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Sochi souvenirs that matter the most

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SOCHI, Russia – This one’s personal. Our oldest daughter, Elizabeth, was born five months before the 2002 Olympics. That was my first Winter Games. I walked around Salt Lake City with a little box that had a picture of Elizabeth and a button which, when pressed, would play a recording of her laughter. I had to press that button every time I went through security to convince guards it wasn’t a bomb.

Our youngest daughter, Katie, turned one the day after I left for the 2006 Torino Olympics. She turned nine as the Opening Ceremony went off in Sochi. We celebrated over Facetime; I called to wake her up and I watched as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes.

For three weeks, I’ve wandered bone-tired around Sochi and Adler and Krasnaya Polyana while watching sports, and I’ve often thought about one thing: What can I bring my daughters? Sure, I’ve got some nesting dolls and silly Olympic souvenirs that cost a fortune and Russian tchotchkes of various colors and shapes. But the question again: What can I bring back that won’t just clutter their rooms?

What can I bring back to them that actually matters?

Lesson No. 1: Try new things.

Nobody expected Sage Kotsenburg to be much of a factor at these Olympics. He’s a snowboarder. His event is slopestyle, where the snowboarder has to gracefully manage several obstacles and then pull off three fantastic jumps that will dazzle the judges. Leading into the Olympics, the judges were not dazzled by Kotsenburg. He had what followers called a “down season.” He didn’t seem too bothered. He wasn’t snowboarding for judges. He was snowboarding for the feeling he called “super stoked.”

His Olympic goal? “To make snowboarding look cool and get kids stoked on it.”

So when he went on his second run, he got it into his head to try this trick –he called it a 1620 with a Japan Grab – that he had never tried before. Never. Not even in practice. He just felt like he would land it, you know?

And he made it. He landed this awesome new trick. And he won the gold. But it wasn’t the medal that made it cool. It was that he tried something because … he wanted to try something. All your life, there will be things you don’t think you can do. But you won’t know, not really, not unless you go for your 1620 with a Japan Grab when the feeling is right.

Lesson No. 2: Be joyful.

The happiest person I saw at these Games – and maybe the happiest person I have seen in my entire life – was a woman named Noelle Pikus-Pace who won the silver medal in an event called skeleton. In skeleton, the athlete gets on a sled FACING FORWARD and slides and skids around an absurdly fast and treacherous track of ice. I can only imagine it is some strange mix of exhilaration and insanity and pure terror. Pikus-Pace had missed one Olympics because of a bizarre injury involving a bobsled and had missed a medal by a blink of an eye at another Olympics. Then she walked away so she could, in her own words, join the PTA and bake cookies and be supermom.

But then, she and her husband, Jansen, decided, hey, let’s try one more time. So they did. Jansen built the sled. Noelle did the sliding. They made it to Sochi.  Before her final run, she wrote herself a little note: “This is it. Don’t get scared now.” And she won the silver medal.

And she was so happy — wildly, crazily, absurdly, wonderfully happy. Silver? Gold? No medal at all? Who cares? She could not stop smiling or laughing. She could not stop hugging everyone. It wasn’t the medal that made her happy. It was the feeling. She did it! They did it! She knew they could do it! Her six year old daughter Lace and two year old son Traycen were clomping around just like you did at their age, and they were ringing little bells someone had given them, and Jansen was bonkers with triumph, and Noelle was posing with the official letter from the Olympic committee that said “Dear Medalist” — her proof that she had actually won a medal. If joy was power, they could have lit up Times Square.

“I hope there’s a girl out there, let’s say a 15-year-old girl, who watched and thought ‘that skeleton looks cool! I want to do that!’” And Pikus-Pace, still 15 in her mind, just kept on smiling like it was best day ever, which, of course, it was. Until tomorrow.

Lesson No. 3: Take your time.

One of life’s challenges is that you always want to rush. You will want to move to the next thing. This happens to everybody. Just remind yourself to stop, focus and concentrate on doing your best. Force yourself to take your time. That can be the small line between getting an answer right or wrong, between beauty and the ordinary, between something you did and something for which you are proud.

Take T.J. Oshie, the U.S. hockey player. He gained worldwide fame for his shootout prowess – that’s when a hockey player goes one-on-one with the goalie. He made the game-winning shot against Russia (and two shots that tied the game). Most of the players rush the goalie, hoping that some combination of speed and intimidation and power will carry the day. Often it does. Oshie does it differently. He glides around the ice, lackadaisical almost. He takes his time, and he looks for a small opening … and looks … and looks. He seems willing to wait as long as necessary and it is his combination of patience and rhythm and vision that creates art. Don’t rush. Don’t get careless. Time is there to be used.

