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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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Brooke Raboutou is first U.S. Olympic sport climbing qualifier

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Brooke Raboutou, 18, became the first American to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in sport climbing by reaching Tuesday’s combined final at the world championships in Hachioji, Japan, USA Climbing confirmed.

She qualified ninth into that final.

Raboutou, the daughter of two world-class climbers who has competed since age 7, became the seventh American across all sports to qualify for the 2020 Olympics after three open-water swimmers, two modern pentathletes and a triathlete.

Olympic sport climbing will feature one set of medals per gender, the event combining three disciplines: lead, speed and bouldering.

From Tokyo 2020: Speed climbing pits two climbers against each other, both climbing a fixed route on a 15-meter wall at a 95-degree angle. Winning times are generally between five and eight seconds. In bouldering, climbers scale a number of fixed routes on a four-meter wall in a specified time without safety ropes. In lead climbing, athletes attempt to climb as high as possible on a wall measuring over 15 meters in height within a fixed time with safety ropes.

A nation can qualify up to two athletes per gender into Olympic sport climbing.

The sport debuted at the Youth Olympics in 2018 in Buenos Aires, but no Americans were entered.

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Danielle Williams cemented as world No. 1 hurdler in Birmingham

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The 100m hurdles has been one of the U.S.’ deepest events the last several years, but Jamaican Danielle Williams looks like the favorite at the world championships in early October.

Williams, who owns the world’s fastest time this year, easily beat world-record holder Kendra Harrison and Olympic champion Brianna McNeal at a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain, on Sunday.

Williams crossed in 12.46 seconds despite hitting her knee on one hurdle, but still two tenths clear of Harrison, whose world record is 12.20. It marked Harrison’s first loss in nine meets this year and the first time a non-American has ever beaten her at a Diamond League stop.

It looked like Williams wouldn’t make it to worlds in Doha when she false started out of the Jamaican Championships. But the final was soon after strangely canceled, and Jamaican media reported last week that Williams, the 2015 World champion who failed to make the Rio Olympics, is eligible to be chosen next month by the federation.

The U.S. had at least the two fastest women in the world each of the previous six years. Then Williams re-emerged with a Jamaican record 12.32 on July 20.

The meet airs Monday on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA at 4 p.m. ET and NBCSN at 7 p.m. ET. The Diamond League moves to Paris on Saturday.

In other events Sunday, Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo overtook Brit Dina Asher-Smith and Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in the 200m in 22.24. Miller-Uibo extended her unbeaten streak to two years across all distances.

It appears Miller-Uibo will not be racing the 200m at worlds, given it overlaps with the 400m. She ranks third in the world this year at the shorter distance, trailing Jamaican Olympic champion Elaine Thompson, who clocked 22.00 on June 23 but was not in Sunday’s field. Miller-Uibo has ranked No. 1 at 400m four straight years.

Yohan Blake won the 100m in 10.07 seconds, holding off Brit Adam Gemili, who had the same time with a 2 meter/second tailwind. Blake, the second-fastest man in history with a personal best of 9.69, hasn’t been the same since suffering a series of leg injuries starting in 2013.

Sunday’s field lacked the world championships favorites — Americans Christian Coleman and Justin Gatlin, who clocked 9.81 and 9.87 on June 30.

Surprise U.S. champion Teahna Daniels placed third in her Diamond League 100m debut, clocking 11.24 seconds. The field lacked world championships favorites Thompson and Fraser-Pryce, who each ran 10.73 at the Jamaican Championships on June 21.

American record holder Ajeé Wilson won an 800m that lacked all three Rio Olympic medalists, who are barred from racing the event due to the IAAF’s new testosterone cap in middle distances. Wilson’s time, 2:00.76, was far off her 2019 world-leading time of 1:57.72 among eligible women.

Olympic and world heptathlon champion Nafi Thiam broke the Belgian long jump record twice, winning with a 6.86-meter leap. That ranks ninth in the world this year. The field lacked the last two Olympic champions, Americans Tianna Bartoletta and Brittney Reese.

A meeting of the last two Olympic pole vault champs went to Rio gold medalist Katerina Stefanidi of Greece, who cleared 4.75 meters in swirling wind. London 2012 champ Jenn Suhr was third but remains No. 1 in the world this year with a 4.91-meter clearance from March 30.

Croatian Sandra Perkovic, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic discus champion, lost her third straight Diamond League meet to start the season as she returns from injury. Perkovic, who placed third behind winner Cuban Yaimé Pérez, had not lost in back-to-back meets since returning from a six-month doping ban in 2011, according to Tilastopaja.org.

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