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    Four-time Olympic Gold Medalist Serena Williams as the Greatest Of All Time?
     
    Olympic tennis great Serena Williams' Australian Open run earlier this month certainly inspired talk on her status as a Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T.) contender. While I generally don't pay much attention to such discussions - too many variables in such different eras to be fair - the chatter inspired me to revisit the HBO Sports documentary mini-series Being Serena from 2018.
     
    Produced in part with Williams' business partner IMG Entertainment, Being Serena was never going to be an in-depth, impartial look at one of history's greatest athletes. But it is a revealing reminder of her unique position today and drive. Too often, we see a star athlete or celebrity as one dimensional, as just the person on the court or on stage. Williams has surely been subject to this - having seen her win 23 Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles (out of 14 finals!), 7 WTA Tour Championship titles, and 4 Olympic gold medals, we had been lulled into a sense of her invincibility. But Being Serena shows that Williams is human, after all, perhaps even setting us up to temper expectations going forward.

    Being Serena shows us Williams facing real world, outside of tennis, moments from a roughly 15-month period starting with her early 2017 pregnancy announcement to child birth, to subsequent grave medical concerns, and her wedding. There is a refreshing quality seeing her face these life events. She has legitimate concerns aside from the playing court, and she faces them with as any of us would - at times emotional and vulnerable. No matter that the documentary comes across as too polished for some critics. What we do see is earnest and sincere.

    Seeing her in this human light actually does support Williams as the G.O.A.T. Coming back to elite competition, in serious contention to build upon her 23 Grand Slam titles...who else has been that strong to come back from such a complicated birth and perilous recovery so well? It's a unique, daunting challenge fit for a fierce competitor. Note when her husband Alexis jokingly suggests their daughter's potential as a Grand Slam winner years in the future, Williams is whip-quick with a "not if I'm still playing" retort. Brash, sure...but it should not be unexpected from someone as career-determined as she is.

    Between her return in May 2018 and today, she's made four Grand Slam finals. Four! Never mind that she hasn't won one of them, just having the tenacity to make it through to four finals - and this last Australian semifinals - would be a beyond outstanding record for anyone. And she's largely done it on her terms, juggling motherhood and marriage while on the road. It's a unique challenge, it should noted, to female athletes.

    She doesn't need a 24th title to justify her legacy (though I am rooting for it). The fact that she's still sharing her tennis with us should a joy. In retrospective, Being Serena helps us to appreciate just how special a competitor Williams is. Here's hoping she provides us more highlights still.
     
    A version of this opinion piece appears on gamnesandrings.com. Follow GamesandRings.com for more on Olympic sports athletes.

    The roster for the men’s water polo tournament at the 2020 Olympics has been decided with the results of the Men’s Water Polo Olympic Qualification Tournament. The top three teams of the 12-team tournament qualified to the games. The format included a round robin group stage where the top four teams advanced to the quarterfinals. The event was held in Rotterdam, Netherlands from February 14th to February 21st 2021.


     
    Group A was reduced to five teams due to Turkey having too many positive COVID-19 cases and were thus disqualified. The two favourites for this group, Greece and Montenegro were undefeated until meeting up on the fourth day of matches. Greece did get a scare on the first day of matches where a third quarter comeback by Georgia and a very defensive fourth quarter meant Greece narrowly won 11-10. In the match between the two top teams, Montenegro jumped up to a 4-1 lead in the first quarter and was able to maintain a lead on route to an 8-4 victory to top the group. Georgia finished third thanks to victories over Canada (14-11) and Brazil (12-8) while Canada also advanced to the quarterfinals as they won 11-7 over Brazil on the first day.


     
    Group B was a much more competitive group which saw two draws and six one-goal victories across the 15 matches. The largest upset occurred on the fourth day of matches where 2016 Olympic silver medalist Croatia lost to Russia 14-13. Russia was able to prevent Croatia from scoring during the fourth quarter as they successfully completed their comeback to win by a single point. This victory allowed Russia to win the group with 4 victories and a 9-9 draw against Romania. Croatia finished second while France required a final day victory over Romania (16-7) to finish third. This allowed France to finish equal on points with the Netherlands, but with a better goal differential the former finished ahead while the latter finished fourth. Romania finished fifth thanks to a 12-7 win over Germany.


