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The Super Bowl of ski jumping

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BISCHOFSHOFEN, AUSTRIA – With the Super Bowl less than a month away, it’s nearly that time of year when the nation shifts its focus to the NFL’s championship game on that unofficial holiday. Few sporting events can compare, of course, so when I was told I would be attending the “Super Bowl of ski jumping” – the Four Hills tournament – I was a bit skeptical of this bold proclamation.

But, as someone who has now attended both sporting events, I can attest that it’s not far off.

Since 1952, the world’s best ski jumpers have competed in the Four Hills, officially the Vierschanzentournee, descending upon four cities in Germany and Austria every year for this eight-day competition in hopes of being crowned champion of this prestigious event. I hadn’t been in Germany for more than a few hours when I began seeing evidence of the Four Hills’ popularity. Posters in the Munich airport, billboards along the streets, pictures in the newspapers and on TV – this is a big deal, especially for the two host countries whose rivalry is filled with centuries of history.

Always donning their countries’ colors, the crowds came in astonishing numbers – over 100,000 throughout the competition – packing into these small venues for a chance to see their nation’s finest take off at over 55 miles per hour, traveling nearly the length of a football field-and-a-half. The skiing-mad Austrians would go wild when one of their athletes soared through the air. Waving Austrian flags created a sea of red and white in the Innsbruck and Bischofshofen stadiums and everyone shouted “ZZZ,” which I was told is supposed to be the sound a ski jumper’s flight makes.

Luckily for the Austrians, they have the best ski jumper in the world in Gregor Schlierenzauer, a 23-year-old phenom who’s already considered among the sport’s all-time greats. With a nearly flawless performance throughout the tournament, “Schlieri” clinched his second straight Four Hills title, sending the fans and local press into a frenzy. After his final jump in Bischofshofen, the young Austrian star basked in the moment at the bottom of the hill, pumping his skis toward the sky. When he finally lifted the Four Hills trophy above his head, the crowd erupted one final time, as fireworks lit up the night sky.

The Super Bowl metaphor certainly has its holes, but the Four Hills Tournament lived up to its billing.

Rio Olympic, Paralympic medals to be unveiled June 16

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The medals for the Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games will be unveiled June 16, 50 days before the Olympic Opening Ceremony, Rio Games and International Paralympic Committee officials said Friday.

The Olympic and Paralympic medals are different designs.

It’s the closest to the Opening Ceremony that Olympic medals have been unveiled since 2000:

Sochi 2014 — Eight months ahead of time
London 2012 — One year ahead
Vancouver 2010 — Four months ahead
Beijing 2008 — 17 months ahead
Torino 2006 — Two months ahead
Athens 2004 — 13 months ahead
Salt Lake City 2002 — Four months ahead
Sydney 2000 — One month ahead

MORE: Pelé on Rio Olympics, lighting the cauldron

Bob Bowman talks new book, Olympic memories, Michael Phelps

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While at TODAY to discuss his new book, “The Golden Rules,” with Matt Lauer, U.S. Olympic men’s swimming head coach Bob Bowman sat down with OlympicTalk last week.

In “The Golden Rules,” Bowman details 10 steps to world-class excellence in life and work, illustrating them with lessons learned from coaching not only Michael Phelps, but also several more world-class swimmers and his own personal experiences.

Bowman answered questions about his book, Phelps’ training for the Olympic Trials and his memories from coaching the past two decades:

OlympicTalk: Why write and come out with a book now?

Bowman: Well, quite honestly, I think this is when it could get the most widespread coverage. The message can be the most effectively given, because it’s in our Olympic window. I’ve been working on it for four years, so it’s kind of been a long process. Right after London I started working on it. It just seemed like this year is perfect timing.

OlympicTalk: In May 2012, you said you would take a year off from coaching after the Olympics. Now that you’re back, and now coaching a college program, how much longer do you see yourself coaching?

Bowman: I think a long time now. One thing I learned on that break, I’m a terrible vacationer. I have to make myself sit at the beach. I’m probably going to work as long as I can work. It’s what I love to do. So, I’m healthy, don’t see why I won’t go for a long time.

EXCERPT: Bowman and Phelps’ first conversation about a comeback

OlympicTalk: Do you and Phelps have an idea of what you’d like to focus on in his final pre-Olympic Trials meet in Austin (June 3-5)?

Bowman: There are a couple of things that he needs to do. You know, he hasn’t really done too many 200m frees [in his comeback]. I think you’ll see him in a 200m free. And he has some goals that he has for the other events that he’d like to hit before trials, so that’s what we’re working on.

