No. 1-ranked U.S. women’s volleyball team named; pursues first Olympic gold

United States v Brazil - 2019 FIVB Volleyball Nations League Final
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The 12 athletes who will vie for the United States’ first Olympic women’s volleyball gold medal were announced by USA Volleyball on Monday.

The average age of the team is 25, with the majority of the players making their Olympic debut in Tokyo next month. Only four – outside hitters Kim Hill, Jordan Larson and Kelsey Robinson, and middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson – return from the 2016 team that won bronze in Rio. Larson and Akinradewo Gunderson were also on the silver-medal team from London.

Larson, 34, has said that the Tokyo Olympics will be her final tournament with the national team. Akinradewo Gunderson, 33, has been making a comeback in the sport since giving birth to son Olukayode Ayodele in late 2019.

The U.S. women’s team has entered the Olympics as a top contender in the past but never managed to win a coveted gold medal in the 11 Olympic tournaments the team has entered, coming away with two silver and three bronze medals.

Once again a favorite going into Tokyo, the U.S. is ranked No. 1 in the world and won the past two Volleyball Nations League tournament titles. The team was second to China, the reigning Olympic champion, at the 2019 World Cup.

The U.S. is currently leading the 2021 Nations League standings, ahead of Turkey and Brazil, runners-up the past two years.

Brazil, the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medalist, is ranked second in the world, followed by China and Turkey.

Karch Kiraly, a two-time Olympic champion in indoor volleyball and once in beach, is at the helm of the team. Kiraly was appointed national team head coach after the London Olympics, leading the team to the 2014 World title and 2016 Olympic bronze.

“We’re extremely grateful for the extra time that the Olympic postponement provided,” Kiraly said in a USA Volleyball release. “Our core group of 23 women’s national teamers has done amazing work in the last 14 months, setting us up for phenomenal trust, connection, purpose and performance.”

The eight Olympic rookies, all of whom have played in the Volleyball Nations League, named to the team are outside hitter Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, opposites Annie Drews and Jordan Thompson, setters Micha Hancock and Jordyn Poulter, middles Chiaka Ogbogu and Haleigh Washington, and libero Justine Wong Orantes. Hancock competed at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010, taking silver.

Poulter is the youngest member of the team at 23, while Larson is the oldest.

“Each one of the 12 contributes unique skills and qualities that make her the right person for the job,” Kiraly said. “This collection of special people who are elite volleyball players is poised to make a fierce Olympic run.”

Six alternates were also chosen: setter Lauren Carlini, outside hitters Kathryn Plummer and Sarah Wilhite Parsons, middle blockers Tori Dixon and Hannah Tapp, and libero Megan Courtney.

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Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara
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Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)
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There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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