Cheering for Dutch speed skater was easy for Team USA’s Heather Richardson

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SOCHI, Russia – Nearly all eyes fixed on orange at the conclusion of the 5000m at the Adler Arena on Saturday night.

Except for those of U.S. speed skater Heather Richardson.

While the Dutch celebrated a podium sweep led by champion Sven Kramer, she stared at a video scoreboard for two minutes with her phone at the ready, waiting for results.

Here’s why:

Dutch skater Jorrit Bergsma took bronze and joined Kramer and Jan Blokhuijsen on the podium, the second time the Netherlands has swept the medals in a single event. Multiple boisterous orange sections reveled.

Even Richardson, in black U.S. Speed skating garb and matching nail polish, grinned next to U.S. teammates in the athletes’ section. (The top U.S. finisher was high school student Emery Lehman in 16th.)

The only person who seemed slightly disappointed? Bergsma.

“I came here for gold,” he said.

***

Richardson and Bergsma will say their wedding vows sometime next year. For better, for worse, they’ve shared experiences watching each other skate the past three seasons.

It was a little different Saturday, it being their first Olympics together.

Richardson emerged into the stands just minutes before Bergsma skated and watched Kramer throw down an Olympic record time of 6 minutes, 10.76 seconds. Then came Bergsma, a 6-foot-3, 160-pound ultra marathon skater best known for beating Kramer in the 10,000m at this very arena at last year’s World Championships.

Richardson scooched to the edge of her seat.

The starter’s gun sounded.

Her eyes followed Bergsma around the 400-meter oval. He passed her shortly after finishing each lap. The first few were blistering, 29 seconds or better.

***

Bergsma is 28, one year older than Kramer, and has faced a gargantuan task of squeezing into the Dutch distance picture with Kramer and three-time Olympic medalist Bob de Jong, 37. The emergence of Blokhuijsen, 24, has complicated matters. (Bergsma tried to find a way around it four years ago in an aborted attempt to qualify for Kazakhstan for the Vancouver Olympics, with other Dutch skaters. They gave it up after learning it would have cost them their Dutch citizenship.)

He began dating Richardson 20 months after he missed the Vancouver Games. The American from High Point, N.C., took the initiative, breaking the ice with a Twitter message.

That led to texting, Skyping and dating the last three World Cup seasons as both blossomed as Olympic medal threats. Bergsma in the lung-searing 5000m and 10,000m and Richardson in the 500m and 1000m sprints.

Bergsma proposed in April during a vacation with the Richardsons in Myrtle Beach, S.C. His plan was to sneak onto the beach outside where they stayed.

“He actually took my phone down there with him and he actually called my mom right before he was about to do it so she was out on the balcony to see it as well,” Richardson told NBCOlympics. “Then he was calling his phone that was still in our room, and I’m like ‘Why is his phone ringing? I don’t even know where he is right now,’ and so he had to call like three times and I finally answered the phone like, ‘Uh hello,’ and he was like, ‘Go to the balcony.’”

They plan to get married next year. Richardson has talked about starting a family and moving to the Netherlands, but the former is far off and the latter isn’t set yet.

They skate for now. Pretty well, too.

Bergsma, who will get another shot at Kramer in the 10,000m on Feb. 18, has set personal records in the 1500m, 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m this season.

Richardson, too, is strong across distances with World Cup podiums in the 500m, 1000m and 1500m this season. The 2013 World Sprint Champion is arguably the gold-medal favorite in the 1000m.

She’s in her second Olympics after switching from inline skating and had a best of sixth at the Vancouver Games.

***

Bergsma skated past Richardson 12 times in Saturday’s race. Eleven times, she leaned forward and yelled words of encouragement to him.

Bergsma, who knew Richardson was there but could not make out her voice, faded over the final three laps and finished 5.9 seconds behind Kramer, slotting into second place.

“I felt at the end, if I want to skate for gold, I have to accelerate a little bit,” Bergsma said. “I tried to do that, but then I blew myself up. I lost a lot in the last laps.”

Jorrit Bergsma
Jorrit BergsmaAP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh

Bergsma lost more with the next pair as Blokhuijsen skated .95 faster.

