Polina Edmunds

Meet Polina Edmunds, breakthrough Olympic figure skater

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She’s been called an iron butterfly, a breath of fresh air and even cocky.

She’s Polina Edmunds, 15 and the youngest U.S. Winter Olympian since Tara Lipinski in 1998 (though slopestyle skier Maggie Voisin may take that crown in the next week).

Few, if any, prognosticators pegged the wispy Californian as a contender to make the Olympic Team going into this weekend’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

But Edmunds opened eyes in her first senior event, finishing second in the short program Thursday and holding on for the silver medal in the free skate Saturday. She was named to the three-woman Olympic Team on Sunday.

We should have seen this coming.

U.S. women’s figure skating is not as deep as it was 10 or 15 years ago. U.S. champion Gracie Gold and two-time former U.S. champion Ashley Wagner have been seen as the only Sochi medal threats over the past year — and it’ll likely be bronze at best.

At some point, somebody had to rise from the junior ranks above a stagnant group behind Gold and Wagner. That time was the last few days, and that skater was the reigning U.S. junior champion, labeled “cocky” by the New York Daily News.

“I move like a ballerina,” Edmunds told the San Jose Mercury News. “I’m a very soft skater. But I tend to combine it with speed and power.”

Edmunds shows international promise. She won junior Grand Prix events this season and was fourth at the Junior Grand Prix Final in December, behind three Russians.

Edmunds, who started skating at around age 2, has roots in the 2014 Olympic host country. Her mother, Nina, grew up in Russia. Her father was a hockey player.

The New York Times profiled Edmunds four years ago at the 2010 U.S. Championships, where the Vancouver Olympic Team was named. There, Edmunds took sixth as the youngest of 12 skaters in the novice division — one step below juniors.

She was 4 feet, 11 inches, then and 70 pounds. Her current biography lists her at 5-4 with no weight given.

Venerable coach Frank Carroll devotes plenty of time to his star pupil, Gold, but has occasionally helped Edmunds, a San Jose high school sophomore, for the past six months.

“She is the future,” he told reporters after the short program in Boston on Thursday. “She’s like an iron butterfly.”

She’s been compared to Lipinski not just for her precociousness, but also for her toughness. Lipinski herself has called Edmunds feisty.

“My biggest dream would be to go to the Olympics and win,” Edmunds told The New York Times four years ago.

Can she? That’s quite unlikely in Sochi, where South Korea’s Yuna Kim and Japan’s Mao Asada are vying for gold.

But consider this: Edmunds was second at the U.S. Championships, her first senior event, despite falling in her free skate that included six landed triple jumps. This year might only be the beginning.

Ashley Wagner makes Olympic Team over Mirai Nagasu

Mary Cain ‘back to basics’ after ‘disappointing year’

Mary Cain
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Mary Cain, who in 2013 became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to make a World Championships team and turned pro at age 17 later that fall, is spending her run-up to next year and the 2016 Olympics home in New York rather than returning to Oregon where she went to college and trained last year.

In June, Cain finished eighth in the 1500m at the U.S. Championships, missing the top-four placement necessary to make the World Championships team.

“After a disappointing year, I knew that I needed a change,” Cain said in a blog post Tuesday. “For me, that meant returning home to New York (and its bagels) or where it all started. With 2016 being such an important year, it’s a blessing to be able to, as my mom says, ‘Go back to basics.'”

Cain, who was a freshman at the University of Portland last year, is still coached by three-time New York City Marathon champion Alberto Salazar with the aid of New Zealand 2004 Olympic 10,000m runner John Henwood, according to the blog.

“We’re trying to get [running] back to fun with her,” Henwood said, according to Runner’s World.

Cain moved from Bronxville, N.Y., to Portland after graduating high school last year, completing a decorated prep career filled with records and state and national titles. She trained with Salazar’s group, which includes Olympic 10,000m gold and silver medalists Mo Farah and Galen Rupp.

Cain won the World Junior Championships 3000m in 2014 and became the youngest woman to make a senior World Championships 1500m final in 2013, when she finished 10th.

