Seth Wescott

Seth Wescott, Nick Baumgartner up for one Olympic spot

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Apologies to figure skating, but men’s snowboardcross appears to include the most intriguing U.S. Olympic discretionary selection.

Three men have qualified automatically — two-time Olympian Nate Holland and first-time Olympians Trevor Jacob and Alex Deibold — via earning one top-four finish in World Cup events this season.

The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association has the ability to add a fourth man to the team, and it is expected to do so next week.

That fourth spot could go to Seth Wescott, who has won both Olympic gold medals since the sport was added to the Olympics in 2006.

Wescott, 37, underwent a complete reconstruction of his left ACL in April after falling into an Alaska crevasse while shooting part of a film for ski and snowboard director Warren Miller. He tore the ACL and broke his tibia.

His return to competition came in Andorra last weekend, the final World Cup event before the Olympics. Wescott finished an unimpressive 49th and 31st in two races, aiming for that top-four criteria.

“I knew it was going to be a tough order for me to jump back on in basically on the last weekend and try to make [the Olympic Team],” Wescott said in a phone interview. “Getting back up to speed, it takes a little while. with my whole scenario, my coming off injury. I thought, mainly for my health, I needed to wait until the last possible moment [to return].”

That fourth spot could also go to Nick Baumgartner, a 2010 Olympian and the only U.S. man with three top-10 finishes on the World Cup tour this season.

“I’m definitely stressed and sweating a little bit,” Baumgartner said in a phone interview. “I don’t want to sound cocky, but as of right now I feel like the strongest rider on the team.”

Baumgartner, 32, hoped to secure his spot in Andorra with a top-four finish, but he came in sixth and eighth in two races.

“It definitely is tough because Seth has had some great results,” Baumgartner said. “There’s no taking it away, he won the last two [Olympics]. … It’s a hard call, but in my eyes I really just hope they go with the results and how the riding is going right now. I think that’s the fair way to go. I also wish I didn’t put myself in this situation.”

Wescott is one of three Olympians trying to become the first American man to win the same Winter Olympic event three straight times (Bonnie Blair is the only U.S. woman to do it). Fellow snowboarder Shaun White (halfpipe) and speed skater Shani Davis (1000m) also won in 2006 and 2010.

Wescott, if they all make the Olympic team, would be the last of the three to make the attempt. Men’s snowboardcross in Sochi is Feb. 17, five days after Davis’ 1000m and six days after White’s halfpipe.

“My history is what it is, and I have the best history of anyone on the U.S. team at major events, worlds, X Games, Olympics,” Wescott said. “So I know, from a USOC perspective, if they’re looking at fielding a team, they’re looking at fielding who’s going to bring medals. That definitely has to weigh in some.

“I was really happy with the progress I made last week and knowing we’ve got more than 30 days until the race day for us over there [in Sochi], I really do feel like I could be ready to go the way I need to be.”

Wescott said he has not made contact with anybody to argue his case to be picked. He believes in the system, that a spot must be earned, and is not feeling pressure despite the uncertainty.

“There is no grandfathering,” he said. “There is no taking me because of what I’ve done in the past. I’m honestly a fan of that.”

Baumgartner calls Wescott a friend.

“I look up to him very much,” Baumgartner said. “You always want great things for your friends, and I want to go [to Sochi] as well. I feel as if I earned it.”

Knowing the qualifying scenario, Wescott still cheered Baumgartner on at the bottom of the course in Andorra.

“Go punch your ticket today,” Wescott told Baumgartner. “I would be happy to see him have great success. Frankly, I don’t think there’s anyone on the team that deserves it more than he does.

“I’ve been so fortunate to have two [Olympic] experiences I’ve had. A third one right now isn’t going to drastically change my life one way or another,” said Wescott, who harbors plans for 2018 whether or not he goes to Sochi. “I look at him as a single father and all the stuff that he has on his plate. He’s an amazing athlete, one of the best we have.”

Wescott brought up an interesting point. He and Baumgartner are slated to compete in the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo., on Jan. 24. The Winter X Games is not an official Olympic qualifying event, but in this case, he hopes the results there will be taken into consideration.

The final nominations to the Olympic Team are due Jan. 25.

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Kyle Snyder savors Russian Tank showdown

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U.S. wrestler Kyle Snyder waited 2 1/2 years for this news. The Russian Tank is moving up to 97kg.

Abdulrashid Sadulayev, a 21-year-old from Dagestan with the foreboding nickname, is undefeated at the senior international level since November 2013. He won the 2014 and 2015 World freestyle titles and 2016 Olympic gold at 86kg.

Sadulayev hasn’t competed since Rio but is believed to be shifting to 97kg for the Russian Championships. The news spread Sunday.

Snyder, a 21-year-old from Maryland, owns the 97kg division. He is the reigning Olympic and world champion but does not quite carry Sadulayev’s reputation. No man does.

