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Beachvolley Vikings, sport’s top team, inspired by Kerri Walsh Jennings

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HAMBURG, Germany — Kerri Walsh Jennings smiled at the decade-old picture of her posing with a young Anders Mol.

Since Walsh Jennings met Mol, the now-22-year-old and his 23-year-old Norwegian partner Christian Sorum have become the top-ranked team in the world.

“Those boys inspire me a lot,” she said. “That’s how I want Brooke [Sweat] and I to play, really.”

Walsh Jennings met Mol in his native country at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Stavanger. Mol attended with his father, Kare, who was coaching the Norwegian teams, as well as his brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias Berntsen.

Walsh Jennings noticed the young Norwegians, who are now nicknamed the “Beachvolley Vikings,” eagerly doing the pepper drill on the sand between matches from 6 a.m. until well after dark.   

“She walked by and told us, ‘Hey, you guys are so good that if you guys keep practicing, you’re going to be playing on this stage one day,’” Mol recalled.

Mol’s passion for the sport only increased as he hit puberty.

As a teenager, he derailed his family’s vacation plans in San Diego by making them battle traffic up to Los Angeles to hear Walsh Jennings give a speech.

Childhood photo of Mol and Walsh Jennings. Courtesy of Anders Mol.

At 13 or 14, Mol and his brother beat their parents for the first time. Impressive, considering Mol’s father was a former national indoor team player and his mother, Merita Mol (née Berntsen), competed in beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics.

At 16, he enrolled in ToppVolley Norway, a beach and indoor volleyball school that is a two-hour boat ride north from Stavanger. For three years, the boys would attend classes, lift weights and train for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Free time often meant pick-up soccer matches, which occasionally proves useful on the sand.

“It doesn’t look like Hogwarts,” Mol said, “but it sounds like Hogwarts because everybody is like a big family in this school.”

When Mol graduated, he played a year of professional indoor volleyball in Belgium. But he quickly realized that he preferred the freedom of beach volleyball, where players book their own travel, hire their own coaches and schedule their own practices.

In 2017, Mol was named the international tour’s top rookie. By the end of the 2018 season, Mol and Sorum had firmly established themselves as the world’s top team, winning their final three international tournaments including the FIVB World Tour Finals.

They have not slowed down in 2019, winning three tournaments on three different continents over three weeks in May. They have won 36 of their last 38 matches.

“The best blocker right now is Anders, and the best defender is Christian,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb. “It’s not really fair.”

The only two teams who have defeated the Norwegians since April 28 — Germany’s Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler and Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt/Evandro Goncalves — did not offer any clues on how to do it.

Wickler admitted that “in no other stadium would we have won this game” after the Hamburg world championships semifinal played July 6 in front of more than 12,000 hometown fans, the largest crowd either team had ever experienced. Mol and Sorum rebounded to claim the bronze medal the next day over Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Bruno rebuffed multiple teams who approached him looking for the secret to beating Norway.

“I’ve never seen a player like Anders who is so powerful and so skilled at the same time,” said Bruno, the 2016 Olympic champion with former partner Alison. “Players like that raise the level of this sport.”

Much of their success can be attributed to their defensive scheme. Most teams play a “zone defense,” with each player defending half of the court. The Norwegians play a “read defense” that gives each player the freedom to react and move to where they think the attacking player will hit the ball.

NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong compared the Norwegians to “free safeties” in football.

“They are the most innovative defensive team we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

The pair is relatively unknown outside Norway — neither has a Wikipedia page in English — and even in Norway they claim they are nowhere near as famous as the Alpine skiers nicknamed the “Attacking Vikings.”

But that will change.

At worlds, the pair hired a videographer to capture content for their YouTube and Instagram channels. They launched a Beachvolley Vikings clothing line that includes a “Sleeping Christian” shirt. They patiently fulfilled each and every request for pictures and autographs after matches.

“They are like rock stars,” said American Taylor Crabb, talking extra loud to be heard over a crowd of teenage girls hoping to take a selfie with the tall, blonde Norwegians. “Fans can relate to them because they see guys around their age becoming the No. 1 team the world.”

It is not just fans who are lining up to see the Norwegians.

“I love to watch them play,” said 2016 Brazilian Olympian Pedro Solberg, who made his international debut when Mol was just 8. “Every chance I get to watch them I do, because I learn a lot from them.”

Whether Mol and Sorum struggle with anything is up for debate. When asked, Kare boasted about beating them at the card game “President and the bum.”

“They are really smart in beach volleyball,” he said, “but they are really stupid in card playing.”

But both players disputed their coach’s claim.

“It’s not true at all,” Sorum said. “He loses even when he has the best cards.”

The Beachvolley Vikings are just getting started. 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser pointed out that beach volleyball players typically do not peak until their late 20s or early 30s.

“In my book, they are already among the top teams to ever play,” he said. “There are no holes in their game. I don’t see why they can’t keep this going.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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Petter Northug, Norway’s brash cross-country skiing star, retires

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Petter Northug, Norway’s polarizing cross-country skier and arguably its most famous athlete, announced his retirement from the sport at age 32 in a tearful press conference Wednesday.

