For beach volleyball players, this is like playing at hockey’s Bell Centre in Montreal, baseball’s Yankee Stadium or golf’s Augusta National.
When the Olympic tournament gets underway Aug. 6 in Rio de Janeiro, the players will be setting and spiking, digging and diving in the sands of Copacabana, one of the world’s most famous beaches. It’s the most popular tourist beach in the world, ranked ahead of those in Hawaii, Mexico, Australia and Jamaica.
To many of the athletes, it’s a shrine.
“It’s legendary,” says Canadian Olympian Josh Binstock. “It’s one thing to make it to the Olympics in general because it’s always great and special, but to go to a place where it’s legendary is amazing. It’s the top sport in the country, next to soccer, so the fans there will be on a different level than any other country in the world for beach volleyball.”
The Copacabana Beach venue, with its 12,000-seat arena, will undoubtedly be packed every day of the Olympics. The excitement of the sport, combined with the festive atmosphere that surrounds it, make beach volleyball a big-time attraction at any Olympics.
“The last Olympics were in London and it’s not really known for beach volleyball,” Canadian Kristina Valjas says with a laugh. The Toronto native will compete alongside Victoria’s Jamie Broder in Rio.
“They set it up and it was special in its own way, but this is perfect for beach volleyball. The whole country understands the sport, they have their favourite athletes, they are very lively in the crowd. It’s going to be a totally awesome atmosphere and experience.”
Round-robin games will be played from 10 a.m. until 1 a.m., with the last match starting at midnight Atlantic time, which means plenty of beach volleyball will be shown during prime-time television hours in the United States and Canada. These men and women will be stars.
“Beach volleyball is pretty much one of the premier events in general, but in Brazil I can only imagine the magnitude,” Binstock says.
Binstock, 35, and his partner Sam Schachter, 26, were the last team to qualify for the Olympic tournament. The Richmond Hill, Ont., athletes had to beat Sam Pedlow and Grant O’Gorman in a final Canadian qualifier on July 16. They are one of four Canadian teams in Rio.
“The beauty of the situation now with Canadian volleyball is I can honestly say I feel that all four teams have a legitimate shot at medalling,” Binstock says. “Every team that’s in the Olympics, men and women, have been on the podium on the world tour in the past and with all the same teams that are in the Olympics playing in those tournaments. We know that every team has the opportunity to realistically medal. It’s not just kind of a pipe dream.”
Canada has won only one medal in Olympic competition — a bronze — and that came from John Child and Mark Heese when beach volleyball made its debut in 1996 in Atlanta.
One of the reasons the sport is so popular in Brazil is the host country has won 11 Olympic medals, including two gold, since 1996. But it’s also because it is a tailor-made sport for spectators, with finely toned, highly skilled athletes competing in beach wear.
“It’s an event that sells out every game no matter who is playing because of the environment and atmosphere, the fun,” Binstock says. “There’s a lot of music going on, they bring in dancers. It’s a modern, new-ish sport. But I think people also get an appreciation for how serious and professional the sport is in terms of the difficulty. That’s what draws so many people to watch the sport.”
While some high-profile athletes — such as tennis star Milos Raonic and golfers Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth — have pulled out of the Olympics because of health concerns related to the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and many other people are concerned about violence in Rio, the athletes say beach volleyball players will be right at home at Copacabana.
“In terms of health with the Zika virus, I’ve been there twice now in the last year and I didn’t see a single mosquito,” Valjas says. “And we were very conscious of it so I’m not too worried about it for the Olympic Games. We are right by the ocean. It’s totally fine.”
OPENING AGAINST THE BEST
It’s hard to imagine a tougher assignment.
Josh Binstock and Sam Schachter needed to win a last-chance Canadian qualifier against Sam Pedlow and Grant O’Gorman just to get to the Olympics and their first assignment will be to face the top seeds, on their home sand, in Rio de Janeiro.
On Day 1, in the second match of the competition, it will be Binstock and Schachter against Alison Cerutti and Bruno Oscar Schmidt, of Brazil.
“I’m excited, especially for our first match,” Binstock says. “We’re playing the No. 1-seeded team in tournament, they are expected to win gold at home. I like that situation going in. There’s not really much pressure on us. We can go be aggressive, play free and see if we can shock the world by starting off with a big upset.”
Canadian Kristina Valjas says while Brazil has dominated for years on the world stage, this will be different.
“There’s so much pressure on the Brazilians to perform at home,” she says. “That’s something that is a factor and can’t go unnoticed. It’s all on their shoulders to represent their country and everyone is watching there.”
While the Canadians sound like they’ll be loose and feeling no pressure, getting on the podium in a field of 24 teams on each of the men’s and women’s side will be no small task.
“It’s definitely very difficult, but it’s like any other tournament we play during the season,” Binstock says. “All those same teams will be there and the difficulty is just the same. The magnitude is different, though, which is something you can’t really prepare for. We don’t often play in front of that many people. The momentum swings seem to be a lot more drastic during the Olympics because of the magnitude and the roaring of the crowd and the energy level.”
Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020
Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.
Theo Bair (MLS)
This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)
Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.
Connor McDavid (NHL)
McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.
Chuba Hubbard (College Football)
The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.
2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.
The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.
Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.
Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.
“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”
Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.
Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.
“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”
Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.
“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”
Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.
Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.
“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”
After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.
“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”
None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.
“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.
Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.
“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”
That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.
Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month
NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.
The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.
Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.
“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.
“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”
It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.
For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.
Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.
A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.
It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.
Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.
“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.
“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.
“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.
“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”
And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.
“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”
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