Speedskater Irene Schouten earns star status at Ice Ribbon with third Olympic gold

Irene Schouten of the Netherlands celebrating first place during the Women's Mass Start Final on day 15 of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games.
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BEIJING (AP) — Irene Schouten grew up dreaming of an Olympic gold medal.

She’ll head home from the Beijing Games with three of ’em.

The Dutch speedskater established herself as the biggest star at the Ice Ribbon with her third individual victory, chasing down Canada’s Ivanie Blondin to win the women’s mass start on Saturday.

In the final speedskating event of these Games, Blondin grabbed the lead on the back straight with about a half-lap to go. But Schouten rallied back with an all-out sprint to win by 0.06 seconds.

“I’m always good on the last straight,” the winner said. “I had confidence that I could beat her.”

Schouten let out a scream as she crossed the stripe, celebrating another gold after her victories in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters. In a nifty bookend, she won the first and last speedskating events in Beijing, two weeks apart.

“I’m so happy,” Schouten said. “I worked really, really hard. When I was young, I had a dream to have an Olympic gold. Now, to do it three times, it’s amazing.”

Bart Swings won the men’s mass start to make history for Belgium. He became the first individual Winter Olympic gold medalist for his country, which had won its only previous gold in pairs figure skating in 1948.

“I always want to raise the bar to the next level,” Swings said.

It was a frustrating final day at the oval for the American team.

Joey Mantia was edged out by the tip of a blade for the bronze in the men’s race. The 36-year-old Floridian complained that he was grabbed by another skater, costing him his second medal of the Beijing Games.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Historic bronze makes Elana Meyers Taylor most decorated Black athlete in Winter Olympics history

Mia Manganello Kilburg matched Mantia with a fourth-place showing in the women’s race.

Blondin settled for the silver, adding to the gold she won as part of team pursuit. The bronze went to Italy’s Francesca Lollobrigida, her second medal of the Olympics after claiming a silver in the 3,000.

Blondin thought she had the gold when she surged past Schouten with one turn to go.

“Maybe I went a little bit too early,” Blondin said. “I should have been a little more patient. But it’s mass start. You never know what can happen. Irene has been so strong these past few weeks, its just an honor for me to be second to her.”

Swings improved on the silver he won at the 2018 PyeongChang Games in the frenetic event — the only individual speedskating race with head-to-head, pack-style competition instead of racing against the clock in lanes.

“After silver comes gold,” he said. “Once you have that medal, you know how bad you want it again.”

There was plenty of shoving and grabbing, not to mention some shocking falls.

Defending Olympic champion Nana Takagi failed to advance to the final after falling again while leading on the final turn of her semifinal heat — a repeat of the tumble she took to cost Japan the gold in team pursuit.

Reigning world champion Marijke Groenewoud fell in both the semifinals and the final. She was able to get back up after the first mishap and qualify for the medal race.

She went down again and finished 11th.

“It is a crazy race, but for me, it’s so much fun,” Blondin said. “It’s kind of like roller derby out there.”

South Korea claimed both medals behind Swings. Chung Jae Won took the silver and defending Olympic champion Lee Seung Hoon settled for bronze this time.

Mantia, a three-time world champion, initially posted the same time as Lee. But the replay showed the tip of the South Korean’s skate crossed the line just ahead of Mantia’s blade, giving him the bronze by 0.001 seconds.

Mantia claimed that Lee grabbed him as they raced to the line, but no infraction was called.

“I feel like I was cheated,” Mantia said. “I felt like his hand was on my arm pulling me back.”

The mass start races marked the apparent Olympic farewells for two speedskating greats.

Sven Kramer of the Netherlands ranked last in the men’s final, pushing the pace early on but dropping back when the contenders turned on the speed at the end of the 16-lap race. The 35-year-old Dutch star finished his Olympic career with a total of nine medals, including four golds. He already announced he was retiring after Beijing.

Claudia Pechstein of Germany made the women’s final just three days before her 50th birthday. She took points in one of the interval sprints and finished ninth.

When asked if she was retiring, Pechstein said she hasn’t made a final decision. But it’s hard to envision she would compete for another four years.

Pechstein carried the flag for Germany in the opening ceremony of her eighth Olympics, the most ever by a female winter athlete. She has five golds and nine medals in a career that also included a doping ban she continues to dispute.

The Netherlands again topped the speedskating medal table, finishing with six golds and 12 medals overall. The United States finished with three medals, its best showing since 2010.

Mantia thought it should’ve been four.

“I had a little stumble in the last corner,” he said, “but that was still a medal-worthy performance in my opinion.”

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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.”