann won the normal hill and large hill in Salt Lake City in 2002. European ski jumpers don’t necessarily get attention from U.S. talk shows, but the 20-year-old Ammann had two things that set him apart. First, his wins were tremendous upsets. Second, he looked like Harry Potter.

He wound up appearing on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” which makes him a wild-card connection in the Kevin Bacon game the peripatetic actor was the other guest on the show that night, and Ammann happily posed with Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick after the show.

Eight years later, Ammann duplicated the feat in Vancouver. This time, he left behind the Harry Potter glasses behind, though he made an enthusiastic walk through the mixed zone wearing comically oversized sunglasses that made him look like the Buggles’ Trevor Horn in the “Video Killed the Radio Star” video, the first music video on MTV.

In 2010, his victories weren’t quite as unexpected. He won the World Cup season title that year, sandwiched between two second-place finishes.

In 2002, on the other hand, he took off from the Olympic hill at Park City having never won a World Cup event. His two wins in the Olympics were his first two in any international competition in the FIS database.

Ammann has also had success in major competition in Asia. He took gold and silver in the 2007 world championships in Sapporo, Japan, the first two of his four career world championship medals. He also won a World Cup event in Sapporo in 2010.

In recent years, though, Ammann hasn’t been competitive on the World Cup circuit. He has been on the podium only once since 2015. Since taking his last major-event medal in 2011, his best result in the world championships was seventh place in 2013.

But he’s already shown he can, like Harry Potter, conjure a surprising performance.

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