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

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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.”

It’s official: U.S. sending 555 athletes to Rio Olympics

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 27:  Mariel Zagunis of the United States Olympic fencing team carries her country's flag during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on July 27, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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With a ceremony on Venice Beach, just outside Los Angeles, which is bidding for the 2024 Olympics Games, the 2016 U.S. Olympic team was officially confirmed Saturday for the Rio Games.

Four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans, who is on the LA 2024 Olympic bid committee, hosted the event and was joined on stage by women’s basketball player Tamika Catchings, who will make her fourth Olympic appearance, as well as water polo player Tony Azevedo and beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings, both of whom are set for their fifth Olympics.

Evans confirmed a roster 555 U.S. athletes, which will be the largest athlete delegation of any nation, the first time since 2004 that the U.S. held that distinction at a Summer Olympics.

Among the interesting numbers released by Team USA:

– The most women (292) to ever compete for one nation in Olympic history; 263 U.S. men will compete.

– Americans will participate in 244 of the 306 medal events in Rio.

– The U.S. will be represented in 27 sports (40 disciplines).

– 191 returning Olympians.

– Three six-time Olympians – equestrian Phillip Dutton, and shooters Emil Milev and Kim Rhode – giving the U.S. 11 athletes in history, summer or winter, to make six Games.

– Seven five-time Olympians – Tony Azevedo (water polo), Glenn Eller (shooting), Bernard Lagat (track and field), Steven Lopez (taekwondo), Michael Phelps (swimming), Kerri Walsh Jennings (beach volleyball) and Venus Williams (tennis). Only 35 U.S. athletes in addition to these have appeared in at least five Olympics.

– 19 four-time Olympians, 50 three-time Olympians, 112 two-time Olympians and 363 Olympic rookies.

– 108 returning Olympic medalists, 68 returning Olympic gold medalists, and 45 Olympians owning multiple medals.

– 53 U.S. athletes will attempt to defend titles from London; 19 in individual events.

– 54 of the athletes are parents.

– 17 athletes have military ties.

– 46 states are represented.

MORE: U.S. Olympic team of 550-plus athletes most of any nation in Rio

Fans in Vegas miss U.S. Olympic hoops exhibition due to glitch

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 20:  Kevin Durant #5 of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team signs autographs for fans after a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on July 20, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Thousands of fans expecting to see the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team play against Argentina inside a Las Vegas arena were left outside because of a ticketing snafu.

Box office staff at T-Mobile Arena were overwhelmed Friday night by the number of people picking up will call tickets or wanting to purchase on-site.

Some customers reported delays of as much as 2 hours and never made it inside.

MGM Resorts International, which owns the arena, apologized. The company said in a statement that it would grant refunds to anyone unable to attend.

The game was the first of five exhibitions the U.S. will play before traveling to Rio to defend the gold medal.

The U.S. team, which won 111-74, has spent the last week practicing in Las Vegas.

MORE: What if Kobe Bryant wanted back on Olympic team after 60-point NBA finale?