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Ledecky wins gold, Biles drops out of all-around

Ledecky wins gold, Biles drops out of all-around

Katie Ledecky got her first gold medal of these Olympics, while Simone Biles pulled out of another event she came into the Games favored to winBy JOSH DUBOW AP Sports WriterJuly 28, 2021, 7:41 AM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleTOKYO — Katie Ledecky got her first gold medal of these Olympics, while Simone Biles pulled out of another event she came into the Games favored to win.Ledecky bounced back from losses in her first two events in Tokyo to win the inaugural 1,500-meter freestyle for women by more than 4 seconds on Wednesday.The victory came about after Ledecky finished fifth in the 200-meter freestyle for her worst finish ever at an Olympics. Ledecky came into the Games with five gold medals but finished second to Australia’s Ariarne Titmus in the 400 free and then failed to medal in the 200 that Titmus also won.“I think people maybe feel bad for me that I’m not winning everything and whatever, but I want people to be more concerned about other things going on in the world, people that are truly suffering,” Ledecky said. “I’m just proud to bring home a gold medal to Team USA.”Biles, the American gymnastics superstar, withdrew from Thursday’s all-around competition to focus on her mental well-being.USA Gymnastics said in a statement that the 24-year-old is opting to not compete. The decision comes a day after Biles removed herself from the team final following one rotation because she felt she wasn’t mentally ready.The organization said Biles will be evaluated daily before deciding if she will participate in next week’s individual events. Biles qualified for the finals on all four apparatuses, something she didn’t even do during her five-medal haul in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.Jade Carey, who finished ninth in qualifying, will take Biles’ place in the all-around.HISTORIC RACEBritain has won the men’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay at the Olympics for the first time since 1908, but just missed a world record.With a powerhouse group that included the 1-2 finishers in the 200 freestyle, Britain blew away the field in 6 minutes, 58.58 seconds. That was just off the world record set by the Americans (6:58.55) at the 2009 world championships. It was the first British gold in the event since it made its debut at the first London Games.Russia claimed the silver in 7:01.81, while Australia took the bronze in 7:01.84.The four-time defending champion Americans finished fourth — the first time they’ve failed to win a medal in the event other than the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games.BOUNCE BACKDamian Lillard scored 21 points and the U.S. men’s basketball team rebounded from an opening loss with their first victory of these Olympics, romping past Iran 120-66.Devin Booker scored 16 points and Jayson Tatum had 14 for the Americans, who had their 25-game Olympic winning streak snapped with an 83-76 loss to France on Sunday.The U.S. not only bounced back with a win but did it in a Dream Team-type performance against an overmatched opponent, racing out for transition dunks and stepping back to knock down 3-pointers.COMEBACK KIDSHayato Sakamoto hit a game-ending, bases-loaded single that capped a three-run, ninth-inning rally, lifting host Japan over the Dominican Republic 4-3 in the Olympic baseball opener.Japan is pursuing its first gold medal in baseball after the sport was restored to the Summer Games for the first time since 2008. Few medals would mean more to the baseball-crazed country, and expectations are high.While Major League Baseball players aren’t at these Olympics, Japan’s professional league suspended its season to accommodate the Games.SURPRISING LOSSThe U.S. women’s water polo team lost at the Olympics for the first time since 2008, falling 10-9 to Hungary in group play.The U.S. was a big favorite to win its third straight gold medal coming into Tokyo, but it was pushed hard by China during a rugged 12-7 victory Monday and then it struggled against Hungary. Even with the loss, the Americans still should be able to advance to the knockout round.It was the United States’ first loss since the 2008 final against the Netherlands. It had a draw in London, but it went 6-0 on the way to the title in Rio.———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/olympic-games and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

