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Is Tokyo when April Ross secures that elusive beach volleyball gold?

April Ross
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

While every Olympic story is compelling in its own way, there’s one type of athlete who pulls at the heart strings a bit harder than most. It’s the athlete approaching the end of their career, but who still has one last chance to win that ever-elusive gold.

This summer, a new crop of such athletes is headed to Tokyo and will return home with either a deep sense of peace and relief, or with a lifelong ache for golden glory. While no one knows exactly when beach volleyball superstar April Ross will officially retire, it’s hard to deny that she’ll never have a better chance to finally win gold than this summer in Tokyo. With an Olympic bronze and a silver already in her trophy case, it’s the only color medal missing for Ross.

At 38 years old, Ross would probably be the first to say she has no set plans to hang it up after Tokyo. Her 2016 Rio partner and 3-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh-Jennings was in the midst of the Tokyo hunt herself, still hoping to battle for medals at age 42. But she and teammate Brooke Sweat were eliminated from Olympic contention when Americans Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil took first place at the penultimate Olympic qualifying event, becoming the youngest ever U.S. Olympic beach volleyball duo.

For the first time in almost two decades, Walsh-Jennings won’t be on the court of an Olympic medal match. Instead, Ross will be the most decorated and veteran American on the sand in Tokyo. She’ll have to share her wisdom with teammate Alix Klineman, who has no prior Olympic experience.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this two-on-two sport is the process by which teams are formed and then dissolved and then re-formed with new partners. There is no coach or general manager making these decisions. Two athletes decide to join together in pursuit of excellence and then often break up because one of them has decided there is a better fit out there. It’s a “Bachelor” spin off waiting to happen.

Ross’s path to her current partner had its share of tough conversations with now-former teammates.

“I can picture each conversation I had and how stressed out I was and how nervous I was to have these conversations, but I am also so proud that I embraced the challenge and took it head on,” Ross told Kelley O’Hara on the JWS podcast last fall.

“It’s really easy to get caught up with a friendship, because you do become really close with your partners and you don’t want to hurt your partner… I also view it as a business, and I know I have to make those tough calls.”

In her first Olympic bid in the 2012 London games, Ross and then-partner Jennifer Kessy lost to Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor in an all-USA gold medal match. In the post-game hand-shake, Walsh-Jennings infamously whispered to Ross, “Now let’s go win gold in Rio,” knowing May-Treanor was retiring and that Ross was her best replacement.

On paper, Ross and Walsh-Jennings were a match made in heaven. They had a great friendship and partnership, but unfortunately fell significantly short of their goals when they took home the bronze in Rio.

The two parted ways the following year when conflict with the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) resulted in Walsh-Jennings on one side of the fence and Ross on the other. Deciding to re-sign with AVP even as Walsh-Jennings did not was a critical juncture in Ross’s career that ultimately led to their break-up.

“It was gut wrenching, and just so stressful… It was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Ross told O’Hara.

A few seasons later, as the 2020 Olympics came into view, Ross knew she needed to get serious about choosing a partner for Tokyo and she started assessing her options. (As O’Hara described it, “So basically, volleyball is a lot of sliding into DMs when you need a new teammate.”)

Despite being relatively inexperienced, Alix Klineman had what Ross was looking for. She liked Klineman’s indoor experience, her proven performance under pressure, and the depth of untapped potential she sensed.

“The reason I made the decision to go with Alix was based on intangibles.”

So far, the choice appears to be an excellent one. Since joining forces, Ross and Klineman have become the number one ranked U.S. team and were the first to secure a spot in Tokyo. Klineman’s net play paired with Ross’s tenacious defense has also earned them a claim as the top overall seed heading into the games. Their biggest competition prior to the pandemic was Canadian duo Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, but the Americans have come out on top in all three head-to-heads since tournaments resumed last summer.

Now, we get to see if their magic will be enough to win what would be a career-capping gold medal in Tokyo for Ross. No American athlete may have more to win, given that Ross and Klineman will be gold medal favorites for potentially the first and final time in Ross’ career.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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