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.”

Simone Biles becomes honorary Houston Texans cheerleader

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The NFL’s Houston Texans may not be having the greatest season on the football field, but that hasn’t stopped one famous diehard fan from cheering them on.

On Sunday, Simone Biles took her fandom to the next level by debuting as an honorary Texans cheerleader before the team’s home game against the San Francisco 49ers.

game day feels ❤️ so excited to dance at the Houston Texans Game!

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officially ready for game day now that I got my legendary red boots 🏈

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As an added bonus, she also found time to take a few photos with NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon, a 7-foot center who once starred for the Houston Rockets.

This isn’t the first time that the Olympic gold medalist has teamed up with her hometown Texans. In 2016, Biles had the honor of announcing one of the team’s draft picks, and in 2015, she made this memorable entrance onto the field after a pre-game introduction.

Julia Marino, Jamie Anderson close in on Olympic snowboard team spots after second U.S. qualifier

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Julia Marino is within striking distance of qualifying for her first Olympic team. Sochi gold medalist Jamie Anderson is even closer.

Marino, who won four X Games medals in slopestyle and big air competitions last season, unleashed a frontside 720 and her signature cab double underflip to take second place in big air at the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, the second of five qualifying events for the U.S. snowboard slopestyle and big air team.

Anderson, who received high marks for her cab 900 but lower scores for her frontside 720, finished off the podium in fourth. Because she and Marino were the only Americans to reach the final at Copper though, Anderson still received a valuable haul of Olympic selection points and maintains the lead in the overall rankings.

Although Marino’s cab double underflip received the highest score of the competition, riders in big air are scored on their two best tricks. That enabled Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi to take the win with a pair of solid jumps that included a backside 1080. Silje Norendal of Norway finished on the podium in third behind Iwabuchi and Marino.

In order to be named to the U.S. Olympic slopestyle and big air snowboarding team, riders must have a minimum of one podium finish at the selection events. If more than three riders attain podium finishes, then the tiebreaker will come down each rider’s two best results.

Marino and Anderson have both fulfilled the minimum criteria for automatic selection. Either of them could clinch spots on the Olympic team for both slopestyle and big air by finishing as the top U.S. rider at any of the remaining selection events. The next event will be a slopestyle contest next week in Breckenridge, Colo.

Meanwhile, the men’s big air competition had the potential to shake up the U.S. Olympic rankings, as none of the podium finishers from the first selection event reached the final at Copper.

After a disappointing result in that first qualifier, which was held at Mammoth Mountain last winter, Chris Corning bounced back to finish as the top American in this contest and second place overall. He landed a frontside 1440 and a massive backside triple cork 1440 on his two jumps, putting his own stylish twist on both tricks with melon grabs.

Corning, the 2015/16 World Cup champion in slopestyle, has emerged as perhaps the U.S. team’s top hope for an Olympic medal this year in both men’s slopestyle and big air, events typically dominated by riders from Canada and Norway. Now that he has his first selection event podium under his belt, he can clinch a spot on the Olympic team by finishing as the top American at any of the remaining contests.

Also earning a podium result with a third-place finish was 19-year-old Chandler Hunt, who has suddenly added his name to the U.S. Olympic discussion.

The victory in men’s big air went to Norway’s Mons Roisland, who stomped a switch backside 1620 and a frontside 1440 tail grab on his jumps.

Three more selection events for the slopestyle and big air team still remain, and all three will be slopestyle events. Dew Tour will host a selection event next week in Breckenridge, then there will be a break until Olympic qualifying resumes in January with competitions at Aspen and Mammoth.

U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain Results

Men’s Snowboard Big Air
1. Mons Roisland (NOR), 182.75
2. Chris Corning (USA), 177.25
3. Chandler Hunt (USA), 159.00
4. Ryan Stassel (USA), 154.50
5. Max Parrot (CAN), 121.50

Women’s Snowboard Big Air
1. Reira Iwabuchi (JPN), 169.25
2. Julia Marino (USA), 160.25
3. Silje Norendal (NOR), 156.75
4. Jamie Anderson (USA), 151.50
5. Sina Candrian (SUI), 135.50

U.S. Olympic Qualifying Standings

Men’s Snowboard Slopestyle/Big Air
1. Red Gerard, 1400*
2. Chris Corning, 1200*
3. Chandler Hunt, 1160*
4. Kyle Mack, 1000*
5. Judd Henkes, 1000

Women’s Snowboard Slopestyle/Big Air
1. Jamie Anderson, 1800*
2. Julia Marino, 1600*
3. Hailey Langland, 1300*
4. Jessika Jenson, 1050
5. Nora Healey, 950

*Has automatic qualifying minimum of one top-three result.