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Beachvolley Vikings, sport’s top team, inspired by Kerri Walsh Jennings

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HAMBURG, Germany — Kerri Walsh Jennings smiled at the decade-old picture of her posing with a young Anders Mol.

Since Walsh Jennings met Mol, the now-22-year-old and his 23-year-old Norwegian partner Christian Sorum have become the top-ranked team in the world.

“Those boys inspire me a lot,” she said. “That’s how I want Brooke [Sweat] and I to play, really.”

Walsh Jennings met Mol in his native country at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Stavanger. Mol attended with his father, Kare, who was coaching the Norwegian teams, as well as his brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias Berntsen.

Walsh Jennings noticed the young Norwegians, who are now nicknamed the “Beachvolley Vikings,” eagerly doing the pepper drill on the sand between matches from 6 a.m. until well after dark.   

“She walked by and told us, ‘Hey, you guys are so good that if you guys keep practicing, you’re going to be playing on this stage one day,’” Mol recalled.

Mol’s passion for the sport only increased as he hit puberty.

As a teenager, he derailed his family’s vacation plans in San Diego by making them battle traffic up to Los Angeles to hear Walsh Jennings give a speech.

Childhood photo of Mol and Walsh Jennings. Courtesy of Anders Mol.

At 13 or 14, Mol and his brother beat their parents for the first time. Impressive, considering Mol’s father was a former national indoor team player and his mother, Merita Mol (née Berntsen), competed in beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics.

At 16, he enrolled in ToppVolley Norway, a beach and indoor volleyball school that is a two-hour boat ride north from Stavanger. For three years, the boys would attend classes, lift weights and train for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Free time often meant pick-up soccer matches, which occasionally proves useful on the sand.

“It doesn’t look like Hogwarts,” Mol said, “but it sounds like Hogwarts because everybody is like a big family in this school.”

When Mol graduated, he played a year of professional indoor volleyball in Belgium. But he quickly realized that he preferred the freedom of beach volleyball, where players book their own travel, hire their own coaches and schedule their own practices.

In 2017, Mol was named the international tour’s top rookie. By the end of the 2018 season, Mol and Sorum had firmly established themselves as the world’s top team, winning their final three international tournaments including the FIVB World Tour Finals.

They have not slowed down in 2019, winning three tournaments on three different continents over three weeks in May. They have won 36 of their last 38 matches.

“The best blocker right now is Anders, and the best defender is Christian,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb. “It’s not really fair.”

The only two teams who have defeated the Norwegians since April 28 — Germany’s Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler and Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt/Evandro Goncalves — did not offer any clues on how to do it.

Wickler admitted that “in no other stadium would we have won this game” after the Hamburg world championships semifinal played July 6 in front of more than 12,000 hometown fans, the largest crowd either team had ever experienced. Mol and Sorum rebounded to claim the bronze medal the next day over Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Bruno rebuffed multiple teams who approached him looking for the secret to beating Norway.

“I’ve never seen a player like Anders who is so powerful and so skilled at the same time,” said Bruno, the 2016 Olympic champion with former partner Alison. “Players like that raise the level of this sport.”

Much of their success can be attributed to their defensive scheme. Most teams play a “zone defense,” with each player defending half of the court. The Norwegians play a “read defense” that gives each player the freedom to react and move to where they think the attacking player will hit the ball.

NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong compared the Norwegians to “free safeties” in football.

“They are the most innovative defensive team we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

The pair is relatively unknown outside Norway — neither has a Wikipedia page in English — and even in Norway they claim they are nowhere near as famous as the Alpine skiers nicknamed the “Attacking Vikings.”

But that will change.

At worlds, the pair hired a videographer to capture content for their YouTube and Instagram channels. They launched a Beachvolley Vikings clothing line that includes a “Sleeping Christian” shirt. They patiently fulfilled each and every request for pictures and autographs after matches.

“They are like rock stars,” said American Taylor Crabb, talking extra loud to be heard over a crowd of teenage girls hoping to take a selfie with the tall, blonde Norwegians. “Fans can relate to them because they see guys around their age becoming the No. 1 team the world.”

It is not just fans who are lining up to see the Norwegians.

“I love to watch them play,” said 2016 Brazilian Olympian Pedro Solberg, who made his international debut when Mol was just 8. “Every chance I get to watch them I do, because I learn a lot from them.”

Whether Mol and Sorum struggle with anything is up for debate. When asked, Kare boasted about beating them at the card game “President and the bum.”

“They are really smart in beach volleyball,” he said, “but they are really stupid in card playing.”

But both players disputed their coach’s claim.

“It’s not true at all,” Sorum said. “He loses even when he has the best cards.”

The Beachvolley Vikings are just getting started. 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser pointed out that beach volleyball players typically do not peak until their late 20s or early 30s.

“In my book, they are already among the top teams to ever play,” he said. “There are no holes in their game. I don’t see why they can’t keep this going.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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TIMELINE: Russia’s recent history of sports doping