Snyder is 13-3 internationally since Rio. He also showed grit to cap an undefeated college season, repeating as national champion for Ohio State by overcoming a rib injury and pain-killing shots at NCAAs.

Snyder is training for the U.S. trials for the world championships in two weeks, when he’ll have a bye into the final. But that preparation was interrupted Sunday when Snyder saw the Sadulayev news on Twitter.

“I know as much as, like, anybody else,” Snyder said by phone Monday evening. “I just saw it on Twitter, and people were confirming it, pretty reliable sources. Not 100 percent sure, but I’m pretty sure.

“My gut reaction is excited, happy. When I first saw it, I smiled because this is like an exciting match for the wrestling community, wrestling fans, and it’s an exciting match for me. It motivates me to continue to grow and continue to improve in wrestling.”

Snyder calls Sadulayev the world’s best pound-for-pound wrestler, ranking ahead of Turkey’s Taha Akgul, also a 2014 and 2015 World champion and 2016 Olympic gold medalist.

Snyder has interacted with a fake Sadulayev Twitter account, but never spoken with the Russian. He believes they have shaken hands, though.

Better is Snyder’s familiarity with Sadulayev’s wrestling. He first dreamed of facing him in 2014, while watching the world championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on a web stream.

There, an 18-year-old Sadulayev manhandled men up to 11 years older, winning four of five matches by the 10-point mercy rule.

Snyder has watched all four of Sadulayev’s matches from Rio, where the Russian bulldozed to gold by a combined 28-1 margin. Snyder was 28-8 across his four wins.

“[Sadulayev] has got a very good stance,” Snyder said. “It’s very difficult to get to his legs and to break his positioning. He’s a very good finisher once he gets your leg, and he’s very good on top.”

Snyder compared the challenge of facing Sadulayev to that of another Russian, Abdusalam Gadisov, the 2014 World champion whom Snyder edged in the 2015 Worlds 97kg final.

Except Gadisov is six years older than Snyder and such a stalwart that Snyder had been watching Gadisov’s film since the seventh grade. And Gadisov didn’t make Russia’s Olympic team.

Snyder knows one American who has faced Sadulayev in competition and maybe another one or two who grappled with him in training.

Sadulayev reportedly suffered a partial knee tear months before the Olympics. He hasn’t competed since Rio, taking time off for marriage, according to USA Wrestling.

“I know that he was hurt after the Olympics, and he’s had a lot of recovery and treatments,” Snyder said.

The possibility of facing Sadulayev is so enticing that Snyder doesn’t mind discussing it despite the fact neither wrestler is guaranteed a worlds spot.

Snyder goes into the U.S. trials in two weeks as a decided favorite, though. His biggest domestic competition the previous two years was 2012 Olympic champion Jake Varner, who Snyder said won’t be at trials.

“I’m a better wrestler than I was last year,” Snyder said. “No matter how many titles I get, I don’t think I’ll ever feel pressure to win because I care more about competing hard and wrestling hard and trying to score a lot of points than I do winning.”

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Henrik Lundqvist joins Swedish throng in song at world title celebration

Henrik Lundqvist
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Singing Queen’s “We are the Champions,” goalie Henrik Lundqvist joined thousands of his closest Swedish friends to celebrate their world hockey title in a central Stockholm square Monday afternoon.

The event at Sergel Square attracted the country’s prime minister (who was partially booed), Swedish royals and a flyover by the Swedish Air Force, according to German press agency DPA. Even the pregnant 2015 Miss Sweden found a way to honor the team.

Sweden won its 10th world title Sunday, ousting two-time defending champion Canada 2-1 in a shootout and at least somewhat avenging its Sochi Olympic final defeat.

The Swedish roster included NHL players who, as of now, won’t be participating in the PyeongChang Winter Games.

Such as Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom, who scored one of Sweden’s two shootout goals, three years after being suspended from the Olympic final for testing positive for pseudoephedrine.

And Lundqvist, who flew to the worlds co-hosted by France and Germany to join the team mid-tournament after his New York Rangers were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Lundqvist stopped all four Canadian shots in the shootout, capping an exceptional stint with the team. He arrived to play the last five games and tallied a 1.31 goals-against average and .946 save percentage, the best among all goalies who played in more than two games at the tournament.

Lundqvist, 35, joined Sweden at worlds for the first time since 2008 after his identical twin brother, Joel, reached out, according to The New York Times. Joel, a former NHL forward, is the Swedish team captain but didn’t make the Olympics in 2006, 2010 or 2014, like Henrik did (winning gold in 2006).

The Lundqvist brothers had not played on the same team in 12 years. With Joel not playing in the NHL, it might be his turn to suit up at the Olympics next year, while Henrik stays in the U.S.

“Sitting in New York, 10 days ago or so, this is what I pictured myself, to be here with my brother, to hold this trophy,” Lundqvist said Sunday.

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