Swimming gold for Alaska, early exit for Osaka

Swimming gold for Alaska, early exit for Osaka

Alaska produced a gold medal swimmer, while host Japan won’t get to celebrate a tennis gold medal after Naomi Osaka got knocked out earlyBy JOSH DUBOW AP Sports WriterJuly 27, 2021, 10:20 AM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleTOKYO — Alaska produced a gold medal swimmer, while host Japan won’t get to celebrate a tennis gold medal after Naomi Osaka got knocked out early.Seventeen-year-old Lydia Jacoby pulled off a stunning victory in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke on Tuesday, upsetting American teammate and defending champion Lilly King.“I was definitely racing for a medal. I knew I had it in me,” said Jacoby, who hails from the tiny town of Seward, which has a population of 2,733. “I wasn’t really expecting a gold medal, so when I looked up and saw the scoreboard it was insane.”While that win set off a celebration in Alaska, there will be no celebration on the tennis court for Japan.Osaka, who was born in Japan and grew up in the United States, struggled with her usually reliable groundstrokes and lost 6-1, 6-4 in the third round to former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic“I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this,” Osaka said. “I think it’s maybe because I haven’t played in the Olympics before and for the first year (it) was a bit much. I think I’m glad with how I played, with taking that break that I had.”Osaka, who lit the Olympic cauldron in Friday’s opening ceremony, won her opening two matches in straight sets following a two-month mental-health break.STREAK SNAPPEDThe streak of 12 straight gold medals for the U.S. men in the individual backstroke ended when a pair of Russians beat out defending Olympic champion Ryan Murphy in the 100-meter race.Evgeny Rylov won the gold medal in 51.98 and teammate Kliment Kolesnikov took the silver in 52.00. Murphy settled for the bronze in 52.19.It was the first backstroke defeat for the U.S. men at the Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games.They won 12 straight golds over the past six Olympics, including Murphy’s sweep of the 100 and 200 back at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.“Winning an Olympic gold medal means you’re the best in the world,” Murphy said. “Being third in the world is no slouch.”STREAK EXTENDEDThe U.S. women’s basketball team opened play with an 81-72 win over Nigeria that extended the Americans’ win streak at the Olympics to 50 games.A’ja Wilson scored 19 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in her debut.The U.S. came to Tokyo coming off two rare exhibition losses in Las Vegas earlier this month. The Americans also beat Nigeria by 31 points in that game.This game was much closer and marked the first time that a team had come within single digits of the U.S. since Russia lost by four points in the semifinals of 2004 Athens Games.HISTORIC FIRSTFlora Duffy has won the Olympic women’s triathlon, earning Bermuda’s first gold medal ever and first medal of any kind since 1976.Duffy is a two-time former world triathlon series champion. She’s competing in her fourth Olympics and is one of just two athletes representing Bermuda in Tokyo.The start of the race was delayed 15 minutes because of storm conditions around Tokyo Bay. Duffy pumped her arms over her head as she finished the swimming, cycling and running course in 1 hour, 55:36 minutes.STRUGGLING CHAMPSThe expected Olympic showdown between the top two women’s volleyball teams in the world turned out to be a one-sided affair.The U.S. women swept defending gold medalist China 29-27, 25-22, 25-21 in a pool-play match that left the Americans at the top of Pool B and the Chinese seeking to win their first set of the tournament after two straight sweeps to open the Games.China was also swept by Turkey in the opener but showed five years ago in Rio de Janeiro how little the pool-play matches can mean after losing three of five of them before rallying to win gold.———More AP Olympic coverage: https://www.apnews.com/OlympicGames and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

