figsGetty3

Ex-roller skating champ Matteo Guarise makes smooth transtion to ice for Olympics

Leave a comment

SOCHI, Russia – Glancing at Matteo Guarise’s biography, it’s easy to glaze over the fact that he was a world champion in 2008. But look a little more closely and a single word pops out: roller skating world champion.

Right, roller skating.

As the Vancouver Games got underway in 2010, Guarise, a 21-year-old Italian who had won the 2008 World Roller Figure Skating Championships, made a promise to himself: he would be in Sochi in four years’ time. As a figure skater.

“My friends told me I was crazy,” Guarise tells NBCOlympics.com, smiling. “They laughed at me.”

It seemed to be a laughable proposition for Guarise, who strapped on ice skates for the first time in his life in January 2010 and began to chase a lifelong dream, even as he struggled to stay on his feets while on the ice.

VIDEO: Russian pair are “superstars”

“For me, the easiest stuff was the hardest because of the blade,” Guarise explains alongside partner Nicole Della Monica. “Every time I pushed off I wasn’t able to control what I was doing. It was impossible to do crossovers, but then I could easily do a triple toe jump. If you looked at me on the ice I looked like a beginner, but then I could do a triple jump. People were saying, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’”

Watching roller skating – if you’ve never dived into it on YouTube – is eerily similar to figure skating. The pairs skate to the same moving music, wear the same colorful costumes and perform the spins, throws and jumps that you see on the ice – but instead on wooden floors, wearing the four-wheeled skates most American kids grew up flying down the sidewalk on.

“Sometimes I tell Matteo, ‘Come on! This is so easy!’ says Della Monica, who was an Olympian in 2010 with a different partner. “But then I realize that he’s only been skating on the ice for four years. It’s already amazing what he’s doing now.”

After his roller skating world title in 2008 with partner Sara Venerucci, Guarise was ready to give up the sport, though they skated together for the following year, winning another national title in Italy. Guarise finally hung up his (roller) skates, moving to Milan in 2009 and traveling for a year as a model, all the while still dreaming of being an Olympian.

“It wasn’t the life for me,” Guarise explains of modeling. “I wanted competition.”

Living just across the street from a rink in Milan, Guarise began skating there a few times a week, then moved to Russia to try out with one pairs partner (it didn’t go well) before being sent to Colordao (that didn’t pan out, either) and landing in Detroit, where he partnered with Caitlin Yankowskas, the 2011 pairs champion.

“I never competed in this whole time I was traveling, it was always just trying out with new partners,” Guarise says. “But it didn’t work out with Caitlin, so I went back home and thought I would give up. That’s when a coach suggested Nicole.”

Della Monica had hung up her (ice) skates after the 2010 Vancouver Games, her partner going back to France and she returning to school. But when a call came from Matteo he “sounded nice” and she was “pleasantly surprised.”

“I didn’t actually want to come back, but they called me and I was missing skating a little bit,” Della Monica remembers. “I took one year off and thought, ‘You know this might happen.’”

The pair skated together for three weeks, first in November of 2011, before going to the Italian National Championships and being sent to the World Championships in 2012, only four months after they had joined forces and just two years after Guarise first set foot on ice.

“I changed to the ice because of my Olympic dream,” says Guarise, who grew up in the Italian beach town of Rimini. “For me, I thought, ‘What am I doing if I can’t participate in the Olympics?’ Being in Sochi, for me, is unbelievable.”

There are plenty of roller skaters who have made the transition from that sport to the ice, including 2012 U.S. pairs champion Caydee Denney and Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion. But Guarise’s turnaround time – from stepping onto the ice for the first time in January 2010 to skating at the Olympics in 2014 – is unheralded.

“It’s different technique, but it’s all similar. A lift is a lift, a jump is a jump, but they are different so I had to adjust each and every element,” says Guarise. “The worst was just simply skating. I had no feeling on the ice. I started from zero. I think a lot of people thought it was impossible for me to go to the Olympics.”

Della Monica and Guarise skated second Tuesday night at the Iceberg Skating Palace, and as if telling his transition story on ice, the 25-year-old stumbled in the opening seconds of their short program, the crowd gasping because he went down when, well, he was just simply skating.

“These are not our Olympic Games this time,” Della Monica explains the day before. “We are looking forward to 2018 – or past it. This time is just to feel the experience.”

And the goal in Pyeongchang?

