If experience wins in bobsled, U.S. primed for 2018 glory

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source: AP
From left: Elana Meyers, Lauryn Williams, Aja Evans and Jamie Greubel. (Credit: AP)

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The difference between women’s bobsled gold and silver was one tenth of a second and four years of experience.

Canadian Kaillie Humphries came back to defend her Olympic  title, erasing a deficit of .23 after the first two runs and beating American Elana Meyers by .1 after four runs at Sanki Sliding Center on Wednesday night.

Meyers, with push athlete Lauryn Williams, averaged nearly .05 faster in start times per run than Humphries and Heather Moyse, a critical portion of the race that can dictate speed the rest of the way down the track. The U.S. also has fantastic technology, new BMW sleds that awed Humphries.

That left one area for Humphries to really make up ground on Meyers – driving.

They say it can take eight years for drivers to hit their peaks. Humphries has been doing just that, ever since being left off the 2006 Olympic Team when she was a push athlete.

Meyers has been driving for four years, ever since winning bronze at the 2010 Olympics as a push athlete.

“It makes a big difference, in all fairness,” Humphries said.

VIDEO: Watch Canada defend its Olympic gold

Humphries put together four consistent runs over two days, keeping her golden form at major championships, the only events that switch from the two- to four-run format. She changed her sled’s runners from Tuesday to Wednesday, but wasn’t fazed in her driving approach, despite the deficit.

She had reason to be calm.

Humphries trained with Meyers last summer and is so close to the American that she will attend Meyers’ wedding in April. That partnership also helped Meyers, the 2013 world silver medalist, close the gap on 2013 world champion Humphries during eight races that comprise the World Cup season. Humphries barely won her third straight season title, 1,629-1,628 over Meyers.

Humphries went into Sochi knowing she had a consistency edge over Meyers. That showed Wednesday.

Meyers matched her start record in the third of four runs, but after getting into the sled she struggled, hitting a wall and skidding. The .23 lead was down to .11. The Canadians were confident.

“After the third run I said to Kaillie, ‘You know what, the gap is closing,’” Moyse said.

In the fourth and final run, the Humphries threw down the fastest time of the field. Then came Meyers, going last. She skidded again. Humphries watched on a screen at the bottom of the track, recognizing Meyers’ mistakes.

“That’s pressure,” Humphries said. “Driving experience plays a factor into that.”

It also was the edge.

Humphries and Moyse won their second straight Olympic gold. They were the only driver-push athlete combo in the 19-sled field that also competed together at the 2010 Olympics.

Meyers was the only member of the 2014 U.S. Olympic Women’s Bobsled Team with previous Winter Olympic experience, and it was under completely different circumstances as a push athlete.

VIDEO: Meyers, Williams sled to silver

“I have a lot to learn,” said Meyers, who said she was delighted with silver, becoming the first two-time U.S. Olympic women’s bobsled medalist. “Driving is all about consistency. That’s what it takes to win Olympic gold. It takes four consistent runs. I didn’t have ‘em.”

The next four years will be about gathering consistency.

Meyers, 29, plans on sledding through to the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, as does Humphries, 28.

Who else will be in Meyers’ sled is a big question.

Three-time track Olympian Lauryn Williams became the fifth person to win Winter and Summer Olympic medals in different disciplines, pushing for Meyers this week. She is 30, retired from sprinting and wouldn’t commit to anything past eating a pizza Wednesday night.

USA-2 driver Jamie Greubel, who won bronze Wednesday, said she will drive next season and then “see how it goes.”

Greubel’s push athlete, Aja Evans, is going back to track and field as a heptathlete. She’s thinking about the Rio Olympics.

Then there’s Lolo Jones, who finished 11th with the No. 3 U.S. driver, Jazmine Fenlator.

“I’ll take seven days off and begin preparing for track,” she said. “It’s going to be brutal. I need to lose 15 pounds.”

VIDEO: Lolo stays positive after 11th place finish

Fenlator will keep driving. She wants Jones to return.

“I told her she can take a break for Rio,” Fenlator said, “but I’m going to reel her back in.”

Jones is 31 and re-entering track as an underdog. She finished fifth in the 100m hurdles at last year’s U.S. Championships; the top 3 finishers were at least five years younger than her.

In bobsled, there’s sure to be changeover next season, but Meyers will be the steady leader. She will continue to chase Humphries, and she may very well catch and pass her very soon.

“She’s got the physical ability to do it,” said Helen Upperton, a two-time Canadian Olympic bobsledder now working for CBC. “Kaillie’s a great driver, but if you’re getting outstarted, and as people acquire more runs, they’re going to become better pilots. She’s already giving Kaillie a run for the money.”

