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U.S. sweeps beach volleyball events at World Beach Games

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Siblings Karissa Cook and Brian Cook led their teams to gold medals at the four-player beach volleyball competitions Wednesday at the World Beach Games in Qatar.

Each team avenged a loss in pool play. The women lost to Brazil in straight sets but took a convincing 21-16, 21-9 win in the final. The men lost to host Qatar, one of its two losses in pool play, before charging back to win the rest of its matches in straight sets, including a 21-18, 26-24 win in the final.

Karissa Cook, who played as a setter for Stanford’s indoor volleyball team and played for Hawaii’s beach volleyball team as a graduate student, had five kills and five blocks in the women’s final. Former Hawaii indoor player Emily Hartong also accounted for 10 points with six kills and four blocks. Geena Urango, who played indoors and on the beach at Southern Cal, had eight kills.

Cook, Hartong and teammates Allie Wheeler and Katie Spieler played together to win a snow volleyball competition in Moscow over the winter.

Brian Cook, who also played at Stanford and has played for the U.S. indoor team, led the U.S. men with nine kills and six blocks in the final. Taylor Crabb, who played at Long Beach State and recently won the AVP Hawaii Open with Jake Gibb, had 11 kills and a block.

Elsewhere on the last day of the World Beach Games, the U.S. women’s 3×3 basketball team shot just 34% from the field in a 14-12 loss to Brazil.

The U.S. finished the inaugural edition of the World Beach Games with four gold medals and four bronze.  Spain had the most gold medals with seven; Brazil had the most medals with 12.

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Athletes warily embrace progress as USA Gymnastics evolves

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The dread was familiar. The fear too. They gripped MyKayla Skinner shortly after she decided to return to elite gymnastics last summer.

Skinner wasn’t worried about recapturing the skills that made her an alternate on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. A standout college career at Utah not only rekindled her love of the sport but served as a form of self care, the hyper intense pressure of performing for former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi replaced by the sense of joyousness she felt competing for the Utes.

That feeling of safety vanished as Skinner prepared for her first national team camp since deciding she would make a run at the 2020 Olympics.

She’d watched her friends and former teammates come forward to admit in open court they’d been abused by former national team doctor Larry Nassar, now serving what amounts to a life sentence for sexually assaulting gymnasts with his hands and possessing child pornography.

She kept an eye on USA Gymnastics as it stepped on one land mine after another in the aftermath as the lawsuits piled up and its role as the sport’s national governing body became tenuous at best. And while the organization believes it has taken positive steps to emerge from the rubble, Skinner wondered what was real and what wasn’t. She texted friend and reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles in hopes of finding clarity, worried about a bait and switch.

“I was like, ’I’m so scared to come to camp. Like, how is it with all the changes, new coaches and everything?″ Skinner said.

Biles, a Nassar survivor who has embraced her role as the the sport’s most influential voice since rocketing to stardom following her golden run at the 2016 Games, assured Skinner the vibe had shifted.

Sitting in a small conference room this week while preparing for the first national team camp of 2020, the Olympics just seven months away, the 23-year-old recently married Skinner admitted she’s still adjusting to the “new” USA Gymnastics.

“It’s just so weird coming into the gym and not feeling like, you know, ‘I’m going to die,’” she said. “Before it was like, ‘I’ve got to hit that routine or I’m going to get yelled at.’ So it’s just been really nice to kind of relax a little bit and be able to really focus on gymnastics and get to enjoy it more.”

There is a sense of lightness during practices that was hard to come by during Karolyi’s hugely successful but strident tenure.

The athletes no longer end each workout by lining up in order of height and offering a robotic, monotone “thank you” to the staff.

Upbeat music plays as they stretch. They talk openly and animatedly while waiting for their turn at each event, a decided departure from the near silence that was commonplace — and perhaps symbolic — of Karolyi’s authoritarian leadership style.

It’s one of the reasons Biles is “optimistic” about USA Gymnastics’ future. When asked why, her words sounded conciliatory even as her tone suggested she has no plans to stop calling out the powers that be when the moment requires.

“I feel like they’re working towards the right direction,” Biles said. “But there are still a lot of unanswered questions that a lot of us as survivors and as the community around us need. But for the most part, in the gym and what we do as a team, that’s going good.”

That wasn’t always the case under Karolyi. At turns brilliant and brutal, Karolyi’s near total control over the women’s elite program turned it into a powerhouse even as it left its athletes at times feeling powerless, the most decorated gymnast in the history of the sport included.

“With Martha you really feared (her) because she held your whole career in her hand,” Biles said. “And now I feel like you’re a little bit more forgiven because it’s such a hard sport and mistakes will be made but it’s how you rise from them and to learn to not do it again.”

A lesson USA Gymnastics itself is attempting to learn itself as it tries to recover from the largest sexual abuse scandal in sports history. The changes it has instituted since the summer of 2017 are both obvious and subtle.

