Laura Graves, U.S.’ top dressage rider, to miss Olympics

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Laura Graves, the U.S.’ top dressage rider and an Olympic medal contender, will miss the Tokyo Games after retiring her Rio Olympic bronze-medal horse Verdades.

“With the retirement of my longtime partner, Verdades (Diddy), it will no longer be possible for me to pursue a place on the team that will represent the United States in Tokyo,” Graves said in a statement via U.S. Equestrian. “This decision was not taken lightly, but was made in Verdades’ best interests.”

Graves, 32, announced earlier this week that “it became clear in recent weeks that [Verdades] was not going to be able to return to his usual top form in 2020.”

Verdades, an 18-year-old KWPN gelding, has been with Graves since he was 6 months old. Horses can live well into their 30s, and while there is no maximum age for a horse competing in the Olympics, 18 is generally considered senior, or close to it.

With Verdades, Graves helped the U.S. earn team bronze in Rio. its first dressage medal since 2004 and matching its best finish since the 1948 London Games. Graves also finished fourth individually, just missing the second-ever U.S. individual dressage medal.

Then in 2018, Graves and Verdades earned team and individual silver medals at the World Equestrian Games, essentially the world championships for the sport that take place every four years. Graves became the first U.S. dressage rider to move into the No. 1 spot in the world rankings.

“Diddy helped me reach goals and milestones that at times, I didn’t think were possible,” Graves said. “As I look back on all of our success, I continue to be moved by the support of the community, and the country, who invested in our journey throughout the years. Participating in the 2016 Rio Olympics is one of my fondest memories with Diddy, and I know the team is in good hands with the combinations who will represent our country this summer. We will be supporting and cheering them on every step of the way.”

Graves and Verdades dropped to seventh in the most recent world rankings. The next-highest U.S. rider is No. 11 Kasey Perry-Glass with Goerklintgaards Dublet.

Graves’ absence creates an opening for the three-rider U.S. Olympic team expected to be named in the spring. The current No. 3 American in the world rankings, excluding Graves, is Shelly Francis, a 61-year-old who could become the oldest U.S. Olympic competitor in any sport since 1904, excluding art competitions.

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MORE: Isabell Werth, Olympics’ greatest equestrian, faces Tokyo question: which horse to take?

U.S. women’s basketball team, statistically greatest ever, rolls to FIBA World Cup title

FIBA Women's World Cup
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The revamped U.S. women’s basketball team may have been the greatest of all time.

The Americans completed, statistically, their most dominant global championship ever by routing China 83-61 in the FIBA World Cup final on Saturday in Sydney — giving them 60 consecutive wins between the Olympics and worlds dating to 2006.

It marked the largest margin of victory in a World Cup final since the event converted from a fully round-robin format in 1983.

For the tournament, the U.S. drubbed its opponents by an average of 40.75 points per game, beating its previous record between the Olympics and worlds of 37.625 points from the 2008 Beijing Games. It was just off the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Dream Team’s legendary margin 43.8 points per game. This U.S. team scored 98.75 points per game, its largest at worlds since 1994.

“We came here on a mission, a business trip,” tournament MVP A’ja Wilson said in a post-game press conference before turning to coach Cheryl Reeve. “We played pretty good, I think, coach.”

Since the U.S. won a seventh consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired. Tina Charles ceded her national team spot to younger players. Brittney Griner was detained in Russia (and still is). Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury that ruled her out of World Cup participation (who knows if the 40-year-old Taurasi will play for the U.S. again).

Not only that, but Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, implementing a new uptempo system.

“There was probably great concern, and maybe around the world they kind of looked at it and said, ‘Hey, now is the time to get the USA,'” Reeve said Saturday.

The U.S. response was encapsulated by power forward Alyssa Thomas, the oldest player on the roster at age 30 who made the U.S. team for the first time in her career, started every game and was called the team’s glue and MVP going into the final.

Wilson and Tokyo Olympic MVP Breanna Stewart were the leaders. Guard Kelsey Plum, a Tokyo Olympic 3×3 player, blossomed this past WNBA season and was third in the league’s MVP voting. She averaged the most minutes on the team, scored 15.8 points per game and had 17 in the final.

“The depth of talent that we have was on display,” Reeve said. “What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in.”

For the first time since 1994, no player on the U.S. roster was over the age of 30, creating a scary thought for the 2024 Paris Olympics: the Americans could get even better.

“When you say best-ever, I’m always really cautious with that, because, obviously, there are great teams,” Reeve said when asked specifically about the team’s defense. “This group was really hard to play against.”

Earlier Saturday, 41-year-old Australian legend Lauren Jackson turned back the clock with a 30-point performance off the bench in her final game as an Opal, a 95-65 victory over Canada for the bronze. Jackson, who came out of a six-year retirement and played her first major tournament since the 2012 Olympics, had her best scoring performance since the 2008 Olympics.

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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