“The goal is to win a medal,” smiles Guarise.

“Yeah, why not?” Della Monica adds. “This can be our dream and whatever will come, will come.”

U.S. table tennis players, 13 and 14 years old, have shot at Rio Olympics

Crystal Wang
JOOLA USA
Leave a comment

Every U.S. Olympian since 1996 has been age 15 or older. That may change this year.

Crystal Wang, a 13-year-old table tennis player, will be one of four U.S. women seeking one possible Olympic berth in a North American Olympic qualifier in Markham, Ontario, from April 8-10.

Wang, who was born Feb. 23, 2002, was the fourth and final U.S. woman to advance to the North American qualifier at the Olympic table tennis trials last week.

She joins 2015 U.S. champion Jiaqi Zheng and fellow Olympic trials winners Chen Wang (a 42-year-old 2008 Olympic quarterfinalist) and Lily Zhang (2012 Olympian) on the North American qualifier team.

A nation may qualify no more than two individual table tennis players per gender for an Olympics. Jennifer Wu took one of those U.S. spots by winning the 2015 Pan American Games.

If Wang is the top U.S. finisher in Markham in April (and first or second overall), she will become the youngest U.S. Olympian since 1976, according to sports-reference.com.

It will be challenging for Wang to beat her countrywomen, let alone the host Canadians, the only other nation competing.

Wang lost in the quarterfinals on the first two days of the U.S. Olympic trials last week before prevailing on the last day against a field that didn’t include any of the other three women who had already clinched spots in the North American qualifier.

The other three Americans are ranked between Nos. 89 and 146 by the International Table Tennis Federation. Wang is ranked No. 189. Canada has a player ranked No. 113.

If Wang doesn’t make it, then Sharon Alguetti, who turns 15 on May 14, could become the youngest U.S. Olympian since Michael Phelps in 2000.

He will be one of four U.S. men seeking a possible two individual Olympic berths in the North American Olympic qualifier from April 8-10.

Alguetti’s Olympic chances may be greater than Wang’s since there is one more men’s berth at stake (the 2015 Pan Am Games champion was a Brazilian), and he was the third of four U.S. men to qualify for the North American event.

Alguetti joins 2015 U.S. champion Yijun Feng and Olympic trials winners Timothy Wang (2012 Olympian) and Kanak Jha.

Alguetti lost to Wang at the Olympic trials before beating Jha.

No American men are ranked in the world top 300. Jha is No. 302. Alguetti is No. 549. Canada’s best player is ranked No. 63.

The U.S. Olympic table tennis team will increase in size in May if it is the top-ranked North American team in men’s or women’s International Table Tennis Federation rankings. If so, it will send three players to Rio in the respective gender(s), adding its top finishers from the April tournament.

MORE: U.S.’ greatest Olympic table tennis player unretires

U.S. Olympic marathon trials men’s preview, contenders

Galen Rupp
AP
Leave a comment

The U.S. Olympic men’s marathon trials picture shook in the last month with the retirement of fastest-ever American marathoner Ryan Hall, the withdrawal of four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman and the addition of Olympic 10,000m silver medalist Galen Rupp.

What’s left is one man from the three-man 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon team — Meb Keflezighi — who turns 41 on May 5 and looks to become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time (an Olympic medalist in the women’s race is attempting the same feat).

Keflezighi, the defending trials champion, appears the safest pick to finish in the top three to make the Rio Olympic team, but several others, such as Rupp, could surprise in Los Angeles on Saturday (1-4 p.m. ET, NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra).

The top contenders:

Meb Keflezighi
Age: 40
PR: 2:08:37 (Boston 2014)
2014 Boston Marathon champion
2012 Olympics — fourth place
2009 New York City Marathon champion
2004 Olympics — silver medal
2000 Olympics — 12th place (10,000m)

In 2012, Keflezighi became the oldest U.S. Olympic marathon trials winner. This year, he can become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time.

Keflezighi’s only 26.2-mile hiccup in the last four years came in 2013, when he placed 23rd at the New York City Marathon (fifth among Americans). But Keflezighi silenced the doubters five months later in Boston, becoming the first American man to win the world’s oldest annual 26.2-mile race since 1983.

He followed that up with a fourth at the 2014 NYC Marathon (top American), eighth at the 2015 Boston Marathon (No. 2 American) and seventh at the 2015 NYC Marathon (top American).

