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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Mexico snatches Olympic baseball spot from U.S., which must now wait

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The U.S. was three outs from clinching a spot in the first Olympic baseball tournament in 12 years. Instead, Mexico will play for an Olympic baseball medal for the first time, forcing the Americans to wait until March.

The Mexicans scored once in the ninth inning and walked off in the 10th, taking a winner-goes-to-the-Olympics game 3-2 at the Premier12 at the Tokyo Dome on Sunday.

Mexico joined Japan, Israel and South Korea in the six-team 2020 Olympic baseball tournament. Baseball returns to the Games in July for the first time since it was voted off the Olympic program following the 2008 Beijing Games. Baseball will not be on the Paris 2024 program but could return again for Los Angeles 2028.

Mexico, managed by former MLB infielder Juan Castro, rallied to deny what would have been an improbable U.S. run to the lone Olympic berth available for teams from the Americas at Premier12.

The U.S. needed four straight game results to go its way to remain in Olympic qualifying contention. From Wednesday through Saturday, the U.S. beat Chinese Taipei, Japan and South Korea beat Mexico and Chinese Taipei beat Australia.

On Sunday, the Americans were up 2-1 in the ninth inning. They were in prime position to qualify for the Olympics for the fifth time in six tries since it was added as a medal event in 1992.

Then Mexican designated hitter Matt Clark, who played for the U.S. at the 2011 Pan American Games and for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2014, smacked a home run to lead off the bottom of the ninth. In extra innings, runners are placed on first and second to start each half-inning. Efren Navarro ended the game in the 10th on a walk-off single.

While Mexico celebrates its first Olympic baseball berth, the U.S. focus shifts to an Americas qualifier in March in Arizona (and, if necessary, a final, global qualifying event in Chinese Taipei).

The roster at Premier12 included many double-A and triple-A prospects, but it remains to be seen how MLB clubs will go about releasing minor leaguers for a tournament that will take place during spring training.

“That’ll be a delicate dance,” U.S. general manager Eric Campbell said before Premier12.

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Alexandra Trusova qualifies for Grand Prix Final after win at Rostelecom Cup

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Alexandra Trusova, the Russian 15-year-old, won Rostelecom Cup in Moscow on Saturday to earn a spot in December’s prestigious six-skater Grand Prix Final. And notably, Russia swept all four disciplines on home ice.

Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, also of Russia, earned the silver. Meanwhile, American Mariah Bell won the third Grand Prix medal of her career, a bronze.

Trusova fell on her opening quadruple Salchow attempt, but landed a quad Lutz and a quad toe, triple toe combination to follow. She also landed a quad toe, Euler, triple Salchow combination but fell on the next jumping combination, a triple Lutz, triple loop attempt.

Despite two falls, Trusova’s free skate earned 160.26 points, giving her enough to leapfrog Medvedeva for the title at 234.47 points. Trusova is into the Grand Prix Final by virtue of her wins in Moscow and at Skate Canada.

“I made some mistakes in short and free program and I’ll continue to work to skate two clean programs next time,” Trusova said via the International Skating Union (ISU). “I would like to compete with the men, because they can do a quad in the short program and we are not allowed to. Also, it would be interesting to compete with skaters that do many quads in the programs,” she added.

Medvedeva skated a clean program to the “Memoirs of a Geisha” soundtrack, including seven triples and two double Axels. The 19-year-old Russian laid her head on coach Brian Orser‘s shoulder and said “I’m tired” with a chuckle as she waited in the Kiss and Cry for her scores to be announced: 148.83 in the free skate for 225.76 total points.

“It is in my plans to learn a quad, I am working on the quad Salchow, but at the same time I need to make sure I stay healthy,” Medvedeva said through the ISU. “I’ll do everything I can for it and I hope to put it out there as soon as possible.”

Bell’s bronze is the third Grand Prix series medal of the her career, and second this season after another bronze at Grand Prix France. She skated without any major errors to K.D. Lang’s “Hallelujah.”

Earlier Saturday in the men’s event, Alexander Samarin, Dmitri Aliev, and Makar Ignatov completed a podium sweep for Russia. The last time three Russian men swept the podium at Rostelecom Cup was 1998, when Alexei Urmanov, Yevgeni Plushenko, and Alexander Abt completed the feat.

Samarin opened his free skate on Saturday with a quad Lutz, triple toe combination and only erred on his triple flip, which was called with an unclear edge. He earned 171.64 points in his free skate for a total score of 264.45 points.