Titmus, Doncic make memorable Olympic debuts

Titmus, Doncic make memorable Olympic debuts

TOKYO — Ariarne Titmus and Luka Doncic made memorable Olympic debuts.Titmus lived up to the billing of her nickname the “Terminator” when she chased down Katie Ledecky in the 400 freestyle Monday to win one of the most anticipated races of the Summer Games.Doncic scored 48 points in his first Olympic appearance to tie for the second most ever in men’s basketball history, leading Slovenia to a 118-100 victory over Argentina.Titmus trailed by nearly a full body-length at the halfway mark of the eight-lap race before erasing the gap and finishing in 3 minutes, 56.69 seconds. It was the second-fastest time in history, surpassed only by Ledecky’s world record of 3:56.46 from the 2016 Rio Games.“It’s probably the biggest thing you could pull off in your sporting career,” Titmus said, “so I’m over the moon.”Ledecky lost an individual Olympic final for the first time after winning the 800 free at the 2012 London Games, then capturing three more golds in the 200, 400 and 800 free at Rio de Janeiro five years ago.Doncic scored 31 points in the first half, putting him on pace to break the Games’ scoring record of 55 points by Brazilian Hall of Famer Oscar Schmidt in 1988. He ended up tied with Eddie Palubinskas, who had 48 for Australia in the 1976 Games in Montreal.“I don’t care about records,” he said. “We got a win and that’s what we came here for.”QUEST FOR SIXCaeleb Dressel started his quest for six gold medals in swimming by leading the United States to victory in the men’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay.Dressel, who has been hailed as the successor to Michael Phelps, gave the U.S. the lead in the opening leg and his teammates made sure it stood up.“I felt good the whole way, I knew I had to get my hand in the wall first and get some clean water,” Dressel said. “And everyone did their job. It’s a relay for a reason, it’s four guys for a reason, it’s certainly not just me. It’s certainly not just one guy.”Dressel is competing in three individual events and two more relays in Tokyo.The other winners in the pool on Monday were Britain’s Adam Peaty in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke, Canada’s Maggie MacNeil in the women’s 100-meter butterfly.TUNING UPA dramatic comeback for the U.S. softball team against Japan earned the Americans a small prize. When the countries play again it will be for the gold medal.Kelsey Stewart homered leading off the seventh inning to lead the U.S. to a 2-1 victory to win the group stage and give it the right to bat last in the gold medal game. The longball was the first for the United States this tournament.“It’s like you dream about when you’re a little kid, about hitting a home run at the Olympics, let alone a walkoff,” Stewart said.Monica Abbott pitched a perfect seventh in relief for her third win of the tournament. She is likely to start Tuesday’s gold medal game, a day before her 36th birthday.The Americans lost the gold medal game 3-1 to Japan in 2008, the previous time softball was in the Olympics.TEEN SPIRITYouth was served at the debut of the Olympic skateboarding event for women.Three teenagers swept the podium at the street event with 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya of Japan taking the gold medal, 13-year-old Rayssa Leal of Brazil getting silver and 16-year-old Funa Nakayama of Japan winning bronze.Both Nishiya and Leal became their countries’ youngest ever medalists.“Now I can convince all my friends to skateboard everywhere with me,” Leal said.TENNIS TITANSNaomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic easily advanced to the round of 16 at Ariake Tennis Park. Osaka crushed winners off both wings — forehand and backhand — seemingly at will in a 6-3, 6-2 victory over 49th-ranked Viktorija Golubic of Switzerland.Djokovic dispatched 48th-ranked Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany 6-4, 6-3 to move one step closer to claiming the fourth title of a Golden Slam — victories in all four Grand Slam tournaments and Olympic gold in the same calendar year.TRENDSETTINGCanadian midfielder Quinn became the first openly transgender athlete to participate in the Olympics when they started in a 1-1 draw against Japan in women’s soccer.Quinn, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, posted their feelings on Instagram.“I feel proud seeing ‘Quinn’ up on the lineup and on my accreditation. I feel sad knowing there were Olympians before me unable to live their truth because of this world,” they wrote. “I feel optimistic for change. Change in legislature, changes in rules, structures, and mindsets.”Quinn, who came out as transgender last year, was also a member of the Canadian team that won the bronze medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.SKIPPING OUTA second judo athlete has dropped out of the Olympics before facing Israel’s Tohar Butbul in the 73-kilogram division.Olympic officials say Sudan’s Mohamed Abdalrasool didn’t show up to face Butbul in their round of 32 bout Monday despite weighing in for the bout earlier.The International Judo Foundation didn’t immediately announce a reason why Abdalrasool didn’t compete, and the governing body didn’t respond to requests for comment. Sudanese Olympic officials also didn’t immediately comment.Algeria’s Fethi Nourine was sent home from the Tokyo Games and suspended by the IJF on Saturday after he withdrew to avoid a potential round of 32 matchup with Butbul. Nourine was supposed to face Abdalrasool for the right to meet Butbul.———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