“Silver I gave away,” Bergsma said. “It became bronze.”

Richardson didn’t see it that way. She was inspired.

“I’m excited for him,” she said, “and he makes me excited for races.”

They’ll switch places Monday when Richardson goes in the 500m, seeking the first U.S. women’s speed skating medal since 2002. Like Bergsma, she is a medal contender and would savor being able to share the Olympic medalist experience with her fiance.

“I think I might be a little more happy to get my medal,” she joked, “but I’m so proud of him.”

A Winter Olympics athlete couple story would be remiss without a mention of Valentine’s Day plans. There are no speed skating events on Feb. 14, but they haven’t set anything yet during coffee dates and bike rides together in the Olympic Village.

“With the races we also need our focus, and so we cannot enjoy too much with each other,” Bergsma said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to find the balance between focus on the races and being with each other.”

Russian skiers banned from Olympics allowed to race World Cup opener

AP
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian cross-country skiers found guilty of doping at the Sochi Olympics can compete in World Cup races this weekend because the International Ski Federation (FIS) has been unable to prosecute its own cases in time.

Six Russians, including two Sochi medalists, were retroactively disqualified from the Winter Games this month and banned from the Olympics for life by the IOC.

FIS previously blocked all six from competing with interim suspensions, but those expired on Oct. 31. The International Olympic Committee judging panel then reached its verdicts this month.

However, FIS said Thursday that its own judicial body lacks key IOC documents to process cases.

“Consequently, the FIS Doping Panel is obliged to wait until the IOC Disciplinary Commission reasoned decisions are submitted with details of the evidence relied on,” said the governing body, which is responsible for imposing competition bans.

“As a consequence the active athletes are eligible to compete in FIS including World Cup competitions for the time being,” FIS said.

The World Cup season for men and women begins Friday in Ruka, Finland, with sprint and long-distance racing.

Organizers had not published starting lists Thursday for the three-day meeting and it was unclear which of the six intend to start.

Alexander Legkov and Maxim Vylegzhanin both won multiple medals in Sochi but were stripped by the IOC. The others suspended by the IOC were Evgeny Belov, Alexei Petukhov, Yulia Ivanova and Evgenia Shapovalova.

FIS said rules governed by the World Anti-Doping Agency meant it could not re-impose interim bans without “a specific allegation” plus evidence.

Attempting to assure cross-country skiers they will not be competing against doped rivals, FIS said an additional and independent testing program for Russians has been in operation since June and has taken about 250 blood and urine samples.

The three-man IOC disciplinary panel — chaired by Denis Oswald, a Swiss lawyer and member of the Olympic body’s executive board — has not issued detailed reasons for judgments in 10 cases from Sochi so far completed in cross-country skiing and skeleton.

Without positive doping tests, the panel used evidence of state-backed cover-ups and tampering of sample bottles in the Sochi laboratory first gathered last year by WADA investigator Richard McLaren.

At least 18 more Russian athletes are having their cases prosecuted in an ongoing series of hearings in Lausanne, Switzerland.

On Wednesday, the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation said it would update “within the next days” action against four Russians, including the Sochi gold medalist Alexander Tretiyakov and bronze medalist Elena Nikitina.

Nikitina won a skeleton World Cup race last weekend in Park City, Utah — a result which may soon be overturned by the IBSF.

All the Russian athletes disqualified by the IOC can appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

On Dec. 5, IOC President Thomas Bach will announce after a board meeting if the Russian team will be banned from the Olympics, which open Feb. 9 in PyeongChang.

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MORE: IOC sets date, time to announce Russia Olympic decision

Aly Raisman shifts focus from 2020 Olympics to new role

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The people come forward to Aly Raisman almost daily now.

Random strangers. Men and women of various ages, races and backgrounds.

They see the six-time Olympic medal winning gymnast out in public and approach with a hug to give and a story to tell.

It was jarring at first, if Raisman is being honest.

When she pitched her autobiography “Fierce” to publishers last summer shortly after the 2016 Olympics, she intended to focus on her journey from tenacious prodigy to champion.

And while all of that is in there, the part of her experience that’s resonated the most since the book’s release earlier this month is the one she wasn’t sure she’d be able to share.

