Sabrina Ionescu
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Sabrina Ionescu? Maya Moore? U.S. women’s basketball team faces Olympic roster unknowns

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When the coronavirus halted sports two months ago, the U.S. women’s basketball program was three-fifths of the way through Olympic selection season. The 12-player roster was due to be named by early June.

“It wasn’t like we were all of a sudden putting names on the board that said, OK, these people have made the team, and now we’re looking at these two or three remaining positions,” said U.S. national team director Carol Callan, chair of the selection committee. “We didn’t have to do that [as early as March], so we didn’t do that.”

Callan calls the selection process “a long-running movie.” Sure, a player’s most recent performances can be the climax, but the plot can date back years, to the college stage and past Olympics.

“Now we’re all sitting back going, OK, are we going to have a 2020 WNBA season to be able to watch players?” Callan said. “If not, then what? How will we put together some training next year? There’s so much unknown and uncertain right now, we’re all trying to figure it out together.”

Callan discussed a range of pertinent topics in a phone interview this week.

Perhaps the most talked-about player over the last year has been Sabrina Ionescu, the Oregon guard who was taken No. 1 in last month’s WNBA Draft by the New York Liberty. Ionescu is a unique case for the Olympics.

She appeared a prime prospect for the first Olympic 3×3 team, had the Games been held this summer. She played that half-court event at the Pan American Games in August, when she reportedly said that she would pick 3×3 over the traditional five-on-five format if she had to choose one or the other.

But now, Ionescu goes into the Olympic year as a professional and, perhaps, a more enticing asset to Dawn Staley‘s 12-player roster.

Callan, who is also on the 3×3 selection committee, said that a conversation is merited with any player who has an opportunity to play on either Olympic team. She noted that anybody on the Olympic 3×3 team would be guaranteed significant playing time since the roster is four players, with a substitution planned at every dead ball. Given the schedule, it’s not feasible for somebody to play both 3×3 and five-on-five at the Olympics.

“I have no idea what a player would think through that process because most players are pretty confident in their abilities, but if you thought you were going to be a role player for a five-on-five team, but you had a chance to be on 3×3, you might choose that,” Callan said.

Ionescu was unavailable for an interview.

Callan said she hasn’t heard about 2021 availability from Maya Moore, a 2012 and 2016 Olympian who hasn’t played professionally since 2018 to focus on criminal justice reform. Moore spent time on the case of friend Jonathan Irons, whose 50-year prison sentence for burglary and assault was overturned in March. Later in March, an appeal was filed to reverse that ruling.

It’s too early to project Moore’s 2021 plans, her agent said this week. Callan said she had positive conversations with Moore when she first decided to take a year off in 2019, then again in February after she decided she would not play in 2020.

“We’d be happy to hear from her one way or the other,” Callan said. “But I do think, if you want to be an Olympian, you have to play basketball at some point leading up to it. You can’t just say, OK, next year, March, I’m ready to play again. That’s tough. Not just tough to make a team, but it’s just tough to be a basketball player.

“So, playing basketball is huge. However, if she can do all of that, we’re open to our best players wanting to play on our Olympic team, and we would certainly welcome her back into our national team pool and then go from there.”

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are two national team stalwarts bidding to become the oldest U.S. Olympic basketball players in history. Four years ago, both players said that Rio would likely be their last Olympics, but Callan, who has overseen the program since before the 1996 Olympics, never ruled them out.

“When we landed back at the airport after the Rio Olympics, I purposely didn’t want to ask them anything about it being the last Olympics,” Callan said, “but made just the quick comment, ‘I’ll give you a little bit of time, and then I’m going to call you.’ They both didn’t say, ‘No, don’t call.’ Right then and there — I don’t want to act like I was a prophet, but I felt like there was definitely an opening to it. … Until they can’t walk anymore, they’re going to play.”

Bird and Taurasi publicly announced Tokyo Olympic ambitions after Dawn Staley was named Geno Auriemma‘s successor in 2017.

Bird, Taurasi and other top U.S. players often spend WNBA offseasons playing for more lucrative contracts overseas. This break, even if just a few months, is unusual.

“You never want silver linings to an awful situation, but in women’s basketball, players play year-round, a lot of the elite players do,” Callan said. “The fact that the very elite basketball players have had to rest their bodies now, try to stay somewhat in shape, but they’ve had some time off, is really a good thing for our Olympic team and our national team and for the players themselves.”

MORE: USA Basketball career Olympic points leaders

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Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

MORE: Looking back at Yuna Kim’s 10-year gold medal anniversary

Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

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

MORE: Nathan Chen is surprised, grateful and posing questions about figure skating’s restart

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Steven Nyman, top U.S. downhiller, faces another obstacle

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Steven Nyman, the active U.S. leader in World Cup downhill wins, tore his right Achilles in a training crash and had surgery earlier this week in Mt. Hood, Ore.

“I am moving forward,” was posted on Nyman’s social media. “I’ve been through this before and have full intention to comeback [sic] and compete through the next Olympics.”

Nyman raced in three Olympics and owns three World Cup downhill victories.

He turns 40 during the next Winter Games in Beijing in 2022, when he will be three and a half years older than any previous U.S. Olympic Alpine skier.

Nyman missed the PyeongChang Olympics after a pair of major injuries: blowing out his left knee in a January 2017 downhill race crash and tearing his right ACL in downhill training in January 2018. He also tore his left Achilles in 2011.

He raced the last two seasons with a best World Cup finish of fifth in Val Gardena, Italy, site of all of his World Cup wins in 2006, 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. men’s program is in the midst of its longest World Cup downhill victory and podium droughts this millennium — none since Travis Ganong‘s win in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Jan. 27, 2017.

MORE: Alpine skiing World Cup plans earlier season start with fewer fans

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