Shoji brothers highlight family's internment camp history

Shoji brothers highlight family's internment camp history

TOKYO — Volleyball has always been a family affair for U.S. stars Kawika and Erik Shoji.The sons of legendary University of Hawaii women’s coach Dave Shoji have put together impressive playing careers of their own at Stanford and for the United States as they began their second Olympic Games on Saturday night against France.Playing in their ancestral homeland of Japan has provided the Shoji brothers the opportunity to highlight other members of their family, most notably their late grandparents, who met and got married at an internment camp before their grandfather fought in the 442nd Infantry Regiment for the U.S. in World War II.“It means a lot to us,” Erik Shoji said. “It’s a point of pride for us, for our family to continue to tell that story. Most people don’t know the story of the 442 and even Japanese internment. I think it will be cool to shed some light on that.”The story of Kobe and Chizuko Shoji is part of one of the more troubling moments of U.S. history. They grew up about 15 miles apart in Southern California, but didn’t meet until some darker circumstances after the start of World War II.Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that placed more than 100,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent into internment camps. Even though the majority were American citizens, they still were essentially incarcerated out of misplaced fear that they would side with the Japanese in World War II.It took decades for the U.S. government to apologize for the actions with President Ronald Reagan signing a law that gave compensation to survivors of the camps in 1988 and President Bill Clinton sent an apology to them for “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a lack of political leadership.”Kobe and Shizuko Shoji met at one of those camps in Poston, Arizona.“I remember a funny story that my grandma used to tell us about how the boys would go out and play football and baseball and the girls would sit there and watch,” Erik Shoji said. “My grandma told us that she would watch my grandpa play and she knew that she had a crush on him and wanted to get to know him.”They met and got married before Kobe went off to fight in World War II a part of the 442nd Infantry Regiment.The unit was comprised almost entirely of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese descent who fought in Europe during World War II.While many of the soldiers such as Kobe Shoji had spent time in internment camps or had family members still there, they still were willing to fight for their country and became one of the most decorated units in the war for the U.S.Kawika Shoji remembers seeing his grandfather’s Purple Heart and Bronze Star when he was a young kid and learning about his time in the war.“It really is an amazing, fascinating, untold story just about loyalty and heroes,” Kawika Shoji said. “I just remember he would just tell me he wanted to prove his loyalty to our country, and that’s why he signed up for the war. And gosh, hearing that story at a young age and just realizing and understanding his selflessness and perseverance through that time was super inspiring. It says a lot about his character and also the other people that he went to war with as well.”The Shoji brothers have represented their country through sports not military service, helping the U.S. win the bronze medal in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro and coming back for a second Olympics in Japan.That provides extra motivation because of the family ties even if they don’t know of any family members still in the country.Their grandparents were huge sports fans when they were still alive and went to as many of Kawika’s and Erik’s matches as they could. They still provide inspiration today.“I think they would just be over the moon to know that we are going to our second Olympics,” Erik Shoji said. “Unfortunately, they can’t watch, but we know they are watching it in a certain sense. I know they would be so proud of us. We’re happy to kind of tell their story and let people know where our family came from.”The U.S. opened play in Pool B on Saturday night by sweeping past France in three sets with Erik Shoji excelling as a libero digging out balls to help his teammates up front.The match of the day preceded that one when medal favorite Poland fell in five sets to Iran. The Iranians made their Olympic debut in 2016 when they made it to the quarterfinals and now have a big win to start this year’s tournament after pulling out the final set 23-21.In the earlier matches Saturday, defending silver medalist Italy also needed five sets to get past Canada, reigning gold medalist Brazil swept Tunisia, host Japan swept Venezuela and the Russians beat Argentina 3-1.———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

US women's volleyball team's quest for gold began in Rio

US women's volleyball team's quest for gold began in Rio

For the U.S. women’s volleyball team, the road to this Olympics and a quest for the country’s first gold medal in the sport began in the hours after a frustrating semifinal loss to Serbia in the Olympics five years agoBy JOSH DUBOW AP Sports WriterJuly 23, 2021, 4:00 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleTOKYO — For the U.S. women’s volleyball team, the road to this Olympics and a quest for the country’s first gold medal in the sport began in the hours after a frustrating semifinal loss to Serbia in the Olympics five years ago.An inspiring letter from beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings about the importance of rebounding from a heartbreaking loss helped the U.S. women claim the bronze medal and give them something to build on for the next Olympic Games.The women’s team made it back for another shot this year and begins the journey for that elusive gold medal in its first pool play match on Sunday against Argentina.“Of course, we talk about it,” three-time Olympian Jordan Larson said. “A gold medal is a goal and something that we’ve never done before as the United States indoor women’s volleyball team. So we talk about it but at the end of the day, the conversations that we’re having as a team is how can we make each other better and have those small things lead to good volleyball. While the gold is a focus of ours, it’s not our end all, be all.”The tournament starts Saturday with six men’s matches before the women take the court for the first time on Sunday.The U.S. women believed they were in position to claim that gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. They raced through pool play undefeated in five matches and swept Japan in the quarterfinal match.The U.S. then won the opening set against Serbia but lost star Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson to a knee injury that knocked her out for the rest of that match. Serbia won the next two sets before the U.S. forced a fifth set that the Serbians took 15-13.That left the U.S. playing for a bronze and wondering what could have happened if only a few plays had gone differently.“I still wake up some nights at 3 a.m. thinking about certain plays we didn’t make in that semifinal match that we could easily have made under other circumstances,” said coach Karch Kiraly, who won gold twice as a player in indoor volleyball and a third time in the beach competition.“At first when it happened, I’m sure a lot of our players and a lot of our staff were having trouble sleeping over that. But I think the opposite side of that coin is that we were all tremendously proud of the response that we formulated after a soul crushing loss to come back and then be inspired, frankly, by Kerri Walsh Jennings and her partner April Ross.”Walsh Jennings talked about her frustration of a semifinal loss and the pride she felt winning the bronze and the U.S. team took that measure to heart and responded with a win against the Netherlands.Kiraly, Larson and the other members of the team back for another Olympic run believe that experience will pay dividends this year if the team needs to bounce back after a loss in pool play or mount a rally in a key match in the medal round.“It’s really tough when you have your goal set on one thing and that dream you worked so hard for over four years is crushed,” Gunderson said. “We didn’t get our aspiration of getting that gold medal and so we definitely grieved after that semifinal match. But then it was time to get over it, come back together and grind to win. I was really proud of our team’s resolve and the way that we were able to fight and unite together after such grief. I think having dealt with that, I think it’ll help us moving forward.”———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

