Six questions leading up to Sochi 2014

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The competition in Sochi starts a year from today, but with nationals and World Cup events happening as we speak, the competition is already heating up. We still don’t know who will compete in the Winter Olympics next February, but here’s a look at some of the top questions we’ll be asking all year.

Can Shaun White Three-peat?
White has won the last two Olympic titles in halfpipe, and the last six X Games titles in superpipe, but it still seems like everyone is nipping at his heels, most notably fourteen-year-old Japanese phenom Ayumu Hirano, who finished with silver in Aspen last month. White will also face Finland’s Markus Milan and America’s Scotty Lago. but we’re sure White will have something new up his sleeve for Sochi.

How well will Lindsey Vonn do in Sochi after the injury?
Questions will linger about Vonn’s conditioning coming off such a serious knee injury – she tore two right knee ligaments and fractured a bone in her shin – but as Christin Cooper told NBC Nightly News on Tuesday, “she’s gonna work as hard as anybody ever has to be in shape to win medals in Sochi.” We expect world champ Tina Maze of Slovenia to inspire her recovery, and expect nothing but the best from Lindsey.

Can Evan Lysacek be the first man to repeat in figure skating singles since 1952?
He can. Absolutely, so long as he’s healthy. The Vancouver champ missed this year’s nationals with a groin injury, but said he’s 100 percent now and ready to make a run for a second gold in Sochi. He’ll likely be facing-off against three-time medalist Yevgeny Plushenko, who recently had back surgery, and a host of worldwide up-and-comers including Javier Fernandez of Spain and new American national champ, Max Aaron.

What about Yuna Kim?
The South Korean star is also looking to repeat, and looked great in Germany back in December, winning gold at her first event in more than eighteen months. She should lock up a spot in Sochi at worlds in March, and definitely looks to shine on the ice again, but Americans Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, who were both impressive at U.S. nationals last month, might have something to say about that.

How will the Russians do at their first hometown Winter Games?
The Russians have always been one of the most formidable nations at the Winter Games, but disappointed themselves and Vladimir Putin by only winning fifteen medals in Vancouver; and only three gold. They’ll aim for the top of the medal table in Sochi with stars like Plushenko, a hockey team led by NHL stars Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin, speed skater Ivan Skobrev, and just about everyone on cross-country skis.

How on earth can I enjoy the Olympics more?
With more events, obviously. Twelve to be exact, which means there’s 36 more medals to be won (by the U.S.) and an exponential amount of excitement to be had. Here’s the list:

Figure skating: team event.
Snowboarding: men’s and women’s slopestyle, men’s and women’s parallel special slalom
Freestyle Skiing: men’s and women’s slopestyle; men’s and women’s halfpipe
Ski jumping: women’s normal hill
Biathlon: mixed relay
Luge: team relay

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U.S. diving moves on without David Boudia

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ATLANTA (AP) — These days, the pool deck seems a little empty for the U.S. diving team.

Someone’s missing.

David Boudia.

He was the stalwart of the American program for the better part of the decade, the guy who usually came through at the biggest meets.

“It’s going to be weird … not having David there,” said Steele Johnson, a good friend of Boudia’s and former synchronized partner. “But at the same time, it’s a new generation.”

After winning two more Olympic medals in Rio, Boudia decided to take a year off and may be done for good. His wife is having their second child, and there’s not much left to accomplish at age 27.

With a little over three years to go before the Tokyo Olympics, the U.S. is already moving toward filling the huge hole that Boudia’s retirement would leave.

“I’m sure everyone has felt that same way about other people,” Johnson said. “Like when Mark Ruiz retired or Laura Wilkinson first retired, all these awesome people, it’s always different. But it’s a good change. Generational change needs to happen.”

MORE: Wilkinson unretries

There are some experienced divers for the U.S. team to build around, including Johnson, a silver medalist with Boudia in synchronized platform at the Rio Games last summer, and the springboard team of Sam Dorman and Michael Hixon, who also captured a silver in synchro springboard.

Several promising youngsters are working their way up, as well, most notably 14-year-old Tarrin Gilliland.

During a recent meet in Atlanta, the Texas teen qualified for a pair of synchronized events at the July world championships in Budapest, Hungary. Gilliland paired with Olympian Jessica Parratto to win the women’s platform and joined Andrew Capobianco to claim victory in the mixed platform, a non-Olympic event.

Yep, it’s going to be quite a summer break for the high school freshman.

“The plan is to keep getting stronger and healthier and start getting my dives more consistent, and maybe add some (degree of difficulty) in there,” Gilliland said. “And just have fun during the process.”

Everyone realizes that not having Boudia puts a huge burden on the rest of the divers to step up their performances, especially if they want to have any chance against the powerful Chinese team.

Boudia had a hand in two of the three diving medals the Americans won in Rio, also taking an individual bronze in the platform.

He also captured two medals in London, including a stunning gold in 10-meter — the first Olympic win for the U.S. in a dozen years — along with a synchronized bronze off the big tower.

Throw in Boudia’s performances at the next-biggest meet on the calendar, and it’s clear how much he meant to the program. Over the last five world championships, he earned four silvers and a bronze.