It moved training centers twice, from the Karolyi Ranch in Texas — a decision reached only after Biles expressed outrage about possibly returning to a place she associated with Nassar’s behavior — to Evo Athletics in Bradenton, Florida, to The Gymnastics Company in suburban Indianapolis.

The rustic cabins at the remote ranch tucked into the Sam Houston National Forest have been replaced by hotel rooms near an interstate, a Starbucks and fast food restaurants. Coaches and athletes are prohibited from being alone together during trips to and from national team camps, forcing some to ride share or carpool upon arrival.

Perhaps most telling, the training tables inside The Gymnastics Company are situated right in the middle of the massive steel-structure, not tucked away in a corner.

“We didn’t want to create a back room,” high performance team coordinator Tom Forster said.

Those days are over.

During practice on Monday evening, Annie Heffernan, vice president of the women’s program, sat at a table with Kim Kranz, the organization’s first-ever vice president of athlete health and wellness.

President Li Li Leung, a former collegiate gymnast who came over from the NBA last spring, quietly walked among them, making small talk as she went. Forster — as approachable as Karolyi was aloof — gave the coaches a brief talk and then offered more smiles in 15 minutes than Karolyi did in a given year.

While gymnasts are still rewarded during camps for their performance, national team staff members now have the ability to honor an athlete for things that have nothing to do with chasing perfection.

“It could be an attitude, it could be sportsmanship,” Forster said. “It could be that they came back after that fall and did great. It’s not based on ‘this one’s the best, we have to acknowledge her.’”

The organization has stressed the need for open communication. The members of the 2019 World Championship team were asked to fill out a survey after the competition and share their thoughts on what worked and what didn’t. The same is done after team camps.

“They can complain about anything and anyone that they want to,” Forster said. “They can make it anonymous if they choose or they can say, ‘Hey I want feedback, or ’This is me, and I want to hear from you.’ They can do whatever they wish.”

Measuring any progress is tricky. The organization that long served as the gold standard for the U.S. Olympic movement has lost the benefit of the doubt. Even as it tries to prove how it has evolved over the last three years, the reality is things remain complicated.

Two coaches currently under investigation by U.S. SafeSport attended the camp with their athletes this week. Mediators are still trying to work through the bankruptcy petition USA Gymnastics filed in 2018 as a last-ditch effort to avoid decertification by the USOPC. Nassar survivors continue to call for the organization’s dissolution. Money is tight as sponsors wait for the legal process to play out. When the organization started placing equipment inside The Gymnastics Company, it had staffers do most of the lifting rather than hire professional movers.

All of which leaves the young women vying for an Olympic spot in an awkward position.

Most of the gymnasts in the senior elite program have no connection to Karolyi or Nassar, who was dismissed in the summer of 2015. Yet they find themselves serving as a beta test of sorts on whether the culture shift the organization is trying to bring about is actually happening.

Each of the 15 gymnasts interviewed by The Associated Press this week said they feel they have the freedom to express themselves without fear of retribution. Each believe their mental and physical health and safety is considered important. All of them, however, talked with a coach or a member of the USA Gymnastics staff within earshot.

It’s a lot for group of teenagers and 20-somethings to carry around. Yet it doesn’t appear overwhelming. When Grace McCallum inadvertently sailed off the uneven bars during training on Tuesday morning, her group broke out into laughter — McCallum included — as the three-time world championship medalist picked herself up off the mat.

Yet it was just one moment during one practice that happened to be conducted in front of reporters, photographers and video crews. Whether any of this new approach actually sticks will depend on what happens when the cameras aren’t around.

Much like the sport itself, the process will take dedication, discipline and the ability to address mistakes honestly. Two-time Olympic medalist Laurie Hernandez, however, is hopeful it can be done. She went nearly 3 1/2 years between national team camps after winning gold and silver in Rio. The difference between then and now is jarring. In the best way.

“Now we can truly enjoy each other’s company while just relaxing and enjoying our gymnastics,” Hernandez said. “That says a lot about the environment that’s being created for us. … it’s going to take a second. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not like we’re going to forget what happened before. But it’s getting there.”

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MORE: Investigators at home of Olympic gymnastics coach tied to Larry Nassar

Jason Brown reflects on nationals experience with 2022 Olympics still in play

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – For Jason Brown, coming to a national championships in Greensboro for the third time in 10 seasons meant opening a time capsule of fond memories and recalling how different his ambitions have been at each.

In 2011, Brown was 16, making his senior debut, second youngest in a field of 22. He delivered a breakthrough free skate, bringing the crowd to its feet, moving from 11th after the short program to seventh overall, leading his coach at the time, Kori Ade, to proclaim, with seeming hubris, that Brown’s goal would be to make the 2014 Olympic team.

Which, in fact, he did.

His goals going into the 2011 nationals free skate had been more modest than to begin establishing himself as an Olympic team contender. Brown simply wanted to make the 2011 U.S. team for the Junior World Championships, which he did, and get on TV, which he didn’t, much to his bemusement.

“I told all my friends I was going to be on TV because I was in one of the final two groups. But they showed just nine of the 12, and I was one of the other three,” he recalled, with a laugh, just before boarding a Thursday flight in Toronto on his way to North Carolina.