US volleyball star back for 3rd Olympics after giving birth

US volleyball star back for 3rd Olympics after giving birth

A third trip to the Olympics was far from a sure thing for U.S. volleyball star Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson when she gave birth to her son in November 2019By JOSH DUBOW AP Sports WriterJuly 22, 2021, 5:14 PM• 5 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleTOKYO — A third trip to the Olympics was far from a sure thing for U.S. volleyball star Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson when she gave birth to her son in November 2019.A challenging pregnancy that robbed her of most of her core strength left her questioning whether she could get back to her usual elite level. But Gunderson had set a goal of being both a mother and professional athlete and took advantage of the delayed Olympics to make it back again this year in search of that elusive gold medal.“I would be lying if I said that I didn’t have doubts, but at the same time, the player I am, I just always believe that whatever I put my mind to, it’s going to happen,” she said. “It was a goal and aspiration of mine and I was going to do whatever it took to make that happen. But, yeah, there were many moments along the way where I just thought maybe it wasn’t for me.”Gunderson developed a severe case of diastasis recti during her pregnancy, which left a 9-centimeter separation of her “six-pack” muscles in her stomach that was big enough for a fist to fit through.That left her with little core strength, but she was determined to make it to Tokyo even if the Olympics had gone on in 2020 as scheduled. She told her husband, Jonathan, that she would do whatever it took to get back to the Games.And now she’s here getting ready for her first match of the tournament on Sunday.“I told him, ‘Listen, I won’t be pleasant to be around, but I’m going to find a way to make it happen,’” she said. “I’m pretty driven that way.”She got an extra year to get back into shape because of the COVID-19 pandemic and spent that time working out in her garage between breastfeeding sessions and keeping in touch with her U.S. teammates over Zoom.Gunderson said she still has a small separation in her stomach but has regained almost all of her strength, although she does get reminded at times by her body after matches that she is a 33-year-old mother.She played professionally in Japan this past season but was told at one point by U.S. coach Karch Kiraly that her blocking and other aspects of her game weren’t up to her usual level.That only served as more motivation. Gunderson said that after feeling like her ego got kicked, she found another gear and is heading back to the Olympics in strong form, which is no surprise to her teammates and Kiraly.“Nobody in this program thinks that anything is impossible for Foluke,” Kiraly said. “You could just ask anybody and they say, ‘Well, of course, it’s Foluke; she would have done it if she had to do it in less than 12 less months and play last year.’ She’s got a very single-minded way of being able to do that. To be able to do that after having started a family is just blowing people away that she continues to be such a professional and approach her craft in such a disciplined way and crush it as a mom.”The challenge now that Gunderson is back in physical shape is dealing with the separation from Jonathan and 1-year-old Kayode. She gets daily pictures and FaceTime calls and leans heavily on her “second family” on the court.“I love being here. I love being surrounded by these strong, hilarious, intelligent women,” she said. “It just makes this so much easier.”Now the task is putting the frustrating finish to the 2016 Games in the past and focusing on trying to win the first gold medal ever for the U.S. women’s volleyball team.That nearly happened five years ago in Rio de Janeiro before Gunderson injured her left knee late in the first set of the semifinals against Serbia when she was playing perhaps her best volleyball of the entire tournament.Amid questions about the severity of the injury and whether she would do any long-term damage, Gunderson could only watch and encourage her teammates for the final four sets as the United States fell short of the gold medal match.She played two days later for the bronze medal match when doctors determined she couldn’t damage the knee more. She helped the U.S. earn bronze with a win over the Netherlands, but some will always wonder if it would have been a different color medal had she not gotten hurt.“It doesn’t help to live in the past,” she said. “I’ve learned it’s not going to change the outcome for us, unfortunately. If it did, I would do that all day every day. But because it doesn’t, it doesn’t help to do that. And all I can do is hope for a better tomorrow and hope for a better next time.”———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