Dathan Ritzenhein
Age: 33
PR: 2:07:47 (Chicago 2012)
2012 Olympics — 13th place (10,000m)
2008 Olympics — ninth place
2004 Olympics — DNF (10,000m)

Ritzenhein has the fastest personal best in the field and ranked No. 2 among all Americans for 2015 (2:11:20 in Boston). For all his talent, Ritzenhein endured health problems throughout his career. In November, hip bursitis reportedly slowed him for about one month.

He last raced Oct. 4 and last raced a marathon April 20 (his last marathon before that was Oct. 13, 2013).

At the 2012 trials, Ritzenhein was in the lead pack of four from miles two through 19 until he fell off the pace and watched Keflezighi, Hall and Abdirahman pull away to secure Olympic berths. Ritzenhein nearly caught Abdirahman at the end, making up 17 seconds in the last 1.2 miles but coming up eight seconds short in Houston.

“Maybe I’m not made for the marathon,” Ritzenhein said that day, hanging his head while answering reporters’ questions.

Ritzenhein later made the 2012 Olympic team in the 10,000m and, two months after the London Games, ran that 2:07:47 in Chicago to become the third-fastest U.S. marathoner of all time. That’s 50 seconds faster than any other U.S. man since 2011.

Galen Rupp
Age: 29
PR: None
2012 Olympics — silver medal (10,000m)
2012 Olympics — seventh place (5000m)
2008 Olympics — 13th place (10,000m)

Rupp makes his much-anticipated marathon debut. The only U.S. man or woman to qualify for the Olympic marathon at trials in his or her 26.2-mile debut was George Young in 1968, the first year trials were held.

The lack of experience (Rupp’s longest race was a half marathon, which he’s done once in the last four and a half years) makes him a bit of a wild card. But there’s no doubting his talent. Rupp, one of the world’s best at 10,000m, is coached by three-time NYC Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, and may prove the strongest runner in the field.

Rupp was a late qualifier for the trials by posting a half marathon qualifying time of 1:01:20 on Dec. 13 in Portland, Ore., against a field that included a man dressed as an elf and another in the bunny suit from “A Christmas Story.” That time ranked second among U.S. men for 13.1 miles last year.

Rupp’s fastest half marathon, 1:00:30 from 2011, ranks second in the field behind Ritzenhein.

If Rupp finishes in the top three to make the Olympic team, he could still drop out to focus on the 10,000m and/or 5000m on the track, should he make the team in those events at the July 1-10 trials in Eugene, Ore. In that case, the fourth-place finisher on Saturday would be elevated onto the U.S. Olympic team.

Luke Puskedra
Age: 25
PR: 2:10:24 (Chicago 2015)

The former University of Oregon distance runner surprised at the Chicago Marathon by running the fastest time by an American for all of 2015. It was his third marathon. His previous two were 2014 NYC (2:28:54) and the 2015 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. (2:15:27)

The label “fastest American in 2015” means a little less when it’s combined with the fact no American broke 2:10 in the marathon in a calendar year for the first time since 2003.

Still, Puskedra is so young that he may not be near his peak. The top four at the 2012 Olympic trials all went sub-2:10, so Puskedra may need another personal best to make his first Olympic team. Then again, Keflezighi and Ritzenhein are the only men in the field who have broken 2:10, so he might not need it.

Elkanah Kibet
Age: 32
PR: 2:11:31

A Kenya native, Kibet went to Auburn, enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a U.S. citizen in 2013. He was deployed in Kuwait and Iraq from June 2014 to March 2015 and then made his marathon debut in Chicago on Oct. 11.

His 2:11:31 ranked No. 3 among U.S. men last year behind Puskedra and Ritzenhein.

Diego Estrada
Age: 26
PR: None

Estrada is the reigning U.S. champion in the half marathon, his 1:00:51 being the fastest by an American since Rupp in 2011. There’s little else to go on with Estrada, who like Rupp is making his 26.2-mile debut.

He also finished eighth in the 10,000m and 15th in the 5000m at the 2015 U.S. Outdoor Championships. In 2012, he placed 21st in the Olympic 10,000m for Mexico.

Sam Chelanga
Age: 30
PR: None

Chelanga is a native Kenyan who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in August. He owns a half-marathon personal best of 1:01:04 from 2013 and has the second-fastest 10,000m personal best in the field behind Rupp.

MORE: Rio Olympics six months out: Key trials, qualifying dates