     
    The quarterfinals saw the favourites secure victories. Montenegro began the day against the Netherlands by jumping up to a 4-0 lead after the first quarter on route to winning 13-7. The Greece and France matched turned out to be the most exciting match of the round. Despite starting with the lead, Greece was slowly overtaken by France who held a 12-10 lead going into the final quarter. Greece won the fourth quarter 3-1 to tie the game, forcing it to go to penalties. Greece won the shoot-out 4-1 to advance to the semi-finals. Croatia and Georgia began as a close match, but a strong second quarter by Croatia removed doubt within the match, allowing them to win 15-6. The final nation to advance to the semi-finals was Russia whose lead was never threatened as they went on to win 17-9 over Canada.


     
    In the first opportunity to qualify for the Olympics the semi-final match between Montenegro and Croatia had both nations trading leads, finishing with a goal by Montenegro’s Miroslav Perkovic to end the game 10-10 and forcing a penalty shoot-out. Montenegro won the shoot-out 4-2 to become the first nation to qualify. Joining them was Greece who played a close game with Russia, but never gave up the lead to win 13-10.


     
    The tournament was won by Montenegro who pulled off a successful fourth quarter comeback after being down 8-6 to win 10-9 over Greece. The third-place match and final Olympic quota was played between Croatia and Russia. In a repeat of Croatia’s semi-final match, Russia tied the game 11-11 with 16 seconds remaining thanks to Dmitrii Kholod. The ensuing penalty shoot-out turned into a marathon as 15 rounds were required before Croatia prevailed 14-13.


     
    All three teams are considered mainstays in the men’s water polo tournament. Montenegro continues its streak of qualifying to this event as an independent nation where it will be looking to win their first medal after three consecutive fourth place finishes. Greece will also be looking to win their first medal after finishing sixth in Rio while Croatia will be hoping to win their fourth medal in the event as an independent nation.


     
    Qualified Nations

     
    Men's Tournament
    Croatia
    Greece
    Montenegro

     

    With the start of IBSF Skeleton World Championships this weekend, I thought now would be an appropriate time to tell you about my little venture into the sport of skeleton. Enjoy!  
     
    Growing up I was solely focused on one thing, to make the NFL. That was it. That was the goal, and I dedicated ten years of every waking moment working towards it. Like most aspiring to make "the league" the dream eventually dies. For me it was at the 2015 NFL Specialist Combine, when after a decent performance my phone didn't ring. However, I was not ready to give up the sport I grew up playing and somewhat loving. I decided to focus on trying out for the Canadian Football League (CFL) and teams in Europe. With some success, this effort ultimately led to an opportunity to represent the United States at the 2017 World Games.
     

    (A field goal attempt vs. Poland at the 2017 World Games - photo credit Dawid Szulc)
     
    After I returned home from Poland, the emails from American Football coaches began to dry up, I guess no one wanted a bronze medalist punter. I saw the writing on the wall, "this American Football ride was over", but at age twenty-seven I was not ready to stop playing sports. One of the things that my experience at the World Games gave me was a newfound interest in multi-sport games. Something else I learned in Wroclaw was that there was a whole world of other sports out there! I fired up the computer and began to do some research, "what sports could an athlete start later in life?" After a few minutes of research, I stumbled across a website promoting a program called "The Next Olympic Hopeful". This program aimed at finding athletic talent that could be translated into the sports of Weightlifting, Rowing, Track Cycling, and Bobsled. I have perhaps the worst lifting body in the world, so I did not even read about Weightlifting, and I have horrible cardio therefore Rowing and Track Cycling were also out. Now, I've seen Cool Runnings, so I figured that was a good start. I started reading about other American Football athletes who made the seamless transition from American Football to Bobsledding. "Bingo, this was it!" I signed up for the USABS combine in Lake Placid, NY that summer and continued my training. 
     

    (Once you enter the town of Lake Placid, they won't let you forget they hosted not one by TWO Olympic Winter Games!)
     
    Entering the tiny mountain town of Lake Placid, NY is a surreal feeling, especially if you are a multi-sport games nerd like myself. You cannot escape the five rings that are plastered all over the town. When I arrived at the track for testing, I quickly realized that being a bobsledder would not be in my future. The USABS was not looking for drivers, most bobsled drivers are locals who have grown up piloting a sled. They were looking for push athletes, and the ideal push athlete is built like an American Football linebacker with the speed of a 100m sprinter. I do not come close in either category, so I moved over to the skeleton part of the track, totally unaware of what I was about to get into. The USABS combine test is very basic. Three tests, a 60m sprint, a standing broad jump, and a shot toss. After, you can try pushing a sled at their push track located at the Olympic Training Center. My training as a kicker and punter really helped me with these tests and I finished near the top of my group. At the end of the day, I was pulled aside by then USABS development coach Don Hass, who invited me to a "Skeleton School" later that winter.
     