“It’s been an adventure — I had a little dream when I was a little boy that I would be a good skier, and I’m proud to have achieved that,” Northug said, according to a Reuters translation. “Cross-country skiing has been my life for so many years, so it’s tough to quit.”

After being left off a 2006 Olympic team that earned zero gold medals, Northug became the face of the program’s rise back to dominance while at times sparring with the Norwegian federation.

He earned 13 world titles and four 2010 Olympic medals, plus World Cup overall titles in 2010 and 2013.

Northug barely competed last season, reportedly due to health issues, was left off the PyeongChang Olympic team and mostly struggled in lower-level races in November, which all put his top-level skiing future in doubt.

“I have lived in faith and hope that it could be turned around, but the body can’t take any more, and the head is a little tired from what has happened before,” Northug said, according to Reuters. “This is the best solution for me, and I believe I will be happy for that choice and look forward to new things.”

He also made plenty of headlines off his skis.

Northug had his own reality show, “Circus Northug,” which ran for two seasons. He competed in the World Series of Poker. He once made King Harald V wait 15 minutes to congratulate him on a victory so that he could cool down.

Competitors called him “Storkjeften fra Mosvik,” or the Big Mouth from Mosvik (his Norwegian birthplace). Northug raced with the words “Haters Gonna Hate” on his apparel.

Northug was also given a 50-day prison sentence in 2014 for drunkenly crashing his car into a barrier near his home in Trondheim. He reportedly served it outside of jail while wearing an ankle cuff.

While Northug last made a World Cup podium in March 2016, other Norwegians picked up the slack. Namely Johannes Klæbo, who earned three golds in PyeongChang, and Martin Johnsrud Sundby, the 2016 and 2017 World Cup overall champion.

Northug is the fourth Norwegian winter sports legend to retire this year.

Marit Bjørgen, Ole Einar Bjørndalen, Emil Hegle Svendsen and Northug combined for 40 Olympic medals and 63 world titles between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Aksel Lund Svindal ’50-50′ on Alpine skiing return

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SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — Aksel Lund Svindal’s chronically injured knee felt so terrible after last season that retirement seemed his only option.

But the Olympic downhill champion refused to give in.

Although he didn’t join his Norwegian teammates for summer training, he’s now giving himself “a 50-50 chance” of hitting the slopes again in the new season, which starts Sunday.

“The weeks after (the World Cup Finals in) Are, I decided that I cannot make a decision because that had to be a negative decision,” said the 35-year-old Svindal, a winner of two Olympic and five world titles as well as two overall World Cup championships.

His right knee suffered permanent damage in January 2016, tearing the ACL and meniscus in a spectacular crash in Kitzbuehel. Svindal returned the following season but had to quit it prematurely, having also missed the previous season after tearing an Achilles tendon while playing soccer.

In March 2018, after he completed a full season for the first time in three years and just weeks after racing to gold at the PyeongChang Olympics, his knee looked and felt like it just came out of surgery.

And it didn’t get better for the next two months.

“I could walk, but the knee always hurt,” Svindal said. “I thought, you cannot do summer training and have to take pain killers every day.”

But in June, he was able to start doing some strength training.

“It was pretty stable, and there were days the knee was quite OK,” he said.

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With his career future in serious doubt, Svindal still got the support of his equipment supplier, Head, and the Norwegian ski federation. He wasn’t going to join the likes of Kjetil Jansrud and Aleksander Aamodt Kilde for the usual preparation period, but would work on his own on a reduced schedule.

Otherwise his knee wouldn’t hold up, but there’s also a mental side to it.

“When you train with a group of healthy athletes, you get reminded every single day that you are injured,” Svindal said. “Doing that for the third year in a row, it gets mentally draining.”

If he returns, he will only compete in downhill and super-G races as time is lacking to put in enough giant slalom practice. He plans to compete in all speed races, including at the world championships in Are, Sweden, in February.

“That is Plan A. But there is also a Plan B. And a Plan C,” he said. “Last year I went to the limit, maybe over it. With the Olympics, you want to push a bit more, but I can’t push that much every year. I have to be a bit more careful.”

Svindal’s training usually contains of two or three days of skiing before taking a few days of rest to let the knee recover. But last week, on the Saas-Fee glacier in Switzerland, Svindal stood on skis for seven straight days, something he hadn’t been able doing for the past three years.

“It was quite positive. And if that continues into (next month’s training in) Colorado, chances are good that I can come to Lake Louise like normal,” he said, referring to the first speeds races on Nov. 24-25. “To come there and try to win, that’s where I want to be.”

His belief that he can still win races is what prevented Svindal from calling it a career.

“When you are at the start, and you know Jansrud and (Matthias) Mayer had good runs, but you also know: I am just as good and I can win,” Svindal said, “that adrenalin is still a lot of fun.”

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