“David Boudia obviously offered a lot of leadership and he had a lot of experience, so he was a role model to a lot of us,” said Kassidy Cook, a Rio Olympian. “But I think that a lot of other people, like Sam and Mikey and me, we can pick up where he kind of left us off. He’s left us with a lot of good advice and some good leadership roles to fill in. Although we will miss him if he doesn’t come back, we can definitely keep up the positive attitude and hard-working vibes transitioning into this next Olympics.”

Boudia still takes time to mentor Johnson and other young divers based in Indiana.

But Johnson, who is only 20, knows it will be on him and the other Olympic veterans to work with those who haven’t experienced those sort of high-pressure meets.

“Leading into the Olympic year, I really learned from David, through all the World Series meets, how to really handle each competition with different environments and different competitors,” Johnson recalled. “It’s just a lot of learning over these next few years, but it’s a lot of fun interaction with each other.”

He is eager to see how divers such as Gilliland and 15-year-old Maria Coburn, who qualified for worlds in synchronized 3-meter, fare in Budapest.

No matter what the result, the experience they gain will be invaluable.

“It’s good for them to get their feet wet now, with three years left leading up,” Johnson said. “There’s time for growth. You may not go in and win world championships your first time. You may never win. But you’re going to go into these competitions and you’re going to learn from those experiences. That’s what I did the first couple of years when David and I competed.”

As part of the development process, the coaches have paired of up veterans with some of the most promising newcomers. Parratto has taken Gilliland under her wing. Coburn will compete at worlds with Cook.

Synchro diving has become a huge emphasis for the U.S., contributing heavily to its renewed success at the last two Olympics. The Americans were shut out in both 2004 and 2008, an embarrassing fall for a program that once dominated the international scene with stars such as Greg Louganis. But synchro, in which only eight teams compete in a single round of competition, provides a much better chance of reaching the medal stand.

“Synchro has definitely been a main focus for the United States,” Cook said. “You only have to beat five teams to get on the podium. That is definitely the best shot for a medal at the Olympics and the world championships.”

That will continue to be the strategy heading toward Tokyo.

With or without Boudia.

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MORE: Boudia to decide whether to retire

Chuck Wielgus, head of USA Swimming for 2 decades, dies at age 67

Chuck Wielgus
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus, who led a federation that brought home 156 Olympic medals during his 20 years at the helm, died Sunday. He was 67.

USA Swimming said Wielgus died in Colorado Springs of complications from colon cancer. The cancer was first diagnosed in 2006, and Wielgus underwent regular chemotherapy while leading USA Swimming to record growth. He was due to retire in August.

He had announced his planned retirement in early January on the same day he learned he’d been approved to use a new cancer drug that’s in clinical trial.

“Chuck fought a long and hard battle with amazing grace and optimism, and will be missed,” U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said.

Wielgus was the longest-tenured leader among U.S. Olympic organizations. The 156 medals represent about one-third of America’s overall total from the last five Olympics.

During his two decades, USA Swimming’s revenue increased by about 600 percent, and its four-year, Olympic-cycle budget grew from $35 million to nearly $160 million. Membership more than doubled, to 400,000-plus, and Wielgus helped turn swimming’s Olympic trials into a showcase event. The 2016 trials sold out more than 200,000 tickets.

Wielgus came under fire in recent years for his handling of numerous sexual-abuse cases against the organization, with some calling for his resignation. After saying he had done nothing wrong in a defiant TV interview in 2010, he apologized four years later, writing in a blog: “I wish my eyes had been more open to the individual stories of the horrors of sexual abuse. I wish I had known more so perhaps I could have done more.”

The national governing body said current assistant executive director Mike Unger will serve as interim executive director. Unger has taken an active role in helping run the organization while Wielgus was dealing with his illness in recent years.

Wielgus’ vision to promote swimming to wider audiences resulted in securing year-round television coverage of major events, including the Pro Swim Series, national and world championships, U.S. Olympic Trials, Pan Pacific championships and Duel in the Pool.

During his tenure, the annual Golden Goggle Awards and fundraiser began to recognize that year’s accomplishments.

“Chuck was one of the finest CEOs in all of sport and his leadership of USA Swimming has made it the premier national governing body in the Olympic movement,” USA Swimming board of directors chairman Jim Sheehan said. “Chuck’s selflessness, compassion and intelligence have been hallmarks of his work with the staff, Board of Directors, athletes, coaches and volunteers of USA Swimming.”

Wielgus helped create the USA Swimming Foundation, which provides financial support for national team athletes and helps to save lives through swim lessons with the Make a Splash initiative. He served as chief executive officer when it began in 2004.

“An amazing leader, an incredible mentor, a wonderful friend. RIP Chuck,” three-time Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines tweeted.

Before joining USA Swimming, Wielgus was executive director of the Senior PGA Tour Tournament Directors Association. From 1989-96, he was executive director of United States Canoe and Kayak, the national governing body for that Olympic sport.

From 1983-89, he was executive director of the Hilton Head Island Recreation Association, where he led the effort to produce the master plan for the South Carolina resort island’s public recreation facilities and sports programs.

He is survived by his wife, Nancy, daughters Savannah and Shelby; sons Chip and Tommy; and four grandchildren.

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