Chloe Kim’s biggest challenger? It might be 32-year-old Queralt Castellet

Dew Tour Copper Mountain 2020 - Day 3
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ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AP) — Spanish snowboarder Queralt Castellet goes by “Q” for one good reason: “She demands the respect of one big letter,” her coach cracked.

OK, maybe two reasons — the primary being that it saves everyone the effort of trying to pronounce her name. FYI: It’s Kuh-ralt.

Without a doubt, “Q” has become an answer to this trivia question: Name a rider who could give defending Olympic halfpipe champion Chloe Kim a run for the title at the Beijing Games.

At 32 and competing in her fifth Olympics, Castellet shows no signs of slowing down. Instead, with the assistance of her coach, two-time Olympic silver medalist Danny Kass, she is flying higher than she did in her 20s and consistently landing more gnarly tricks. On top of that, she can’t recall having this much fun.

“The day I stop learning is probably when I really stop competing,” Castellet said in an interview during last month’s Winter X Games, where she placed second in a field that was missing Kim. “But I’m on a very good path with a lot of progression. I’m having a blast.

She is feeding off the energy of this younger generation. She looks around and sees almost nobody who was there at her first Olympic appearance in 2006.

Back then, Castellet was a wide-eyed teenager from Spain — never mistaken for a haven of snowboarding — going against an American force that included Hannah Teter, Gretchen Bleiler and Kelly Clark. Now, it’s Kim and Maddie Mastro, along with a host of international riders such as Xuetong Cai of China.

“To me, it’s an honor to be able to share this time with all different kinds of ages of riders and different styles,” said Castellet, who has halfpipe qualifying on Wednesday. “And to see what has happened to snowboarding because of all the different flavors that they bring in. It’s just amazing.”

Somewhere, maybe in her parents’ house, there’s video of a 16-year-old Castellet competing at the 2006 Turin Games. She hasn’t watched the halfpipe run in quite some time.

She does recall this from her 26th-place finish: sheer enjoyment. She had so much passion, so much determination.

Still does after all these years.

Her best Olympic result was seventh at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. But she’s a different sort of rider these days.

For that, she credits Kass, with whom she began collaborating about two seasons ago.

In Castellet, Kass saw a snowboarder who had as many tricks at her disposal as Kim. He watched Castellet for a while, learned what she could do — and do well — in the pipe and then went about honing in on her strengths. For instance, they’ve dialed up her cab jump — riding “switch” (the opposite direction from normal) and jumping frontside — along with adding degrees of spin.

This keeps her youthful, too: riding with the kids at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, where Kass works with the team.

“I think that made her have a little bit more fun … actually riding with junior peers, young kids she’s not competing against,” Kass explained. “She was trying new tricks and what they were learning.”

In Kass, Castellet found a fresh voice from a snowboarder she grew up watching and admiring. Kass captured two Olympic silvers, including in 2006 when he finished behind Shaun White, who is trying to defend his title again this winter.

Castellet also took to heart one of Kass’ biggest pieces of advice: Just have fun.

“Not that I forgot (to have fun), but I could get a little too serious or a little too repetitive in some things,” said Castellet, whose country has won only one gold medal at the Winter Games, in 1972, by ski racer Francisco Fernández Ochoa. “It’s very, very important to enjoy everything on the mountain, and this side of me is just really, really blooming.”

Over the years, she’s become a student of the sport. Castellet frequently watches video of other riders to pick up tips and draw inspiration. She may view a run of Australian rider Scotty James to study how he rides “switch.” Or scrutinize the Japanese team to see how it tackles a difficult trick. Or examine the style of Danny Davis. Or even watch one of her biggest rivals, Kim, to see what she does so well (conclusion: “She goes for it — always,” Castellet said. “Just brings this energy.”).

“It’s cool to be surrounded by such amazing riders,” added Castellet, who was second behind Kim at the Dew Tour in December in Copper Mountain, Colorado. “I can not only get motivated, but also learn from them.”

As for how long she may keep competing, “Q” doesn’t have an exact “A” for that one. Not yet anyway.

“I can’t tell you what I’m going to be doing tomorrow, for example, but I definitely know that there’s snowboarding,” Castellet said. “I like progressing. I like the experiences. I’m having more and more fun every time, just because I learn every day.”

2022 Winter Olympics Schedule: Women’s Snowboard Halfpipe

Event Date / Start Time (U.S. Eastern Time) Date / Start Time (Beijing, China)
Women’s Snowboard Halfpipe (Qualification) 2/8/22 8:30 PM 2/9/22 9:30 AM
Women’s Snowboard Halfpipe (Final) 2/9/22 8:30 PM 2/10/22 9:30 AM

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”