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Bria Hartley could have been the next great U.S. point guard. Now she plays for France.

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The U.S. women’s basketball program spent much of the last decade looking for its next point guard — the one to succeed three of its greatest leaders — Teresa Edwards in the 1980s and ’90s, Dawn Staley in the early 2000s and Sue Bird ever since.

Bria Hartley could have been that player. At the University of Connecticut (where Bird also played), Hartley started and won national titles her last two seasons in 2013 and 2014. She made the WNBA All-Rookie Team in 2014.

Also in 2014, Hartley was the second-youngest of the 27 players on the world championship training camp roster. She did not end up making the 12-woman world team. After an injury-affected 2015, she wasn’t among 25 Olympic team finalists named in January 2016.

Hartley considered her options. She knew about an opportunity to play for France, given one of her grandmothers is French. Obtaining a French passport could be valuable for playing in European leagues, where salaries were known for being exponentially higher than the WNBA, but there could be roster limits on American players.

And then there’s the Olympics. The U.S. is the hardest team to make, winner of every Olympic title dating to 1996.

Ultimately, Hartley chose to become the fourth acclaimed American point guard to play for another country in as many Olympic cycles.

Becky Hammon was the most famous, earning a bronze medal for Russia in 2008. She was followed by Lindsey Harding, who left for Belarus in 2015. And Courtney Vandersloot, who became a Hungarian citizen after missing the Rio Olympic team.

Hartley’s case is different because of her family’s French background. Asked why she sought the nationality switch, Hartley stressed that lineage and that she knew about the option years before becoming a pro.

Hartley said she received her French passport in February 2016. She hoped to play for France at the Rio Olympics. She still needed approval from USA Basketball and FIBA, which did not come until 2017 and 2018.

USA Basketball has record of a request from the French federation for Hartley’s transfer in May 2016, the month after the U.S. Olympic team was announced and two months before France’s Olympic team was announced. (France’s national team director wrote in an email that his recollection is that Hartley expressed her desire to play for France to its coach in October 2017.)

USA Basketball did not immediately approve the request for a few reasons. USA Basketball hadn’t had the opportunity to discuss the matter with Hartley. It still considered Hartley a national team-level prospect, and at a need position. The U.S. could play France, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, in the Rio Olympic knockout rounds.

“With Sue and D [Diana Taurasi] getting older, they just weren’t sure what they were going to do at the point guard position,” Hartley said. “I think they were just keeping their options open.”

U.S. national team director Carol Callan spoke with Hartley while attending the 2017 NCAA Women’s Final Four. Hartley confirmed her intent to play for France.

“We want to make sure that they actually want to do it [transfer],” Callan said, “because once you go, you can’t go back.

“In general, we don’t necessarily want to stand in the way of someone being able to play for another country if that’s what they want to do, other than right before the Olympics. Had the request come in even after the Olympics, that would have been easier to deal with.”

The French federation contacted USA Basketball later in 2017 with the follow-up transfer request. Hartley had approval from both national federations.

Then it went to FIBA. Hartley said the international federation rejected the request at first and asked for further proof of her French connection.

“Cases relating to the change of a national status of a player require an in-depth study of the player’s links with the country s/he wishes to represent, which often go beyond the mere presentation of a passport,” a FIBA official wrote in response to questions on Hartley’s case, including a question on the timeline of the transfer request and approval. “This is particularly the case when a player holds two nationalities and is asked to present concrete links with a given country.”

Hartley ended up also missing the 2018 FIBA World Cup during the review.

“If I got my passport when I was younger, started this process when I was younger, it would have been a lot smoother,” said Hartley, who had son Bryson in January 2017.

In October 2018, two weeks after the World Cup ended, the French federation announced that Hartley became eligible for its national team. She played at the 2019 European Championships (EuroBasket) and helped France to a silver medal, ranking second on the team in scoring.

There have been critics. Notably from followers of her new program.

“They’re like, she’s an American playing on the French team,” Hartley said. “She’s not really French and stuff like that, so I know I’ve dealt with that. But, for me, I feel like I have French blood. I just didn’t grow up [in France].”

France is ranked fifth in the world. The Olympic groups haven’t been set yet, but it’s possible Hartley could compete against the U.S. in Tokyo next summer.

She could stare into Bird, the fellow UConn Husky whom she was a candidate to succeed in the U.S. program. Or another point guard who establishes herself over the next year as next in line. Perhaps Sabrina Ionescu.

Hartley said it would be an exciting contest. She feels no different wearing the red, white and blue of another country.

“I always took a lot of pride in my French heritage,” she said. “Especially growing up in New York, light skinned, a lot of people are like, are you Spanish or something like that? I was always like, no, I’m French.”

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Luce Douady, youth world champion climber, dies after cliff accident

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Luce Douady, a youth world champion climber from France, died after a climbing accident at a cliff, France’s climbing federation said it learned Sunday. She was 16.

Douady was climbing with friends near Grenoble.

Douady won a 2019 Youth World title in bouldering, one of three disciplines that make up the climbing event that debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo next year. Douady also took third in a lead final, another of the three disciplines in the combined Olympic event.

She also debuted on the senior World Cup in 2019, placing fifth at an event in Colorado.

For the Tokyo Olympics, France previously qualified its full complement of two women in climbing: Julia Chanourdie and Anouck Jaubert. The sport remains on the Olympic program for the 2024 Paris Games.

Alexis Pinturault will remember an Alpine skiing season, and offseason, unlike any other

Alexis Pinturault
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Two months before it began, Frenchman Alexis Pinturault knew this past Alpine skiing World Cup season would be like no other in his 10-year career.

