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Russian pair delights home crowd with ‘amazing moment’

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SOCHI, Russia – If you walked by the Iceberg Skating Palace Wednesday night, you would be forgiven for thinking there was a World Cup-caliber soccer match going on. A very intense soccer match, at that.

But it was figure skating on this night, pairs figure skating in particular, when the host nation’s best chance for individual winners were taking to the ice and the country stood still for three hours, waiting to see if Russia could re-capture a gold medal that it lost at the Vancouver Games four years ago.

If the nation was immovable, the arena itself was shaking with anticipation as Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov took to the ice, the leaders after the short program. A roar burst through the packed facility that is not heard often in figure skating, a sport that prides itself on grace and power, not fist-pumping and screams.

VIDEO: Russian pair are “superstars”

A host-nation pair had not won a gold medal at the Olympics in 78 years, since Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier climbed to the top of the podium in 1936 at the Games in Germany; World War II was just gaining steam.

The home-ice advantage – the shaking walls and unfurled red, white and blue flags numbering in the hundreds – all waited for the moment to crown new Olympic champions. But first they had to skate.

“It was hard to skate in front of our people,” Trankov told NBCOlympics.com after their win. “We’ve never had an audience like this in our lives. It was amazing moment when we finished our program.”

“The pressure helped us,” Volosozhar added. “It pushed us to skate better.”

VIDEO: “Strength and power” led Russia to silver as well

While the crowd roared for Volosozhar/Trankov, the applause was muted for their German rivals Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who came into the free skate in second place and needed to land their difficult throw triple Axel (as well as skate a clean program) in order to capture the gold.

“We are in Russia and Russian skaters are on the ice,” shrugged Szolkowy after his team fell – literally – to bronze. “It would be the same if we were in Germany and it was German skaters … at least I hope.”

Szolkowy fell early on a jump, not completing a side-by-side with Savchenko. The crowd at that moment let out a sudden yet sure cheer, obviously elated that its gold-medal hopes were assured with a German blip.

“After I came back up to my feet, of course I noticed the crowd was cheering,” said Szolkowy. “And that helped us through the next element.”

VIDEO: Fall derails Szolkowy and Savchenko

It couldn’t carry them through the throw triple Axel, however, an element that – should they have executed it – would have helped them be in contention for silver. Instead, that medal went to another Russian pair, Ksenia Stolbova and Fyodor Klimov.

“At least they clapped after our performance,” Szolkowy added. “You felt the arena was packed and you felt that everyone was here to support at least some of the guys. For me, it was great.”

After winning gold in 12 straight Olympic Games in the pairs events – dating back to Innsbruck 1964 – Russia not only lost that stronghold on first place in Vancouver, it didn’t land one team on the podium. The Sochi Games was seen as a redemption moment for Volosozhar/Trankov, but also the Russian pairs institution as a whole.

“Of course we remember Vancouver, but that was another life,” Trankov said. “Here, it was a situation that was completely changed. We weren’t fighting for just a medal, but for gold.”

VIDEO: Watch Castelli and Shnapir’s “Skyfall” routine

It was fitting that Volosozhar and Trankov were wearing gold on this night: he a buzzed-about pair of golden pants he had donned all season for their “Jesus Christ Superstar” free skate, and she a newly-revealed gold dress.

As she walked by a group of young Russian girls in the hallway backstage, they squealed in delight, Tatyana stopping to wave. On this night, gold-medal winners treated like rock stars in an arena – and a country – that roared with approval.

Marc Leishman will miss Olympics due to wife’s health, Zika

Marc Leishman
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Australian golfer Marc Leishman will miss the Rio Olympics due to his wife’s health.

“Many of you may know that last April my children and I almost lost my wife, Audrey, to toxic shock syndrome,” Leishman said in a statement. “Since then Audrey has been prone to infection and is far removed from 100 percent recovery of her immune system.

“We have consulted with Audrey’s physician and due to her ongoing recovery from toxic shock and potential risks associated with the transmission of the Zika virus, it was a difficult yet easy decision not to participate.

“I missed playing in the 2015 Masters tournament to be at her side when she was originally stricken and I cannot risk placing her health in jeopardy.

“The Masters and the Olympics are the two biggest tournaments to which a golfer can be invited; however, my family will always come before golf.”

Leishman, 32 with one PGA Tour win, joined the projected Olympic field when countryman Adam Scott said last month that he would skip Rio.

World No. 1 Jason Day is assured one of two Olympic spots for Australian men when the 60-man field is determined based on July 11 world rankings.

With No. 7 Scott and No. 35 Leishman out, the next-best Aussie is No. 63 Marcus Fraser.

Three more major champions — Vijay Singh, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel — also said in April they would not compete in Rio.

Golf returns to the Olympics for the first time since 1904.

MORE: Australia Olympic legend blasts Adam Scott

Rory McIlroy worried Olympic golf may be done after 2020

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Rory McIlroy believes golf may not remain in the Olympics after 2020 following a string of major champions announcing they will skip the sport’s return at the Rio Games.

“Because of how [Olympic golf is] being approached in golf circles … I’m not sure if we’re going to have another opportunity to win a gold medal after [Tokyo 2020],” McIlroy said ahead of the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday.

In 2009, the International Olympic Committee voted to re-add golf and rugby to the Olympic program for the 2016 Olympics, with a review in 2017 if they would remain for the 2020 Olympics.

In 2013, Tokyo was elected host city for the 2020 Olympics with a plan that includes golf.

Beyond 2020, golf does not yet have a place in the Olympics. Its chances for the 2024 Olympics could come into focus when that host city is chosen in September 2017.

McIlroy, ranked No. 3 in the world, has repeated he will play for Ireland in the first Olympic golf tournament since 1904 in Rio in August.

Fellow major champions Adam ScottLouis OosthuizenCharl Schwartzel and Vijay Singh said last month they will not play in the Rio Olympics.

MORE: Golf Channel’s Olympic broadcast schedule