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Kaillie Humphries, Elana Meyers both want bobsled gold — and to race vs. men

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Photo credit: Getty

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Canadian Kaillie Humphries and American Elana Meyers are co-gold-medal favorites in the two-woman bobsled event Tuesday and Wednesday, one of the most anticipated head-to-head matchups of the Olympics. (Watch it LIVE online or on your mobile device.)

Separated by one point in this season’s World Cup standings, Humphries calls their rivalry a “battle royale.” They talk a little trash, too.

The bobsled season ends with the Olympics, but Humphries and Meyers will reconvene in April, wearing dresses instead of skin suits.

That’s because Meyers invited her biggest threat to her wedding.

“I was really honored, actually,” Humphries said. “It was one of those moments that you realize it’s not just about sport.”

Humphries became the youngest female Olympic bobsled medalist when she won on home ice four years ago at age 24. The Calgary native is the two-time reigning world champion and World Cup champion. Sporting multiple tattoos and a half-shaved head, she is the standard of the sport. A gold in Sochi would make her the first two-time Olympic women’s bobsled champion (the sport debuted in 2002).

She has even bigger plans.

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Kaillie Humphries. (Photo credit: AP)

Humphries has been pushing the International Bobsled Federation (FIBT) to either add four-woman bobsled events or to let her drive a sled in a four-man race with three female or three male push athletes behind her.

The first Winter Olympics in 1924 included four-man bobsled. In 1932, two-man bobsled debuted. In 2002, a two-woman event started. Four-woman bobsled has yet to get going on the World Cup circuit, which would be a precursor to Olympic inclusion.

“Chicken and the egg, [a four-woman race] has got to start somewhere,” Humphries said. “It’s an envelope that I know I’m pushing. I’m hoping not too soon, but we’ll see.”

Humphries said the notion of racing against men is more realistic because of Meyers (metaphorically) pushing her.

They trained together this summer at the World Athletics Center in Phoenix, Ariz., a facility founded by two-time Olympic discus medalist John Godina. That decision was born out of a conversation between Humphries and Meyers during warm up at the 2013 World Championships.

“We wanted to take this sport to another level,” said Meyers, who went on to take silver behind Humphries at worlds. “We wanted to see how much we could challenge men.”

Humphries’ strength coach since 2007, Stu McMillan, was going to start working with U.S. Bobsled. The two had a thorough discussion before deciding to train alongside her biggest competition for gold in Sochi.

“We both agreed that in order to be the best, and in order to stay on top, I have to be able to be pushed,” Humphries said. “And Elana, she’s a competitor. She is my No. 1 competitor. It’s hard to continue to stay motivated, to stay on top. I knew that I needed somebody to push me.”

The brunt of their side-by-side work came in the weight room. If Meyers felt an inkling to give up on a tough lift, the reigning world and Olympic champion was a constant reminder. McMillan motivated both even more by sending each woman video of the other’s workouts.

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Elana Meyers (Photo credit: AP)

“He knew how to push our buttons,” said Meyers, a former college softball player who said she’s now in the best shape of her life. “He knew how to get under our skin.”

The partnership paid off immediately for Meyers, who had been sixth in the 2012-13 World Cup standings in her third season as a driver.

At the first World Cup on Nov. 30, Meyers finished second to Humphries on the Canadian’s hometown track in Calgary. The next week she swept two races in Park City, Utah, her first career World Cup victories. It was sweeter that Humphries was in the field, finishing second and seventh in those races.

“To show that it’s not impossible [to beat Humphries],” Meyers said. “To show that she can go down. Hopefully, it got in her head a little bit, too.”

Maybe it did.

Humphries won 11 of 14 World Cup or World Championships races in a span from 2011 to 2013. She’s since won two of the last seven World Cup races going into the Olympics.

“The gap has definitely been closed,” Humphries said. “That’s part of the game. As much as I don’t necessarily like it, I like when the gap is fairly big, that’s sport. That’s better for bobsleigh.”

In hindsight, Humphries doesn’t regret training with Meyers.