It’s Chapter 22, titled “The Survivors.”

In it, Raisman outlines how she was abused by former national team doctor Larry Nassar, how he “groomed” her by presenting himself as a friendly ear and how she feels he was empowered to continue over the course of years by those in charge at USA Gymnastics.

Raisman spent weeks working on the section, revisiting it again and again, trying to get it just right. Or at least as close to right as she can get.

“I put in a ton of thought whether how I wanted to come forward about this,” Raisman said. “What I realized at the end of the day is that I want change and I want people to understand what exactly abuse is. It’s very complicated. It’s very confusing. I didn’t know that I was being abused because I was manipulated so horribly.”

In the process, Raisman discovered the abuse Nassar committed against other female athletes — including allegations from Olympic teammates McKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas — is a very small part of a much larger problem that extends far beyond the actions of just one man.

It’s why she took those painful memories and put them on paper, to share with the world that, as she said over and over again, “It’s not OK. It’s never OK.”

The 23-year-old’s new calling makes thinking about a return to competition in time for the 2020 Olympics seem trivial.

“This is the focus,” Raisman said.

A focus that has turned her into an unexpected symbol of strength for others who share their experiences.

“Unfortunately sexual abuse is far too common,” Raisman said. “I’ve realized how many people are affected by it and it’s disgusting. That’s why I want change.”

Raisman has become an increasingly outspoken critic of USA Gymnastics, blaming the governing body for a lack of oversight on Nassar’s conduct.

The 54-year-old spent nearly 20 years as the team doctor for the U.S. women’s elite program, often working with athletes one-on-one.

Raisman declined to get into specifics about the abuse she was subjected to but her experience falls in line with what many other have claimed against Nassar: that he touched them inappropriately while describing it as proper treatment.

Nassar pleaded guilty to multiple charges of sexual assault in Michigan on Wednesday and will face at least 25 years in prison.

He still faces additional criminal charges and has been named in more than 125 civil lawsuits filed by former athletes.

Nassar’s downfall began following reporting by the Indianapolis Star in 2016 that highlighted chronic mishandling of abuse allegations against coaches and staff at some of USA Gymnastics’ more than 3,500 clubs across the country.

Raisman has not taken any legal action yet against Nassar, though she’s not ruling it out.

Her larger concern is educating young athletes and their parents on the warning signs while also loudly clamoring for change.

She has seen a familiar pattern repeat itself over the last 18 months: another gymnast comes out claiming abuse by Nassar, and USA Gymnastics follows with a press release attributed to no specific individual that praises them for their courage.

One of the most decorated Olympic athletes of her generation doesn’t just want words. She wants action.

USA Gymnastics has taken several steps in recent months.

President and CEO Steve Penny resigned under pressure in March and was replaced by Kerry Perry, who takes over on Dec. 1.

The organization hired Toby Stark, a child welfare advocate, as its director of SafeSport over the summer.

Part of Stark’s mandate is educating members on rules, educational programs and reporting.

The federation also adopted over 70 recommendations by Deborah Daniels, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw an extensive independent review.

It’s not enough for Raisman.

She points out Penny wasn’t fired but instead forced out.

Though Nassar’s relationship with USA Gymnastics officially ended in 2015 after an athlete came forward about potential abuse, he was still allowed to continue working at Michigan State University while also volunteering at a USA Gymnastics-affiliated club.

“That is just unacceptable to me,” Raisman said. “(That gym) is a part of USA Gymnastics. USA Gymnastics is responsible for kids at that gym. Instead of doing their job, they let Larry keep working there.”

Raisman would like to see more extensive change in leadership at USA Gymnastics.

She never imagined being an agent for change as she dreamed of the Olympics while growing up in Needham, Mass., but she’s embracing the role as she comes to grips with her own victimhood.

Chapter 22 wasn’t the end, only the beginning.

“I’m still, as you see, processing it,” she said. “I’m still at a loss for words. I’m having so many people come up to me, telling me they had similar experience, that they filed a complaint and it was ignored. I will do everything I can to make sure those people are heard.”

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MORE: Gabby Douglas: ‘We were abused by Larry Nassar’