Kerri Walsh Jennings’ next partner is a familiar one

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Kerri Walsh Jennings is slated to play with with 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh this summer, after she and Olympic bronze medal teammate April Ross split last month.

Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion with Misty May-Treanor before that bronze in Rio, and Branagh, who made the Beijing Games quarterfinals with Elaine Youngs, are entered in an FIVB World Tour event in Croatia the last week of June.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are both 38 years old and briefly paired in 2010 when May-Treanor was uncertain about making a run for the London Olympics. When May-Treanor told Walsh Jennings she was all-in for London, Walsh Jennings split from Branagh.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are hoping to play together through the World Tour Finals in late August, according to Volleyball Magazine.

That includes the world championships in Vienna, Austria, in late July and early August.

It’s not known if they will have the combined ranking points to earn an outright worlds spot. They could also receive a wild card for worlds. Entries will be announced next month.

Walsh Jennings, a mother of three, has said she hopes to play in the 2020 Olympics at age 41, when she will be older than any previous Olympic beach or indoor volleyball player, according to Olympic historians.

Branagh returned to competition this year after a one-year break to have her second child. She has played few international events since 2012 and last won internationally in 2010 (with Walsh Jennings).

Ross, an Olympic silver and bronze medalist and 2009 World champion, is now partnered with Lauren Fendrick, who played with Brooke Sweat in Rio. Ross, 34, said she will figure out her long-term partner plans for Tokyo 2020 after this season.

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Catching up with Ross Powers

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Ross Powers, now 38 years old and 15 years removed from his Olympic snowboarding title, is still out with halfpipe riders on the snow five days per week.

The difference now is that Powers is coaching. He runs the snowboarding program at Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, where he graduated from in 1997.

Powers spoke with OlympicTalk before last season, reflecting on 20 years of snowboarding in the Olympics, Shaun White and how he likes coaching.

OlympicTalk: The PyeongChang Winter Games will mark 20 years since snowboarding’s debut in Nagano. What was it like competing in the first Olympic halfpipe?

Powers (who won bronze in Nagano at age 19): It seemed kind of like a regular World Cup. We were up in the mountains. At the time, it was a really good halfpipe, but we ended up competing in some bad weather, some rain. I didn’t realize until I left Japan and got home how big the Olympics were. But looking back, it was a special time. And I really learned from the ’98 Olympics, like if I get this chance again, I’m going to go there, I’m going to do it all. I’m going to go to Opening Ceremonies, Closing Ceremonies, watch as many events as I can and just make the most out of the Games.

OlympicTalk: The Nagano halfpipe was about half the size of today’s superpipes (394 feet long with 11 1/2-foot walls vs. 590 feet with 22-foot walls in Sochi). Could today’s snowboarders compete with you guys back in 1998?

Powers: It was so different. At the time, I want to say it was the biggest pipe we rode, but compared to today’s standards, it’s small. The weather was tricky. I think a lot of those guys [today] could ride it, but it’s so much different than today’s halfpipe for sure.

OlympicTalk: In 2002, when you led a U.S. men’s halfpipe medal sweep, the rider who just missed the Olympic team was a 15-year-old Shaun White. What do you remember about him?

Powers: You kind of knew he was going to be the next guy. Where he took our sport and certain tricks. One thing that really impressed me about him is he’ll train really hard for an event, show up, even if the conditions are bad, he’s planned this trick he wants to do, and he’ll try it no matter what. Most of the time he’ll give it a go and land it. That actually hurt him in Russia [White attempted but couldn’t perfect the YOLO Flip 1440 in Sochi] because he probably could have stepped down a notch, gotten a medal and maybe even won the event.

OlympicTalk: Did Shaun ever beat you before you retired?

Powers: I had my run from 1998, ’99, ’00, ’01, all those times that I was doing really well. I tried to make the 2006 Olympics in Italy. I was the alternate, so I just missed that. He was definitely beating me up through those times.

OlympicTalk: Did you travel to the Torino Olympics as an alternate?

Powers: I did, yeah. I traveled over there and actually watched my buddy [Seth] Wescott win the gold in boarder cross. That night, he was like, you should try boarder cross. That kind of got me into doing that my next few years after that.

[Editor’s Note: Powers almost made the 2010 Olympic team in snowboard cross, even finishing third in a December 2009 World Cup.]

OlympicTalk: Which is tougher, coaching or competing?

Powers: I would say it is tougher coaching than competing. You just have so many responsibilities and so much work. The nice thing about coaching, though, compared to competing, is you can kind of push yourself and have fun [riding] on certain days but then also sit back and really work with the athletes on all other days. So when you’re feeling it, you can push yourself. So it’s not like an athlete, where you have to push yourself.

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