Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat in danger of missing Olympics

Kerri Walsh Jennings
FIVB World Tour

Kerri Walsh Jennings, eyeing a sixth Olympics at age 42, and new partner Brooke Sweat must rally past another U.S. team in the last qualifying event next week to make it to Tokyo.

Countrywomen Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil won the penultimate international qualifier in Sochi, Russia, on Saturday, passing Walsh Jennings and Sweat in the race for the second and final U.S. Olympic women’s beach volleyball spot.

Now Walsh Jennings and Sweat must finish third or better in the qualifying finale in Ostrava, Czech Republic, next week to have any shot at Tokyo.

Walsh Jennings is the most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player in history with three gold medals and one bronze, but she and Sweat last made the semifinals of a top-level tournament in August 2019.

They lost both of their main-draw matches in Sochi, marking the first time Walsh Jennings finished 25th (tied for last place in the main draw) in 151 international events dating to her start in 2001, according to (Walsh Jennings once had a worse result, losing in qualifying.)

April Ross and Alix Klineman, the lone U.S. pair among the Olympic medal favorites, clinched the first Olympic spot two months ago.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat ranked second in U.S. qualifying standings for the last two years until Claes and Sponcil’s run in Sochi.

Claes, 25, and Sponcil, 24, are aiming to become the youngest U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team ever.

They went 10 consecutive international tournaments without reaching a semifinal, dating to July 2019, until Sochi, where they upset Ross and Klineman in a three-set quarterfinal.

Before that, Claes and Sponcil were 0-8 against the Ross and Klineman team, and 0-17 when including matches with other partners, according to BVBinfo.

Claes and Sponcil then Swept Russian and Swiss pairs in the medal rounds, overtaking Walsh Jennings and Sweat in points and then earning their first international title.

“It was a long road to the finish line,” Sponcil said.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat had a small but significant lead on Claes and Sponcil for the second U.S. spot going into 2021.

Claes and Sponcil chipped away, but lost three quarterfinals in their first four events this year. The quarterfinals mark the key round in Olympic qualifiers, because a victory gives a team two more matches to gain points — the semifinals and either a final or a third-place match. They finally broke through in Sochi.

Walsh Jennings endured a difficult Olympic cycle. She had three different partners, underwent a sixth right shoulder surgery and had to work through qualifying tournaments after teaming with Sweat, a Rio Olympian with Lauren Fendrick. Sweat underwent knee surgery last spring.

Claes won NCAA beach volleyball titles with USC in 2016 and 2017. She and fellow Trojan Sara Hughes began playing internationally with a pedigree to become the next great U.S. team. Their bond was so strong that Hughes turned down Walsh Jennings’ proposal to partner up in 2017.

But in 2018, Hughes decided to pair with Summer Ross for a Tokyo Olympic run (which ended after Ross suffered a 2019 back injury).

Claes, who tried out to be Walsh Jennings’ partner in 2018, and even played an event in China with the legend, turned to Sponcil, a setter for UCLA’s indoor team after transferring from Loyola Marymount.

Claes and Sponcil spent nearly the entire spring of 2020 apart, but the Olympic postponement turned out to be a blessing.

“We have the most to gain from this kind of pause time because we are the youngest team, and we have the least experience together,” Claes, who as a teenager fractured her spine and underwent a cardiac ablation to treat supraventricular tachycardia, said last summer. “I think we have all the advantages of this time to gain some more experience before this last push before the Olympics.”

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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IOC recommends how Russia, Belarus athletes can return as neutrals

Thomas Bach

The IOC updated its recommendations to international sports federations regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes, advising that they can return to competitions outside of the Olympics as neutral athletes in individual events and only if they do not actively support the war in Ukraine. Now, it’s up to those federations to decide if and how they will reinstate the athletes as 2024 Olympic qualifying heats up.

The IOC has not made a decision on the participation of Russian or Belarusian athletes for the Paris Games and will do so “at the appropriate time,” IOC President Thomas Bach said Tuesday.

Most international sports federations for Olympic sports banned Russian and Belarusian athletes last year following IOC recommendations to do so after the invasion of Ukraine.

Bach was asked Tuesday what has changed in the last 13 months that led to the IOC updating its recommendations.

He reiterated previous comments that, after the invasion and before the initial February 2022 recommendations, some governments refused to issue visas for Russians and Belarusians to compete, and other governments threatened withdrawing funding from athletes who competed against Russians and Belarusians. He also said the safety of Russians and Belarusians at competitions was at risk at the time.

Bach said that Russians and Belarusians have been competing in sports including tennis, the NHL and soccer (while not representing their countries) and that “it’s already working.”

“The question, which has been discussed in many of these consultations, is why should what is possible in all these sports not be possible in swimming, table tennis, wrestling or any other sport?” Bach said.

Bach then read a section of remarks that a United Nations cultural rights appointee made last week.

“We have to start from agreeing that these states [Russia and Belarus] are going to be excluded,” Bach read, in part. “The issue is what happens with individuals. … The blanket prohibition of Russian and Belarusian athletes and artists cannot continue. It is a flagrant violation of human rights. The idea is not that we are going to recognize human rights to people who are like us and with whom we agree on their actions and on their behavior. The idea is that anyone has the right not to be discriminated on the basis of their passport.”

The IOC’s Tuesday recommendations included not allowing “teams of athletes” from Russia and Belarus to return.

If Russia continues to be excluded from team sports and team events, it could further impact 2024 Olympic qualification.

The international basketball federation (FIBA) recently set an April 28 deadline to decide whether to allow Russia to compete in an Olympic men’s qualifying tournament. For women’s basketball, the draw for a European Olympic qualifying tournament has already been made without Russia.

In gymnastics, the ban has already extended long enough that, under current rules, Russian gymnasts cannot qualify for men’s and women’s team events at the Paris Games, but can still qualify for individual events if the ban is lifted.

Gymnasts from Russia swept the men’s and women’s team titles in Tokyo, where Russians in all sports competed for the Russian Olympic Committee rather than for Russia due to punishment for the nation’s doping violations. There were no Russian flags or anthems, conditions that the IOC also recommends for any return from the current ban for the war in Ukraine.

Seb Coe, the president of World Athletics, said last week that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned from track and field for the “foreseeable future.”

World Aquatics, the international governing body for swimming, diving and water polo, said after the IOC’s updated recommendations that it will continue to “consider developments impacting the situation” of Russian and Belarusian athletes and that “further updates will be provided when appropriate.”

The IOC’s sanctions against Russia and Belarus and their governments remain in place, including disallowing international competitions to be held in those countries.

On Monday, Ukraine’s sports minister said in a statement that Ukraine “strongly urges” that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned.

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