Last August, he received a message from Austrian rival Marcel Hirscher‘s team. Hirscher, the record eight-time World Cup overall champion, among the greatest all-time ski racers, was going to announce his retirement.

They wanted Pinturault, who four times finished second or third behind Hirscher in the overall standings, to be one of the skiers to film a message for Hirscher’s live-streamed farewell announcement.

Pinturault was shocked that Hirscher, who at last earned elusive Olympic gold medals in 2018, was walking away at age 30.

Like many who follow the sport, Pinturault knew Hirscher teased retirement for years, saying at the end of seasons that he didn’t know if he would return the following autumn. But Hirscher, who carved snow while carrying the immense weight of Austria’s biggest star in its national sport, had always showed up again.

“That’s the reason why I didn’t really believe it at the beginning [of 2019], when he started to say, yeah, I’m not sure I will continue,” Pinturault said this week by phone from Courchevel. “I didn’t really want to accept it because, as I said, I never expect it. And also, I think, I really like my rivalry with Marcel because he was a really strong opponent, and he was bringing many good things for the sport. But also for me, because to push always the limit is something really valuable also.”

In Hirscher’s exit interview, he was asked to predict a successor as the new king of the sport. He noted Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway and Pinturault, the latter finishing runner-up to Hirscher the previous season.

Pinturault acknowledged the new expectations going into the World Cup opener in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. He won the Rettenbach glacier giant slalom by .54 of a second. Kristoffersen was 18th. The favorite for the biggest annual prize in Alpine skiing became clear.

“It’s not so easy for us that Marcel isn’t there anymore,” Pinturault said that day, according to The Associated Press. “We have a lot of pressure, more than before. Usually all the pressure was on Marcel. But this is a wonderful start for me.”

Pinturault won five more times that winter. He led the overall standings by a slim 26 points going into the last eight races of the season in March. Then the World Cup Finals in Italy were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving a downhill and super-G in Norway and a giant slalom and slalom in Slovenia.

Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde took second in the downhill, as part of an ascendant campaign, to overtake Pinturault by 54 points. Kilde, whose best previous overall finish was seventh, was the latest in his nation’s line of Attacking Vikings, known for prowess in the speed events of downhill and super-G.

Pinturault, better in giant slalom and slalom, remained confident. The last super-G was canceled due to poor weather. He could still outscore Kilde in the giant slalom and slalom in Slovenia to snatch the title.

“Everything was still possible,” said Pinturault, bidding to become the first French man or woman to claim the overall since Luc Alphand in 1997.

Then that Thursday, two days before the season-ending races in Slovenia, Pinturault returned from morning training. He received a text message from the International Ski Federation. The races in Slovenia were canceled due to coronavirus concerns. The season was over. Kilde was overall champion.

“It was, I would say, really big disappointment, but also something I was thinking about and expecting a little bit,” Pinturault said. Kilde texted the Frenchman, appreciating their tight title battle through the winter. Pinturault replied with his own well wishes.

“He was the most — how do you say — regular athlete the whole winter,” Pinturault said of Kilde, who had one victory all season but finished in the top 10 a total of 22 times (to Pinturault’s 17). “He didn’t get a lot of victories, but he was always there.”

Pinturault, whose Norwegian mother, Hege, taught him to ski (first on skis at age 2), retreated to France. He had grown up in the ski resort of Annecy, where his dad operated the luxury Hotel Annapurna.

The nation went on containment on March 17, a week after the Slovenian races were canceled.

Pinturault celebrated his 29th birthday with family on March 20. Around that time, older sister Sandra and their dad began feeling sick. Then Pinturault and his other sibling, younger brother Cedric, started to feel symptoms: headaches (“not that bad”) and a fever. Then the loss of taste and smell.

“This stays for 10 days at least,” Pinturault said. “Those 10 days were very special because you don’t really know when it will come back.”

Then Pinturault’s wife since 2017, Romaine, got sick. The Pinturaults’ cases were mild enough that none needed hospitalization. Alexis didn’t get checked out until after his symptoms faded. He took an antibody test.

“I was positive in everything,” he said. “It was not big deal. I was still able to live, so walking, cooking, walking outside, playing a little bit. Of course I was ill, and I felt not that great, but it was never that bad that I had to stay in bed and sleep and hoping that it was getting better. For me, at least, it was pretty OK.”

This week, Pinturault trained at the French Alps resort of Courchevel feeling, he estimated, 90 percent. Not quite fully recovered. But still confident he would travel to Val d’Isere for more ski training before a summer break.

Pinturault chose a ski career over soccer at age 15, then debuted on the World Cup at age 17. In his first 14 races over nearly two years, he failed to finish all of them, either skiing out or not qualifying for a second run.

Then in his 15th, Pinturault placed sixth from bib 62 (podium finishers are usually among the first 30 racers). His senior career took off. He would eventually become France’s all-time World Cup wins leader, earn three Olympic medals and a 2019 World title in the combined.

The 2019-20 season was characterized by learning, Pinturault said. Then the virus. In one way, it did not hit him too hard. “Like a big cold,” he said. In another way, its affect on the end of the World Cup season, it was more difficult to handle.

“That was, for me, the hardest,” he said. “It was more about the head. You are a little bit depressed.”

Pinturault continued, noting it was not a situation he could control. He is proud of how he raced during a season where, for the first time, he was the targeted star. He feels confident of stepping up again whenever racing resumes.

“Nobody wanted to live this situation,” he said. “All I could do, I made it really good.”

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