Lesson 4: Follow your dreams, no matter how silly they might seem.

Emily Scott wanted to skate at the Olympics. Gregory Carigiet wanted to luge at the Olympics. They had these dreams most of their lives. And there were countless times in their lives when that seemed impossible. Last year, when American Scott’s funding was cut, she applied for food stamps. Last year, when Switzerland’s Carigiet had run out of money, he sold his car. Then he sold his motorcycle. He said he would have sold his shirt too.

All the while, people shook their heads. The Olympics? It’s time to let go of such childish dreams. This will happen to you too. Elizabeth, you want to be a writer and a fashion designer. Katie, you want to be a soccer player and a teacher. Those dreams might change, but don’t let anyone else – Daddy included – change them or dampen them. These are your dreams. These are your lives.

When Emily made it here – and her father arrived shortly after – she was so happy to be competing. She didn’t win a medal. When Gregory made it here, when he slid down the track and realized this was the Olympics, he was overwhelmed. He didn’t win a medal either. As glorious as the dream had seemed, the reality was even better. It was worth it. That’s the point. It was worth it.

Lesson 5: Don’t let other people judge you.

There’s a lot of judging at the Olympics. A lot. Of the nine gold medals the United States won, seven were judged sports (depending on 4-man bobsled results). People who judge how well athletes snowboard and ski, how well they land on jumps, how gracefully they skate, how cool their tricks look in the air. The judges are stern and picky and often inscrutable. That means impossible to understand.

But, in the end, those judges don’t define you. In the women’s figure skating final, three skaters – Italy’s Carolina Kostner, South Korea’s Yuna Kim and Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova – all skated their hearts out. Each one of them performed beautifully, bravely even, and while people would argue about what medals they deserved, the important thing was the near-perfect skating. They lived up to their own ambitions, and that’s what matters.

In your life, I can promise, you will sometimes be praised for something you know you didn’t quite do as well as you could. And you will be criticized at times when you gave everything and believe you did well. It will be surprising sometimes, frustrating other times, but in the end you should try to live up to your own ambitions. That’s what lasts.

Related: Watch and compare Sotnikova, Kim, Costner and Gold

Lesson 6: Lose with grace.

Shani Davis is probably the greatest 1,000-meter speed skater who ever lived. He has won two gold medals in the 1,000, he has the world record and he has most of the fastest times ever recorded. He came to Sochi looking for his third gold.

He did not come close. He finished a shocking a distant eighth. He was confused and despondent. Later, at the 1,500-meter race – he’s awfully good at 1,500 meters too – he finished 11th. He just could not get his speed going.

He could have come up with excuses. That’s the first temptation of losing: excuses. The U.S. team did have people who complained that suits slowed them down. He could have blamed someone else. That’s the second temptation. You will see people do this all your life. Shani chose the third option. He simply took the blame.

“I’m a professional,” he said. “I’m one of the best speed skaters in the world. I just didn’t have it.”

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste the death but once.” That’s Shakespeare – from Julius Caesar. The same can be true of losing. What you find with the excuse makers, those who insist on feeling cheated, those who blame others — they will keep losing the same race again and again and again.

You will lose sometimes. It hurts. It is bitter. But it is also over. Do what Shani did. Remember that you’re good. Accept that you lost. And then, go on.

Lesson 7: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.

As a father of two daughters, what I want more than anything is a world without barriers. In truth, I used to think some barriers mattered while others didn’t.

For instance, I never got too riled up about Augusta National not having any women members. Don’t get me wrong: I thought it was stupid and sexist and worthy of non-stop scorn and ridicule. But, in the end, I didn’t really care. Augusta National membership is not of my world. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t want my daughters to join that club even if Augusta National would have my daughters as members.

But over time, I started to think about it in a different way. There just shouldn’t be ANY barriers. Augusta National is probably most important golf club West of St. Andrews. Golf is a game for everyone. They should (and now do) have women members.

In the same way, it had exactly no impact on my life – or my daughters’ likely future lives — that women’s ski jumping wasn’t an Olympic event. But it was wrong. It was a barrier. And so a couple of American women – Lindsey Van and Jessica Jerome – led an involved, often painful, and ultimately successful effort to get ski jumping into these Olympics. That was inspirational.