“I can’t do it alone,” Humphries said. “I didn’t get here alone. I’m certainly not going to stay here, nor am I going to continue to be at the top alone. She isn’t somebody that a lot of people would assume would be in my inner circle family, but at the end of the day I have just as much to learn from her, being around other people that are exactly like me, that adopt the same philosophies of hard work, preparation, determination. They’re very few. I see a lot of that in Elana. Being able to be reminded of that, especially at times when I’m weak, is a benefit to me.”

The training could create parallels between Humphries’ and Meyers’ careers.

  • Humphries was a brakeman in 2006 (an alternate), who became a driver after and won gold in her Olympic driving debut.
  • Meyers won a 2010 Olympic bronze medal as a brakeman for Erin Pac.

Also, Meyers shares Humphries’ groundbreaking ambition. She would like to be the U.S. Olympic Committee CEO one day. She has looked up to Humphries as far back as Vancouver.

“I felt like a lot of times Erin [Pac] was constantly comparing herself to Kaillie,” Meyers said. “In comparison, Kaillie doesn’t care. Kaillie’s going to go out there and rock it, or not rock it, and throw caution to the wind and do whatever she needs to win a race. That’s the type of driver I want to be.”

U.S. coach Todd Hays called the Meyers-Humphries partnership strange, given he competed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In that era, training with the dominant Germans or Canadians wouldn’t have been accepted. But Hays likes it now.

“It puts a little more human factor to her competitor and the Olympic champion,” he said. “[Meyers] sees [Humphries’] day-to-day personalities, struggles and insecurities.

“She realizes that Kaillie is just another human being. She can beat her any given day.”

Which leaves one question. If Meyers beats Humphries for gold on Wednesday, does she expect to see her at the wedding?

“We’ll see how the Olympics turn out,” Meyers said. “Maybe she’ll change her mind.”

Maia, Alex Shibutani beaten in free dance, still repeat as U.S. champions

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KANSAS CITY — Maia and Alex Shibutani were not the best U.S. ice dancers on Saturday, for the first time in a year. Still, they held on to repeat as U.S. champions.

The siblings were outscored in the U.S. Championships free dance by Madison Chock and Evan Bates, but their lead from a record-breaking short dance was enough to win by 1.01 points at Sprint Center. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue were third after Hubbell shockingly fell during their free dance.

The top three repeated from 2016. Full results are here.

The Shibutanis took a 2.46-point lead into the free dance and totaled 200.05 points overall. They missed the U.S. Championships overall record score, set by Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, by .14 of a point, after breaking Davis and White’s short dance record Friday.

“A year out from the Olympics, this is exactly where we want to be,” Maia Shibutani told Andrea Joyce on NBC. “I know we’ve improved so much.”

Chock and Bates, the 2015 U.S. champions, outscored the Shibutanis in a program on Saturday for the first time since the 2016 U.S. Championships short dance.

It was at last year’s nationals that the Shibutanis displaced Chock and Bates as the U.S. power couple in dance. The siblings went on to better Chock and Bates in both programs at the Four Continents Championships, World Championships and the Grand Prix Final in December.

“A lot of times we get hung up on results, and it doesn’t really, truly reflect how our skating has grown and how our partnership has evolved,” Bates said. “I think this was our best competition, probably, to date. … We would have loved to recapture our national title, but it didn’t happen for us.”

Hubbell and Donohue had been rising until Hubbell hit the ice Saturday. They were sixth at the 2016 World Championships and then fifth at the Grand Prix Final in December, finishing ahead of Chock and Bates.

They leave Kansas City with a fourth U.S. Championships bronze medal. They’ve never cracked the top two.

“It wasn’t our day, my day in particular,” said Hubbell, before getting a peck on the cheek from Donohue. “Just a funny, fluke moment. I just want to say thanks to Zach for being a really fabulous partner. … I thank my lucky stars to have a partner that can help me through a moment like that.”

