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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.”

U.S. figure skating could have its best world team since 2006

Nathan Chen performs during the men's free skate competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP
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KANSAS CITY — U.S. figure skating has a shot at medals in three of four disciplines at the world championships in Helsinki in two months, which hasn’t happened in 11 years.

Before this year, the U.S. men and U.S. women hadn’t boasted simultaneous medal contenders in a decade. Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek spent the 2010 Olympic cycle in the world elite, while the U.S. women faded. After they stopped competing, Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold moved into the women’s medal field while the U.S. searched for a new leading man.

He’s arrived. Nathan Chen confirmed he is one of the world’s best male skaters by landing a record seven quadruple jumps between two programs at Sprint Center this past week.

The 17-year-old already made the podium in an event that featured the world’s best, earning silver at the Grand Prix Final in December. Chen struggled with his short-program jumps at the Grand Prix Final and attempted one fewer quad overall yet still outscored everybody but Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

Of all of the U.S. medal hopes at worlds, Chen may face the stiffest trio of challengers. Not only is there Hanyu, but also two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, plus Japan’s Shoma Uno, all of whom rank higher than Chen in best total scores in international competition this season.

MORE: Chen believes Olympic gold is possible after U.S. title

Wagner, who shares a coach with Chen, did not have her best nationals. She finished second to surprise winner Karen Chen (no relation to Nathan), who has yet to factor internationally.

But Wagner said before and after the U.S. Championships that her focus was to peak for the world championships. The goal for nationals was to make the world team, which required not winning but finishing in the top three. Mission accomplished.

The concern with Wagner is that she hasn’t produced a world medal-caliber result yet this season. Her best score from the fall ranks her sixth among women going to worlds. But Wagner has shown in the last few seasons that she can pull it together for major events. There’s her 2016 World Championships silver medal, plus her three straight Grand Prix Final medals from 2012-14.

At worlds, Wagner will have to deal with a Russian trio capable of sweeping the podium, three strong Japanese skaters, plus the revelation of this season, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond.

VIDEO: Wagner passed Puffs in emotional press conference moment

The U.S.’ strongest discipline continues to be ice dance. Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock and Evan Bates finished second and third at the 2016 World Championships. They went one-two at the U.S. Championships this past week.

But two ice dance medals don’t appear to be in the cards in Helsinki. That’s because Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who earned gold and silver at the last two Olympics, came back this season after a two-year break.

Virtue and Moir broke international scoring records in the fall, sweeping their four starts. The two-time reigning world champions, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, also beat the U.S. couples at the Grand Prix Final.

The Shibutani siblings and Chock and Bates have never finished ahead of Virtue and Moir in competition. Neither has bettered the French since the December 2014 Grand Prix Final, either.

But all it takes is one dance medal, plus Chen and Wagner at their best in Helsinki, and the U.S. could go into the Olympic year in its best place since 2006.

MORE: Gracie Gold comments on split from coach Frank Carroll

Laurie Hernandez discusses life after Rio, new book on TODAY (video)

Laurie Hernandez
TODAY
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Laurie Hernandez‘s book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” is out Tuesday, and the Olympic champion gymnast stopped by TODAY on Monday to discuss its contents and life post-Rio.

An excerpt on Hernandez’s experience in Rio and the story of her floor-exercise wink to judges, is here.

On TODAY, Hernandez discussed another interesting anecdote from the book about tissues.

“Before Olympic Trials, we went out to eat, and I had a little breakdown because practice was really rough, and my routines weren’t coming the way I wanted them to,” she said. “This poor waitress kept bringing me over piles of tissues. … We were leaving, and my sister [Jelysa] told my dad, I’m going to save these tissues. I’m going to give them to her when she makes the team. I’m thinking to myself, you guys are crazy, this is not going to happen.”

Hernandez went on to finish second to Simone Biles at the Olympic Trials and make the five-woman Olympic team as the first U.S. female Olympian born in the 2000s.

The family celebrated the achievement, where Jelysa handed the tissues to Hernandez in a bag.

“Even when you fell, you couldn’t believe in yourself, we were there for you,” Jelysa told her.

“So it was a really defining moment,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez is away from gymnastics while promoting her book and touring with “Dancing with the Stars,” but she is expected to return to the sport at some point.

MORE: Hernandez explains 2017 goals: First date, driver’s license, Law & Order