Four years later, after his 2014 Riverdance free skate had become a viral sensation and he had won an Olympic bronze in the team event, Brown returned to Greensboro aiming for the U.S. title. That changed mindset told him how far he had come.

And he won what remains his only national title, as his artistry, elegant blade flow and striking spins no longer were enough in an era when his lack of success with quadruple jumps became an insurmountable and ever-growing disadvantage against rivals landing multiple quads.

Brown’s best total score since the judging system’s calculations dramatically changed before last season is more than 70 points behind that of three-time defending U.S. champion Nathan Chen.

“I don’t look at that in any negative way,” Brown said. “Nathan is killing it, and he is so dominant I am in awe of him and respect him so much.”

The jumping side of the sport has gotten away from Brown, 25, and, with it, his chances to win again. His view of that situation is grounded in realism and, he insists, free of frustration.

Brown understands that even if Chen is out there in another galaxy, there is still a chance for him to be the best Jason Brown possible, which is a fine skater.

“It’s a competition, and you want to be atop the podium, but it’s not a disappointment when that doesn’t happen,” he said. “I’m aware I can’t push the sport in the direction they (the quadmeisters) are pushing it, so I have to push in the way I am capable of.

“My goal is just to be in the top three, to get back to worlds and help the team maintain its three spots. For me, this competition is not about being national champion as much as it is being a gateway to other events.”

The primary other event on his mind, what he calls his “biggest goal, hands down,” is the 2022 Olympics. It is why, after failing to make the 2018 Olympic team, Brown left longtime coach Ade and Colorado and moved to Canada to work with Team Orser, notably his primary coach, Tracy Wilson, on a four-year project to get him back to the Winter Games.

Both Wilson and Brian Orser have worked on changing so much of Brown’s jump technique – getting into rotation sooner, having more efficient arm positions – and even basic skating skills that his first two seasons training with them have been marked by consistent inconsistency.

“I’ve gone through a lot of change the last 18 months and with change and uncertainty comes a lack of confidence,” Brown said.

“Last season, we put the changes on pause midway through, and I kind of got my bearings. This year, they are not holding back in the amount of change being thrown at me.”

He managed to get third at last year’s nationals and go to worlds, where Brown was ninth. Chen won, and teammate Vincent Zhou took the bronze.

Wilson said the extra load this season is part of the long-term plan.

“We see what he is capable of. We know what he wants to achieve,” Wilson said. “It’s not going to come to you in your comfort zone.

“Under pressure, he has reverted to old habits. What we are looking for now is to have him keep the new technique under pressure.”

Leading up to these nationals, where the men skate the short program Saturday and the long Sunday, this season has been more of a struggle for Brown than last season.

A big piece of it undoubtedly was related to the concussion he sustained in a late August car accident in Colorado. Wilson said Brown’s training was limited for six weeks.

He withdrew from his first planned competition, Nebelhorn Trophy in late September. He was unable to do full program run-throughs until two weeks before Skate America in late October.

“After he did something in training, instead of telling him, ‘That’s good, do it again,’ we were saying, ‘Okay, how are you feeling?’” Wilson said. “That wears on you after a while.

“I feel he’s really ready for this competition. I’m curious to see how he does.”

After finishing second to Chen at Skate America, Brown was fifth at the NHK Trophy, falling twice in each program. He went on to win the Golden Spin of Zagreb for the second straight year but his skating there a month ago was so relatively desultory that his score was 21 points lower than in 2018.

“I’m trying to be patient and trying to see it as objectively as I can,” he said. “But when you’re in it, you’re wondering, `What’s happening to me? Why aren’t I as consistent? What’s going on? Why can’t I perform the way I used to?’

“I’m not the kind of skater who will get super, super (mentally) defeated. I’m always able to take a step back, regroup, refocus and move forward.

“I’ve had these glimpses as the year goes on of what could be, of how bright and shiny the future can be. That has carried me to be so positive and continuing to trust (his coaches’) judgment.”

The dark cloud on the horizon remains, as always, the quad issue.

According to skatingscores.com, Brown has attempted 16 quads in international competition and one at the U.S. Championships, including 15 toe loops and two salchows. They have resulted in eight falls, seven downgrades and seven under rotations. Three have received full rotational credit, but none of the 17 has been landed cleanly.

Brown laughed when I brought up the subject by saying, “This wouldn’t be a conversation between Phil and Jason if I didn’t ask about the quad.”

“Of course,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a conversation with anyone without it coming up.”

Brown intends to try a quad toe loop in the free skate as he did last year, when it was downgraded.

This year, at least, Brown won’t need to live through the four-day costume drama of a year ago, when he discovered while packing for nationals in Detroit that his competition costumes had been left behind in Zagreb.

He was prepared to do the short program in black pants and plain black turtleneck, but his parents worked logistical miracles to get the costumes to the arena just before he skated.

“I couldn’t put my mother through that again,” Brown said. “The costumes are in my suitcase.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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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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