The Shibutanis earned their first U.S. title in 2016, then took silver at the world championships last March and bronze at the Grand Prix Final last month. Despite the free dance scores, they are confident going into worlds in two months.

“The past year and a half, we’ve built so much momentum,” Alex Shibutani said. “We’re really coming into our own.”

The world’s two best couples are two-time reigning world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France and Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

Virtue and Moir took Olympic gold in 2010 and silver in 2014, then took two seasons off and returned this year to post the highest scores under the current system implemented in 2010.

The U.S., though, is unquestionably the deepest ice dance nation. The Shibutanis, Chock and Bates and Hubbell and Donohue made up half of the top six at the 2016 World Championships. All three couples qualified for each of the last two Grand Prix Finals, which take only six couples.

Meanwhile, Davis and White have watched the ascension while taking a three-year break from competition. They are running out of time to decide if they will attempt to defend their Olympic title in PyeongChang. A nation can send no more than three couples to the Olympics.

The U.S. Championships continue Saturday night with the women’s free skate (8 ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

VIDEO: Tara Lipinski reflects on winning 1997 U.S. title at age 14

U.S. Championships Ice Dance
GOLD: Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani — 200.05

SILVER: Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 199.04
BRONZE: Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — 191.42
4. Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit — 170.29
5. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker — 160.06

Haven Denney, Brandon Frazier win U.S. pairs title after year off

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KANSAS CITY — Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier returned from a year off to win their first U.S. pairs title on Saturday, despite an error-prone free skate and against a field lacking any previous U.S. champion teams.

Denney and Frazier jumped from second after the short program to total 188.32 points and win by 2.04 over Sochi Olympian Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran. Denney and Frazier’s total score was 23.33 points fewer than last year’s winning score.

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, who led by 3.96 after the short program, had a strong free skate going until a fall on their throw triple Lutz and finished third Saturday.

Full results are here.

Denney and Frazier were the top U.S. pair in the fall international season by 16 points, taking a silver medal at Skate America.

But Denney struggled on landings in the short program, her right leg wrapped after blowing out her right knee in spring 2015 that caused them to miss the entire 2015-16 season. They also had multiple jumping errors in their free skate, but, unlike the rest of the top five, stayed on their feet Saturday.

“We’re trying harder elements, harder jumps, bigger throws, bigger twists,” Frazier said. “What you see is a couple of ups and downs. This is all building for the next season.”

The U.S. will send two pairs to the world championships in Helsinki in two months, but not definitively the top two finishers from Saturday. The world championships pairs teams will be named Sunday.

Denney and Frazier finished 12th at the 2015 Worlds, after placing second at that year’s U.S. Championships. Castelli and Tran, in their second year as a pair, have no worlds experience together and are ineligible for the 2018 Olympics. Tran, born in Canada, is not a U.S. citizen.

Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest discipline. The last U.S. pair to earn an Olympic or world medal was Kyoka Ina and John Zimmerman at the 2002 Worlds. Eight different pairs have won the last nine U.S. titles.

In 2016, the U.S. pairs finished ninth and 13th at worlds, but both of those teams are out due to injuries.

Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, the top U.S. pair in international competition in recent seasons, has been out of competition all season due to her September stomach surgery. They have returned to full training.

The Knierims filed a petition to be named to the world championships team, which is selected on a discretionary basis on results from the U.S. Championships and other recent competitions.

“Whatever they decide,” Tran said of a U.S. Figure Skating selection committee, “we’re all for that.”

The 2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea withdrew before the free skate Saturday after Kayne suffered a concussion in a short-program fall. They placed fifth in the short program.

The U.S. Championships continue Saturday night with the women’s free skate (8 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

VIDEO: Tara Lipinski reflects on 1997 U.S. title at age 14

U.S. Championships Pairs
GOLD: Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier — 188.32
SILVER: Marissa Castelli/Mervin Tran — 186.28
BRONZE: Ashley Cain/Timothy LeDuc — 184.41

4. Deanna Stellato/Nathan Bartholomay — 173.50
5. Jessica Pfund/Joshua Santillan — 168.90