Amanda Kessel

Amanda Kessel finally ready for Olympic debut

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SOCHI, Russia — As if scripted, Amanda Kessel received the puck at her own blue line, danced around the greatest player of all time and roofed a two-on-one wrister past the best goaltender from the previous Olympics.

On April 9, Kessel potted a 3-2 game winner over Canada with 16 minutes, 51 seconds left in the World Championships final.

The goal provided anecdotal evidence of a shift in the sport, the latest in a U.S.-Canada teeter-totter over the last 25 years. It also brightened Kessel’s already shining star to blinding in women’s hockey circles. The younger sister of NHL All-Star Phil Kessel continued to carve her own name.

Then she vanished.

Kessel wouldn’t play again the rest of 2013 outside some practice tryout games, hampered by a hip injury that may have been related to torn labrum surgery in 2012.

She returned for four exhibitions against high school boys teams in January, but the Olympics will mark her first official games in 10 months.

“I’ve been battling really hard,” Kessel said a few hours after landing in Sochi, “but I’m feeling good.”

***

It took about five seconds.

The puck slid to Kessel at her own blue line, near the boards. From the other direction, Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser headed straight into her path from the center line.

Consider Kessel’s situation. She looked up to a player 13 years older, half a foot taller and 50 pounds bigger skating toward her.

And not just any Canadian. Wickenheiser has competed in every Olympic hockey tournament, winning three gold medals and one silver. She also played softball at the 2000 Summer Olympics.

The EA Sports video game NHL 13 included Wickenheiser as one of the first two playable female characters for the first time in the series’ history.

MORE: American barista lacing up for Swiss team

In a blink, Kessel used her best skills — craftiness and deception — to let the puck slide, wiggle around Wickenheiser and leave the stalwart stuck in her skates.

Kessel was 10 feet beyond Wickenheiser by the time she regained the puck and reached the Canadian blue line.

She then stick handled up the right side with an opportunity to pass on the two-on-one. The Canadian defender slowly committed to Kessel, but she didn’t budge. Kessel measured and beat Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados top shelf.

Szabados, who has long excelled in boys and men’s leagues, shut out the U.S. in 2010 Olympic gold-medal game in Vancouver.

So, consider the impact of the score.

Kessel had skated around and shot past two symbols of Canada’s recent Olympic dominance over the U.S. for what proved to be the World Championship-deciding goal. In Ottawa, no less.

The Americans won a major title on Canadian ice for the first time in seven tries since 1990 and became favorites for their first Olympic gold since 1998.

The storyline became clear. The U.S. was young, fast and skilled. Three-time reigning Olympic champion Canada was aging. The Olympics were 10 months away.

“It feels good,” Kessel said that night. “It couldn’t feel any better.”

***

Kessel underwent hip surgery to repair a torn labrum in June 2012 that reportedly kept her off skates for two months.

It didn’t appear to affect her much after a sporadic start to that 2012-13 NCAA campaign, but before the season finished, the pain set in again.

“It was pretty brutal,” said Kessel, who missed back-to-back games at the end of February. “I only had a couple more weeks of playing with it though.”

Her final game was that championship triumph over Canada on April 9. The golden goal was just her second in five games in Ottawa. She co-led the tournament with six assists.

After an offseason break, Kessel said she reinjured her hip before the U.S.’ Bring on the World Tour from October through January.

Kessel didn’t play a second during the tour, which included seven games against Canada.

MORE: US women’s hockey roster marked by youth

After losing three straight to Canada, the U.S. won the final four games following the shock resignation of Canadian coach Dan Church on Dec. 12.

Kessel watched some games in person and others on TV, experiencing the ratcheted animosity — including a line brawl — as a fly on the wall.

“I’m usually not one to fight,” Kessel said. “So I knew I wouldn’t have been in there.”

She said the decision was made in November that she wouldn’t play again until January.

“We had a lot of traveling and road trips,” Kessel said. “Just to the point where I wasn’t really getting better on the road. … They recognized that I did need to get better.”

She also questioned internally whether she would be 100 percent for the Olympics.

“I was worried a little bit,” Kessel said.

