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Why does Vernon Davis love curling? ‘It just grows on you’

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SOCHI, Russia – Sunday provided a unique Olympic experience – watching curling with Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis.

Davis arrived for his second Winter Games as USA Curling’s honorary captain on Friday and has been taking in the U.S. men’s team games at the Ice Cube Curling Center.

He arrived about 20 minutes after bagpipers opened play Sunday night. Davis took a seat about 20 yards from the round-robin play action on an elevated press row. He stood out, of course, wearing a black San Francisco 49ers Foundation jacket, an official Olympic credential and several Olympic pins, including a Guatemalan one. He barely took his eyes off the ice.

“It’s like watching my kids play, watching my son play,” Davis said. “I’m not playing, but I have a relationship with these guys. I want them to win.”

The open-minded Davis learned about curling from a 49ers beat writer before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, gave it a try and took to it.

Within weeks, USA Curling found out and extended the honorary captain offer.

“I’m open to try new things and different things,” Davis said. “I find it fascinating.”

VIDEO: U.S. women regain form too late

Davis’ role the past four years has been to promote awareness for a sport that’s gained a cult following at the last four Winter Games, but still has plenty of room to grow in the U.S. (Hawaii became the 45th state to host a curling event in October.)

On Sunday, he played analyst for two reporters as U.S. skip John Shuster and his team faced Sweden. Davis was a natural.

He talked peels, guards and shoe covers for about 45 minutes. He peered across the ice and gestured just like the curlers about positioning.

A telestrator would have come in handy.

“You have to know when to use finesse and when to use strength,” Davis said. “It’s a thinking game. You have to be strategic and come with a good plan to execute to be able to dominate your opponent.”

His passion for curling was evident as he predicted how shots would be played.

VIDEO: U.S. men eliminated; Canada advances

“At first it took me a while to figure out the reason for the sport,” Davis said. “I’m like, ‘Is this really an Olympic sport?’ I needed some answers. I had a lot of questions, technical stuff.

“Once you find out what’s going on in this game, it just grows on you.”

He curls for fun in San Jose, joining “random people” for games. Davis has his own USA Curling jacket with “V. Davis” on the back. The V will keep people from confusing him for U.S. speed skater Shani Davis as they did at the 2010 Olympics.

“The only thing I don’t have is my own stone,” Davis said. “They said they’re going to send me one. They sent me two brooms.”

He sees plenty of parallels between his primary trade and his new hobby.

“[In football] you have to really use your mind, set your opponent up in a way that you can gain leverage and beat him and beat him easily,” Davis said. “That’s the way it is with curling, coming up with a plan, setting up your defense, curling your stone, knowing when to use strength and when not to.”

Davis said his 49ers teammates questioned how serious his commitment was. They asked: “Why curling?”

“There’s no NFL player that promotes curling but me, which is pretty cool,” said Davis, who thinks he can persuade Frank Gore to join him on the ice. “It shows that I’m different and am willing to open up and do something different.”

The Olympics and the Super Bowl, where Davis played last season, are very similar, he said.

“They’re both enormous, everyone’s there, everyone wants to be involved, whether it’s sponsorship or just coming to support,” said Davis, who watched 1996 Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes and 1992 Olympic bobsledder Herschel Walker growing up. “Tons of people there, entertainers, you name it. From a marketing standpoint, it’s huge.”

Davis’ early tour of Sochi included a visit to USA House, a photo in front of the Olympic cauldron and a mob scene when he ate a cafeteria and was swarmed by about 30 people. He also scored a ticket to the U.S.-Russia hockey game Saturday.

“I get a chance to go to [San Jose] Sharks games,” Davis said. “It’s nothing like what I saw yesterday.”

A highlight was talking shop with Shuster on Saturday, learning about how the curlers game plan. Again, it equates to football.

“At the snap of every ball, before I take off the line of scrimmage, I need to really think, I need to really focus,” Davis said. “Their focus is the same focus that I need to have before I release off the line of scrimmage.”

How committed is Davis to raising curling’s awareness?

He wants to go to a third Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, and wouldn’t rule out becoming competitive in the sport once his football career ends.

“The Winter Olympics, when everyone hears curling, they’re thinking … oh, Vernon does that,” he said. “It makes people want to look at it. They want to get involved. They want to see what’s going on. They want to learn more about it. They’re on the Internet, Googling curling, trying to find out about it. Which is a pretty good thing.”

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)
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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
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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