    (Did I ask a fellow athlete to take a picture of me pushing a push track sled? Obviously. Did I post it on Instagram? Of course!) 
     
    I came home from Lake Placid and continued life like normal, teaching high school, coaching, and tending bar, almost forgetting about skeleton. It was not until February that I received an email from Don inviting me to come back out to Lake Placid for a weeklong skeleton school. I then did what anyone with a work commitment would do - I drove to a Patient First and got a doctor’s note saying that I had the flu, thus a week off from school. With my school thinking I was sick, I packed my car and headed back up to Lake Placid.
     
    The aura that Lake Placid had in August was not there when I arrived in a snowstorm. Lake Placid winters are cold, snowy, cold, cold, snowy, and COLD. There were mornings when I woke up and the temperature was -12 F! The veteran sliders just shrugged off the shrill chill and said, "makes for fast ice." When I arrived most of the national team members were over in Europe competing on the World Cup tour. The members that did not make the World Cup or were competing on lower-level tours were all in Lake Placid for training. Being around those other sliders was a great experience, some of these athletes had competed in Europe before and were very knowledgeable, helpful, and kind. 
     

    (This is the map of the Lake Placid track I was given my first day. Your only job is to study it. I still don't know what turn comes up next!)
     
    While most of the athletes were at the top of the track, me and the other "newbies" had to start at the Junior Start which is around turn seven. Lake Placid has nineteen turns, so we started a little above the middle of the track. To be honest, before your first run there is not much instruction. You are taught which end of the sled is up, how to lie on the sled, and where to hold the handles. Nothing about steering, where to position your head, or how to not hit a wall. Once all the senior athletes completed their runs from the top, it was our turn. We would lay down on the sled, lift our feet up, and the coach would just shove us down the track. There are two reactions after your first run. A) That was awesome! Let's do that again! B) That hurt and was scary. To be honest, I had reaction B. On my first run I bounced my way down the track like a pinball. Every time I hit a wall it felt like sharp ice digging into your skin. However, unlike a few other newbies who also had reaction B, I did not call it a day, I went back up for my second run, and even did a third run that night, as the sliding experience began to grow on me. 
     

    (Some "cool" bruises after Day 1)
     
    I arrived at the track the next morning to a much smaller "newbie" group. Seemed like a few who had reaction B decided that this was not for them. (By the way, there is nothing wrong with that!) We grabbed our sleds from the sled shed and hopped in the back of the sled truck. We stopped at the Junior Start, and I was on my way out of the truck when Don stopped me and another athlete. "Were going to the Doubles Start with you two", he said in the most casual tone. The other kid and I just looked at each other a little confused and a little scared. The "Doubles Start" is used by the Doubles Luge team and it is as close as you can get to the top without going off from the top. "It's the same as yesterday, but you go faster." Don said as he shoved me off from turn three. My first run from the Doubles Start was a blur... and painful. The biggest difference from the Junior Start to the Doubles Start was the speed and G Forces. I was going about twenty miles per hour faster than I had the day before. The G Forces would force your head down, making it impossible to see anything. However, just like the day before I went back up to the Doubles Start and slowly learned my way down the track, each time it got a little easier. 
     

    (A VERY bumpy run from the Doubles start)
     
    I slowly began to enjoy my week and time at the track. Everyone in the sliding community from the athletes, to the track workers, to the truck drivers were kind and just good people. I also began to understand just how hard this sport really is. There were athletes who had been sliding for ten plus years who were still trying to break into the World Cup team. Even Don said that it takes on average eight years to become a good slider. By the end of the week, I made it to the top of track, although I was not allowed a running start just yet - but I've been told that takes around a year to master. I left Lake Placid with an invitation to come back the following winter.
     

    (Those starts could use some work!)
     