She had taken pain-killing injections. Her rehab included core work and weight room time that she called grueling. Her teammates didn’t lose sight of her struggle.

“We’ve supported her all year long,” said Julie Chu, the only member of the 21-woman U.S. Olympic Team who was also on either of the 2002 or 2006 squads. “She’s worked her way back and earned her spot on this team. She’s worked so hard to be here. You see that on a lot of teams where there might be some injuries early on. It’s really about the dedication of the player and how much they’re going to be committed to the off-ice rehab, which is a lonely road sometimes to get back on the ice.”

Kessel and teammates agreed that she had little, if any, rust when she returned for four games against high school boys teams last month.

“I felt better than I thought I would,” Kessel said.

Kessel is short on words but not on personality. She’s a noted prankster, with reports of alterations to teammates’ skates, sticks and helmets with humorous but not harmful results. Her Twitter bio interestingly reads, “NHL player with the Minnesota Gophers,” though she’s as reticent as she is competitive. She did little to no interviews in the three months leading into Sochi.

Her coach and peers are effusive.

“[Kessel is] smart, dynamic, crafty,” said Katey Stone, the first female U.S. Olympic coach. “And she’ll work her tail off.”

Kessel is expected to suit up for the Olympic opener against Finland on Saturday. Finland leaned on goalie Noora Raty, Kessel’s Minnesota teammate, to beat the U.S. in regulation for the first time three months ago in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kessel missed that game of course, but it would seem she’s the most likely candidate to solve Raty given her familiarity with the goalie and her own unique set of skills. They were born out of her parents’ Madison, Wis., basement, practicing with her brothers growing up.

“She’s so deceptive,” Chu said. “She’s one of those players, when the puck’s on her stick, you kind of have to give her a little space because you’re not sure if she’s going to blow by you or kind of do a quick dangle and dish it off to someone else. I think her craftiness is definitely a key.”

Kessel played last year on perhaps the fastest line in the world as a right wing with Kendall Coyne and center Brianna Decker. They were on the ice for all three goals in the World Championships gold-medal win over Canada.

Those five seconds in Ottawa and that victory over Canada are so far the peak of what’s been a four-year ascent since graduating from famed Minnesota boarding school Shattuck-St. Mary’s. It also produced U.S. and Canada men’s captains Zach Parise and Sidney Crosby.

Before the Vancouver Games, brother Phil found Amanda in tears picking her up at an airport after she was cut from Olympic Team consideration.

Now?

“She’s ready to rock,” Chu said.

Medals or mosquitoes? Zika still talk of Olympic golf

Rory McIlroy
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Olympic qualifying for golf ends in seven weeks, at which time players will have to determine if medals outweigh mosquitoes.

For now, there is only concern.

Rory McIlroy was the latest player to say Zika was in the back of his mind. In an interview with the BBC after his Irish Open victory, he said he has been reading up on the mosquito-borne virus, which has been linked to serious birth defects. McIlroy is engaged, and he said they might be starting a family in the next few years.

“I have to monitor that situation,” he said.

Masters champion Danny Willett was the next to weigh in. Asked about it Tuesday at the BMW PGA Championship, the 28-year-old from England said he was keeping on top of it. Willett’s wife, Nicole, had their first child just 11 days before he slipped on the green jacket.

“It’s not great, is it? There’s going to be 500,000 people watching the Olympics, and you have 11,000 athletes right in the heart of where it’s at,” Willett said. “If it turns out that it would be a massive threat to myself or to Nic or to the little man, then I probably wouldn’t go. Family comes first.

“But as it stands at the minute, I think everything should be OK.”

The Zika virus is in the news everywhere, which goes beyond the standard media outlets.

The International Golf Federation posted a two-page update on its website last month, and it is passing along Zika-related material from the International Olympic Committee and the World Health Organization to tours and player liaisons.

Andy Levinson, executive director of USA Golf, said Tuesday that updates from WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are posted in the weekly bulletins left in lockers and on the “Players Links” website, where PGA Tour players get other pertinent information they don’t want to miss – like tee times, and FedEx Cup points, and where to leave their courtesy cars.

