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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Gregorio Paltrinieri swims second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history

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Olympic champion Gregorio Paltrinieri swam the second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history, clocking 14:33.10 in his native Italy on Thursday.

Paltrinieri, 25, missed Chinese Sun Yang‘s world record from the 2012 Olympics by 2.08 seconds.

The Italian now owns the second- and third-fastest times in history, including his 14:34.10 from the 2016 European Championships, also held at the 2012 Olympic pool in London.

Paltrinieri is a versatile distance swimmer. At last year’s world championships, he finished sixth in the open-water 10km to qualify for the Olympics, then won the 800m free in the pool in a European record time and finished with 1500m bronze, just missing a third straight world title in that event.

German Florian Wellbrock won the 1500m in 14:36.54 at worlds, with Paltrinieri finishing 2.21 seconds back.

Sun, 28, was in February banned eight years stemming from destroying a drug-test sample with a hammer in September 2018. Sun, who focused more on the 200m and 400m frees in recent years, did not race the 1500m at the 2017 or 2019 Worlds.

Top-level swim meets in the U.S. are scheduled to resume in November with the Tyr Pro Series.

MORE: Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15

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Bianca Andreescu to miss U.S. Open

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Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the U.S. Open, citing “unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic” compromising her ability to prepare to defend her Grand Slam title.

“I have taken this step in order to focus on my match fitness and ensure that I return ready to play at my highest level,” Andreescu, a 20-year-old Canadian, posted on social media. “The US Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. However, I realize that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

Andreescu’s absence means the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be without both 2019 male and female singles champions.

Rafael Nadal previously announced he would not defend his title, saying he would rather not travel given the global situation. Roger Federer is also out after knee surgery. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty didn’t enter, either, citing travel concerns.

Last year, Andreescu made her U.S. Open title run as the 15th seed, sweeping Serena Williams in the final. Ranked 208th a year earlier, she became the first player born in the 2000s to win a Slam and the first teen Slam winner since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Andreescu then missed the Australian Open in January due to rehab from a knee injury that forced her to retire during a match at the WTA Finals on Oct. 30. She also missed the French Open and Wimbledon in 2019 following a rotator cuff tear.

MORE: Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis competition

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