Zoom meetings built chemistry for US Women's Volleyball team

Zoom meetings built chemistry for US Women's Volleyball team

When the pandemic hit last March leading to a one year postponement of the Olympics and the inability of teams to practice and play together, the U.S. women’s volleyball team devised a planBy JOSH DUBOW AP Sports WriterJuly 7, 2021, 8:46 PM• 5 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleWhen the pandemic hit last March leading to a one year postponement of the Olympics and the inability of teams to practice and play together, the U.S. women’s volleyball team devised a plan.Unable to work together on serves, sets or spikes, they decided to use that extra time to work on culture, relationships and teamwork.What followed were a regular stretch of mostly player-only Zoom meetings coordinated by former UCLA softball coach Sue Enquist that began as weekly sessions and went to monthly as players dispersed around the world for their club seasons.“It was an unorthodox route. That’s not something that our program’s done before,” coach Karch Kiraly said. “A lot of the players on our team felt really strongly about it. They felt so convinced that they convinced me, too. We took a calculated risk in doing something new and different at the time that wasn’t so far away from the Olympics, 14 months away. … We had never done it before. So I didn’t know what to expect. But I knew some good things would happen.”The results have exceeded the expectations of both the players and the coaching staff. The hour-long sessions that allowed players to open up to their teammates in ways they hadn’t done before and exposed their personal vulnerabilities helped build a bond on a team that features eight players making their Olympic debut this year.While results may not have always seemed evident during those calls, the difference when the team got back together this spring to prepare for the Olympics was clear, and the players hope that can help the U.S. team get over the hump and win the gold medal for the first time.Enquist had players share what they felt was holding them back individually and as a team, as well as tell their teammates one thing they loved about each other and one thing they should improve.“It wasn’t until we came back together as a group that I realized that each time we met and discussed things and got closer as a group, you’re just making small deposits and all those small deposits led to a big change,” said middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson, who acknowledged being initially skeptical of the approach.“So even though we unfortunately weren’t able to be together due to COVID, the time that we spent, those one hour meetings over the course of a year, really made a difference and you felt that once we all came back together.”The process started after a few of the players were on a Zoom call when Enquist made a presentation to several U.S. Olympic teams.A few leaders went to Kiraly and asked if Enquist could work more extensively with the team and she was hired as a consultant. Now a group of players used to being apart for most of the year had a way to bond together, even if it was only virtually.“At the time, we were kind of having some just interpersonal issues on the team,” said Jordan Larson, who is headed to her third Olympics. “We really kind of took it upon ourselves, ‘Hey, let’s try this as athletes.’ It just created a lot of conversations. She’s really trying to facilitate those or taking us through leadership and being a part of a team. She’s been great and very instrumental to a lot of that growth off the court.”Enquist has an extensive history with elite athletes, having been an All-American softball player at UCLA in the 1970s before a long career as a coach at her alma mater and for the U.S. national team. She was part of 11 NCAA champions as a player, assistant and head coach for UCLA before shifting to her next career helping coaches, teams and young athletes on the mental part of the game.She considers herself a disciple of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden where it is more important to be motivated by improving and taking care of each other than winning titles.Those are lessons she didn’t always follow as a coach herself as she once famously had to apologize after throwing a fourth-place trophy in the trash after a tournament in Hawaii in 2000.“I have so much respect for how challenging it is to play as one when you have a whole team of superstars. I knew this was going to take months to build up equity with them,” she said. “Then I had the first Zoom meeting and my jaw dropped. This was a team that was so honest with each other and so caring for each other and unselfish. I thought to myself, we may be able to create that synergy sooner than I thought.”Enquist said she wanted to be hired for a three-month probationary period at first to make sure her message was getting through.An anonymous survey after that stretch showed her it was working and she has remained involved since then. She called the team “one of the most impressive groups” she’s been around because of the way they care about each other and is gratified by the response from the players.“I have so much joy for them that they are reaping the benefits of who they are,” she said. “As much as they may say, ‘Oh, Sue came in and helped us with these areas,’ actually what I did, I came in and I shined a light on who they are.”———More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

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