Two weeks ago at The Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s doctor was in player dining for one-on-ones on Zika.

Vijay Singh made a passing reference to Zika last month when the 53-year-old Fijian decided not to play. Marc Leishman of Australia also mentioned Zika, and for good reason. His wife nearly died last year of toxic shock syndrome and her immune system remains weakened.

The other players to pull out — Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel — cited a busy schedule or family priorities.

Ask a player a question, and there’s bound to be an answer, even if it’s not entirely informed. McIlroy said he was planning to get “injections” on Wednesday so that “I will be immunized for whatever — if I do get bitten by a mosquito down there.”

There is no vaccine for the Zika virus.

IGF executive director Antony Scanlon said he was in Rio de Janeiro a few weeks ago for meetings and saw workers spraying “an unbelievable amount of anti-mosquito” repellant around the various venues. He also repeated the timing — August is the tail end of winter in Brazil, and mosquitoes are not expected to be as prevalent.

Scanlon said he was most curious by the silence from the other side — the women.

“If anyone is at risk, it’s the ladies,” Scanlon said Tuesday from London. “We’ve heard nothing from them. I’m sure they’ve got concerns. And we’re distributing as much information as we can to the players.”

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said as much two weeks ago during an Olympic news conference. He said five or six players have asked him about Zika, though none has said it would keep her from Rio. In an email Tuesday, he said not much has changed.

“They have been receiving regular updates on the topic,” Whan said. “No player has suggested she is not coming (at least not to me). But it is certainly a concern.”

It could be another example that the Olympics mean more to the women, who rarely get a stage as large as this and have a stronger tradition of competing for country in what was the first truly global tour.

Various headlines made it sound as though McIlroy and Willett might skip the Olympics because of Zika, and while their answers allowed some wiggle room, the context of their statements suggested nothing has changed.

At least not yet.

“We’re down to go and hopefully they can give us some proper guidelines as to how to keep it at bay and keep it under control so that it doesn’t ruin what could be potentially a fantastic Olympics,” Willett said.

“Not as apprehensive as I once was,” McIlroy said about the Olympics. “As it gets closer, I am relishing the thought of going down there and competing for gold.”

This much is clear — golfers currently eligible for the Olympics are having to study more than hole locations and wind direction.

MORE: WHO: Olympics OK to go on

Russian Olympic champion positive in Beijing doping retest

Anna Chicherova
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London Olympic high jump champion Anna Chicherova is one of many Russians among 31 athletes overall who tested positive in recent retests of Beijing Olympic samples, according to Russian news agency TASS.

TASS named nine 2008 Olympic medalists among 14 Russian athletes, citing a Russian TV report, including eight medalists in track and field, with Chicherova being the superstar of the group.

“Perhaps it’s just a mistake,” Chicherova said, according to an Associated Press translation of a Russian TV report. “I can’t explain how my doping test gave a positive result. I’ve competed a lot since then and given hundreds of samples.”

Last week, the International Olympic Committee said 31 unnamed athletes from 12 nations across six sports failed drug tests in retesting of 454 samples from 2008 using the latest drug-testing methods.

Chicherova, 33, took high jump gold at the London Games and bronze in Beijing. She is one of two track and field athletes to earn an individual-event medal at the last five World Championships and last two Olympics. The other is Usain Bolt.

Chicherova, who has had no previously widespread reported doping history, would be one of Russia’s top Olympic track and field medal hopes in Rio, should the ban on Russian track and field athletes competing be lifted before the Games.

Russia is expected to learn if it will be allowed to send a track and field team to Rio on June 17.

“The Ministry of Sport is extremely disappointed to hear the speculation that Russian athletes are among those found to have violated anti-doping rules at the 2008 Beijing Olympics after re-testing their samples,” the Russian Ministry of Sport said in a statement through Burson-Marsteller public relations firm. “Any athletes found cheating should face corresponding sanctions.

“We have taken numerous steps to eradicate the issue of doping, and understand that the roots of the problem, particularly in athletics, go back to the past.”

MORE: Russia track and field boss: ’50-60 percent’ chance of Olympics