Aliev, though, attempted two quad toes (one in combination) and earned positive Grades of Execution on both. His only major error came from an invalid triple Lutz as part of a jumping sequence in the second half of the program, which scored 169.42 points. He tallied 259.88 total points.

Both Samarin (silver at Grand Prix France) and Aliev (bronze at Skate America) have won medals this season during the Grand Prix series. Entries to December’s Grand Prix Final will be determined after the conclusion of NHK Trophy in Japan next weekend.

Ignatov’s free skate included a quad Salchow and a quad toe, both called clean. He scored 252.87 total points to edge Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno from Japan for the bronze by 0.63 points.

The lone U.S. men’s entry, Alex Krasnozhon, finished 10th.

The standings in ice dance did not change between the rhythm dance and the free dance. Russia’s Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov held on to their gold medal position and scored 126.06 points in the free dance for 212.15 total points. As last weekend’s winners at Cup of China, they solidified a berth to the Grand Prix Final.

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada finished in second with a free dance score of 125.08 points for 207.64 points. They were surprise winners of Skate Canada, but have not definitively qualified for the Final. Spain’s Sara Hurtado and Kirill Khaliavin finished third with 185.01 total points. The U.S. did not have an ice dance entry.

Also Saturday, Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy of Russia won the pairs event after scoring 149.34 in the free skate to tally 229.48 points overall. Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (two-time European champions and three-time World medalists) captured the silver medals with 216.77 total points. Russia sat in first, second, and third after the short program, but the third Russian pair in the field, Ksenia Stolbova and Andrei Novoselov, fell from third to fifth overall.

Germany’s Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nolan Seegert took the bronze with 186.16 total points, rising from sixth place after the short.

The last time one nation swept all four disciplines at a Grand Prix was Russia at this competition in 2005.

Rostelecom Cup Results
Women
1. Alexandra Trusova (RUS) — 234.47
2. Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 225.76
3. Mariah Bell (USA) — 205.67
4. Satoko Miyahara (JPN) — 192.42
5. Ekaterina Ryabova (AZE) — 187.77
6. Yuhana Yokoi (JPN) — 182.68
7. Alexia Pagani (SUI) — 179.69
8. Chen Hongyi (CHN) — 175.77
9. Nicole Schott (GER) — 172.08
10. Yuna Shiraiwa (JPN) — 170.03
11. Stanislava Konstantinova (RUS) — 156.94
12. Emmi Peltonen (FIN) — 152.50

Men
1. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 264.45
2. Dmitri Aliev (RUS) — 259.88
3. Makar Ignatov (RUS) — 252.87
4. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 252.24
5. Nam Nguyen (CAN) — 246.20
6. Deniss Vasiljevs (LAT) — 241.09
7. Morisi Kvitelashvili (GEO) — 237.59
8. Kazuki Tomono (JPN) — 237.54
9. Michal Brezina (CZE) — 236.47
10. Alex Krasnozhon (USA) — 216.28
11. Vladimir Litvintsev (AZE) — 209.07
WD. Daniel Samohin (ISR) — 56.94 (Short program only)

Pairs
1. Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 229.48
2. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 216.77
3. Minerva Fabienne Hase/Nolan Seegert (GER) — 186.16
4. Miriam Ziegler/Severin Kiefer (AUT) — 182.02
5. Ksenia Stolbova/Andrei Novoselov (RUS) — 177.51
6. Evelyn Walsh/Trennt Michaud (CAN) — 168.96
7. Rebecca Ghilardi/Filippo Ambrosini (ITA) — 162.76
8. Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov (USA) — 153.61

Ice Dance
1. Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS) — 212.15

2. Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN) — 207.64
3. Sara Hurtado/Kirill Khaliavin (ESP) — 185.01
4. Natalia Kaliszek/Maksym Spodyriev (POL) — 178.70
5. Allison Reed/Saulius Ambrulevicius (LTU) — 175.43
6. Anastasia Shpilevaya/Grigory Smirnov (RUS) — 172.93
7. Marjorie Lajoie/Zachary Lagha (CAN) — 169.90
8. Adelina Galyavieva/Louis Thauron (FRA) — 164.79
9. Anastasia Skoptcova/Kirill Aleshin (RUS) — 164.64
10. Jasmine Tessari/Francesco Fioretti (ITA) — 154.44

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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