“I always said the key to running well was keeping the sport fun,” Cain said in the blog post. “With the help of this great NY running community, I am happy to say that I have found that love again! I’m looking forward to a rewarding Indoor and Outdoor season.

“Thanks to everyone who has supported me through the ups and downs! I hope to make 2016 a year to remember!”

MORE TRACK AND FIELD: Usain Bolt returns to Oktoberfest, with Olympic Alpine skier

Brazil’s best tennis player: ‘tough to dream’ of Rio Olympic medal

Thomaz Bellucci
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Thomaz Bellucci admits playing at a home Olympics brings at least some pressure.

“To well represent Brazil,” the Sao Paulo native clarified at the U.S. Open in New York last month. “It’s tough to dream about having a medal.”

The 27-year-old Bellucci is the only Brazilian tennis player, man or woman, ranked in the world top 50. He sits at No. 31, having this season reached his first ATP final since 2012 and winning it at the Geneva Open in Switzerland in May.

Brazil’s Olympic Committee set a target of 27 to 30 medals in Rio, after earning 17 at London 2012. The added glory likely won’t come from tennis, a sport in which a Brazilian has never stood on an Olympic podium.

“For the Olympics, I don’t feel too many pressure,” Bellucci said, “because even if I play in Brazil, I know there are many players more favored than me because [Roger] Federer‘s going to play, [Novak] Djokovic, all these guys have so much more pressure than me because they have more chance to have a medal.”

Olympic tennis gained greater significance on the busy tour calendars among top players with recent Games.

On the men’s side, every medalist from 2008 and 2012 had already reached at least one Grand Slam final in his career. That group of six included Federer (2012 silver), Djokovic (2008 bronze), Rafael Nadal (2008 gold) and Andy Murray (2012 gold).

But if Bellucci and the Brazilians look back, they can find unexpected, inspiring runs. In 1996, Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni came to the Atlanta Games ranked No. 95 in the world, having never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam.

The charismatic Meligeni, a lefty who sometimes played wearing his cap backwards, reached the final four in Stone Mountain, twice playing for a medal, and hitting a tweener on the penultimate point of his semifinal against Spain’s Sergi Bruguera.

He lost both medal-round matches, including the bronze match to Indian Leander Paes, who won the U.S. Open mixed doubles last month with another 1996 Olympic singles tennis player, Swiss Martina Hingis. Hingis is attempting to return to the Olympics next year for the first time since 1996.

In 2004, Chile’s Nicolas Massu won singles and doubles gold in Athens having never reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam in singles.

Bellucci debuted at the Olympics in 2008 and hasn’t won a single Games match. He rose from a No. 85 overall ranking in Beijing to No. 42 going into the London 2012 Olympics, where he forced then-Wimbledon semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to three sets. Bellucci and partner Andre Sa were the only doubles pair to take a set off Americans Bob and Mike Bryan at London 2012.

“Beijing I was very surprised, because I was very young and had no idea,” Bellucci said. “In London, I had a very tough draw against Tsonga. Let’s see if I can have more luck in Brazil to have a better draw.”

Not even the great Gustavo Kuerten could sniff an Olympic medal. The three-time French Open champion — the only Brazilian man to win a Grand Slam — couldn’t do better than the quarterfinals in 2000 and 2004.

The analysis of Bellucci in the scope of Kuerten, who is of a similar tall, thin build, has silenced in recent years.

“They used to say that when I was young, when I was starting to play well,” said Bellucci, whose four ATP titles came on Kuerten’s favorite surface, clay, while the Rio Olympic tournament will be on hard courts. “They want to compare me and Guga [Kuerten], but anyway they are not comparing anymore because Guga is so much bigger than me.”

As much as Bellucci tries to keep expectations low, he urges that his sport is one of the most popular in Brazil.

“I think soccer, for sure, is No. 1 and then volleyball is second and then tennis, I think,” he said. “I think we have more people playing tennis than volleyball because I think all the ages can play tennis.”

MORE TENNIS: Martina Hingis waits on Federer, Wawrinka to decide on Rio 2016