    On the drive home I thought about the reality of being a skeleton athlete. I did enjoy sliding, the community, and I was getting decent times compared to the other "newbies" there. However, I thought about the bigger picture of it all. Was I ready to give up my teaching career for this? Move to Lake Placid or Park City and leave my family and friends for this? Was I willing to embrace the struggles of learning a new sport, and understand that there was a good chance no matter how long or hard I tried, I might never make it? By the time I pulled up to my home in Baltimore I decided that those sacrifices were not in the cards for me. Nevertheless, it did give me a greater appreciation for all the sacrifices those Olympic hopefuls do make. It is one of the ugly sides of being an Olympic Hopeful that the public is unaware of. They do not see the athlete standing at the top of the track in -12 F weather, hoping to get this last run in before their shift at Delta Blue, which starts in thirty minutes. Oh, and they have not seen their significant other in six months. 
     
    Since my skeleton school experience, I have made trips to both Lake Placid and Park City to watch races and further explore my interest in the sport. I continue to follow both bobsled and skeleton extensively and have even stayed in touch with some of the athletes from my week there. (Sara Roderick, who was a first-year slider with me that week, will make her World Championship debut this weekend in Altenberg!) Participating in the skeleton school was one of the best athletic experiences I have had. Even if you are not an athlete, I know that both Lake Placid and Park City offer tourist rides, so if you are ever in those distant parts of the United States go take a slide down that icy hill - you will not regret it!     

    The FIG has announced the cancellation of the Artistic Gymnastics All-Around World Cup Series. Originally, four events were scheduled in 2020, but only the Milwaukee, United States event was held as the others were postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, with travel restrictions remaining in place it has become increasingly difficult to schedule at least two more events to validate the results.


     
    This has implications for qualification to the 2020 Olympics as the top three nations in the men’s and women’s individual rankings were expected to qualify a quota to compete. Following the reallocation procedure set by the FIG, the quotas have been reallocated to the top three nations during the team all-around qualification round at the 2019 World Championships.


     
    Thus, the quotas were awarded to China, Japan and Russia in the men’s individual events while China, Russia and the United States qualified an individual female athlete. This athlete will be allowed to compete in the individual events, but can not participate in the team event.


     
    Currently the remaining quotas are set to be decided at the apparatus World Cup Series and the continental qualifiers.


     
    Qualified Nations

     
    Men’s Artistic Individual Events



    China Japan
    Russia
     
    Women’s Artistic Individual Events



    China Russia
    United States

    The 2021 World Para Ice Hockey A-Pool Championships, originally scheduled for early May in Ostrava, Czech Republic, have been postponed to 19-26 June due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
     
    The extra preparation time will be used to implement comprehensive health and safety protocols throughout the event in compliance with local and national guidelines, according World Para Ice Hockey and the Local Organizing Committee (LOC).

    World Para Ice Hockey Manager Michelle Laflamme stated, “World Para Ice Hockey is looking forward to bringing the World Championships back to Ostrava, and doing so in accordance with all health and safety procedures to ensure a safe event for all athletes, teams and staff involved. The World Championships will provide an exciting opportunity for people around the world to tune-in and witness the first Para ice hockey international event since the COVID-19 pandemic began.”  

    Ostravar Arena will host the event for the second consecutive time and third time overall after staging the tournament in 2009 and 2019. Head of the Ostrava 2021 LOC, Jiri Sindler, said “The tournament will take place according to strict health and safety measures. We are already receiving great interest from fans in purchasing tickets, and we thank all of our fans for their support, however we will not be launching ticket sales at this time. We are working intensively to ensure that our fans will be able to watch the entire World Championships online.”
     
    In Ostrava, eight teams, ranked highest internationally, will compete for the world title and qualification slots for the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. The top five teams at the World Championships will automatically qualify for the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics. The last three finishers will take part in a qualification tournament to be held at a later date to try to earn their spots in Beijing.

    The United States of America will enter the tournament as the defending Paralympic and world champions, and will be joined by Paralympic and world silver medallists Canada, Paralympic and world bronze medallists South Korea, host nation Czech Republic, and Norway and Italy. Russia and Slovakia, which finished in the top two spots at last year’s B-Pool World Championships in Berlin, complete the line-up. 

    With more than 300,000 inhabitants, Ostrava is the third largest city in the Czech Republic and the capital of the Moravian-Silesian region. Ostravar Arena, formerly known as the Culture and Sports Palace, was first opened in 1986 and has hosted many national, European and World Championships, as well as concerts and other popular events. The Arena was modernized in 2003 and is home to the HC Vitkovice Steel ice hockey team.
     

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