OlympicTalk: If Phelps wants to swim the 4x100m and 4x200m free relays in Rio, does he need to put up a fast time at trials?

Bowman: Well, I think he needs to put up a time, sometime, to let us know that he’s on that level. Intuitively, we know, but, yeah, he’s going to have to put up some times. It could be [in Austin].

OlympicTalk: As U.S. Olympic men’s head coach, what are your early thoughts on the relays?

Bowman: I think in the 4x200m [free], we’re looking pretty strong. I think we have some young guys that are very good. We’ve got Michael, Ryan [Lochte], the kind of mainstays. Conor [Dwyer] is on fire. He’s been training with us in altitude

The 4x100m is still a little bit of a question mark, but I feel better about it as we go along. I think we’ve got some young guys coming up who are going to step up. Nathan [Adrian] is obviously very solid. I think Michael put in a really solid 100m. So I feel better about it. I don’t know exactly how far we can go, but I think we’re a lot better than we were a year ago.

Editor’s Note: The U.S. had a disastrous 11th-place finish in preliminaries at the World Championships 4x100m free relay on Aug. 2, without Phelps, Lochte or Adrian.

OlympicTalk: Two years ago, we were all concerned about Allison Schmitt after she failed to make the World Championships team. She’s swimming well again. What happened in the last two years? 

Bowman: She’s really just gone through some very tough times, battling depression, and she’s kind of come out the other side. I think she’s really worked very hard on her mental aspects of swimming. The physical was never really a question. She’s trying to put all the pieces together. And now she’s really kind of become a much stronger person, and it’s really showing. Her training is as good as it’s ever been.

Editor’s Note: Bowman expects Schmitt to swim three events at the Olympic Trials — 100m, 200m and 400m freestyles. Schmitt took gold in the 200m and silver in the 400m at the 2012 Olympics.

MORE: Phelps’ concussion, more highlights from ‘The Golden Rules’

OlympicTalk: Other than those you’ve coached, who is the most impressive swimmer you’ve seen?

Bowman: I’d have to say [Katie] Ledecky. She has been so consistent at such a high level. Someone asked me about the most amazing swims I’ve ever seen are, and I’m going to have to say that one of them is certainly Katie’s 8:06 that she swam in Austin [an 800m freestyle world record on Jan. 17]. 4:03/4:03 [splits]. For a long time, 4:03 was a world record [in the 400m freestyle], and I thought it would never be touched. To do two of those? Absolutely amazing.

OlympicTalk: What about international swimmers?

Bowman: I’ve always been a big Ian Thorpe fan. He’s such an incredible swimmer at his peak. There have been so many. [Kosuke] Kitajima the breaststroker. There have been some really, really kind of dominant swimmers during their window in time. Which, as I see that now, I’m even more amazed that Michael’s been able to maintain that level for so long.

OlympicTalk: What’s your favorite of Phelps’ Olympic swims?

Bowman: That’s hard to say. His best in terms of just a pure performance was his 200m free in Beijing [then a world record; Phelps has said that’s his best swim at an Olympics]. A dominating performance. My personal favorite is the 4:03 [400m individual medley] from Beijing [still a world record]. But I also love his 400m IM from Athens, his first gold medal. So those are kind of my top three.

OlympicTalk: We’ve all heard the stories of Phelps in Sydney in 2000, forgetting his credential and leaving his suit strings untied. What do you remember about those Games?

Bowman: I remember that we were so happy to be there, and the thing I loved is he got faster. Every time he swam, he got faster. He did a best time every time he swam. But there was so much more left to do. I’ve just seen a video, NBC’s doing a little promo this week, they show him diving in in Sydney. He kicks his legs back. He doesn’t kick underwater. There are like a million things he could have done better. So that’s what I remember. He was just a kid having fun.

OlympicTalk: Did you make any rookie Olympic mistakes as a coach in Atlanta or Sydney?

Bowman: No, because the kid [I coached in Atlanta] was the same age as me [laughs]. I didn’t have to do anything. Eric Wunderlich, he trained himself [Wunderlich was 26 in Atlanta; Bowman was 32]. Actually, in Sydney, I don’t know if I made any mistakes, but I probably just didn’t know how the game was played. It was just inexperience in the schedule, reminding Michael to have his credential. Those kinds of things. I think that’s what I didn’t really think of.

VIDEO: Bowman discusses ‘The Golden Rules’ on TODAY