I was there for the first Olympic women’s ski jump. It was such a cool event. Lindsey Van was once the best in the world, but that time passed and she did not medal. Neither did Jessica Jerome. But they won.

Lesson 8: Be yourself.

Lindsey Jacobellis, the awesome snowboard cross star, came to another Olympics trying to win gold. In snowboard cross, riders race through this crazy course at the same time. There are crashes and wild turns and all sorts of nuttiness. She’s a legend in the sport. She’s won almost every big event. She never won at the Olympics.

She had the gold medal all but locked up eight years ago in Torino but on her last jump she wanted to have some fun so she tried this little trick where she grabbed the board in midair. When she hit the ground, she fell. She won the silver instead of gold.

People have tried to make this into a tragedy. She missed gold! All because she had to show off!

Well, yes, she did show off. It was silly. But it was only that, silly, and Jacobellis refused to let other people define how she was supposed to feel about it. She refused to let people turn her fun into a national tragedy or a life-altering disaster.

Instead, she kept snowboarding, kept having fun, kept winning, kept loving her life. When she crashed and lost in Vancouver, she did the same. When Jacobellis crashed and lost here in Sochi, she did the same. She adopted one of the stray puppies. She said it was kind of a bummer losing. But she will keep on snowboarding. Because she loves it, no matter what others may say, gold medal or no gold medal.

Lesson 9: Always try your best.

That’s our family motto. Always try your best. In the women’s figure skating final, there was a Japanese skater named Mao Asada. She was the silver medalist in Vancouver. She was the only woman to even attempt the difficult triple axel jump – I don’t know exactly what a triple axel jump is, I just know it’s very hard to do.

During Wednesday’s short program, Asada attempted her triple axel … and fell. It was crushing. She skated as if in a fog. She fell again soon after. She was supposed to do a jump with three rotations and did one instead. It was a skating disaster, and the judges’ score of 55.51 put her in 16th place.

It was so bad that, back in Japan, the head of the 2020 Tokyo organizing committee griped that Mao Asada is “always falling at the most critical time.” It was a cruel thing to say, and word was that during warm-ups Asada was discouraged and repeatedly falling and in no condition for her evening free skate.

So when she came out for Thursday’s free skate, there was no medal hope. There was no making up for her short program. It looked like it would be a sad thing.

Instead: It was one of the most inspiring things I saw in Sochi. Mao landed her triple axel right away. And it animated her. She landed her next jump sequence perfectly, and she started to skate more quickly, and she skated a virtuoso performance. The Russian crowd – so difficult to draw out – burst into cheers.

The whole skate wasn’t for anything but pride and love and another chance to skate on the world stage. And she skated the best performance of her life. When it ended, she broke into big, beautiful tears of joy and relief. And then she had the biggest smile.

In many ways this was my favorite moment of the Olympics. If I could bring back one thing from Sochi for our girls it is this lesson. Always try, even when it seems pointless. You never know when you might do something beautiful.

U.S. Olympic marathon trials men’s preview, contenders

Galen Rupp
AP
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The U.S. Olympic men’s marathon trials picture shook in the last month with the retirement of fastest-ever American marathoner Ryan Hall, the withdrawal of four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman and the addition of Olympic 10,000m silver medalist Galen Rupp.

What’s left is one man from the three-man 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon team — Meb Keflezighi — who turns 41 on May 5 and looks to become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time (an Olympic medalist in the women’s race is attempting the same feat).

Keflezighi, the defending trials champion, appears the safest pick to finish in the top three to make the Rio Olympic team, but several others, such as Rupp, could surprise in Los Angeles on Saturday (1-4 p.m. ET, NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra).

The top contenders:

Meb Keflezighi
Age: 40
PR: 2:08:37 (Boston 2014)
2014 Boston Marathon champion
2012 Olympics — fourth place
2009 New York City Marathon champion
2004 Olympics — silver medal
2000 Olympics — 12th place (10,000m)

In 2012, Keflezighi became the oldest U.S. Olympic marathon trials winner. This year, he can become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time.

Keflezighi’s only 26.2-mile hiccup in the last four years came in 2013, when he placed 23rd at the New York City Marathon (fifth among Americans). But Keflezighi silenced the doubters five months later in Boston, becoming the first American man to win the world’s oldest annual 26.2-mile race since 1983.

He followed that up with a fourth at the 2014 NYC Marathon (top American), eighth at the 2015 Boston Marathon (No. 2 American) and seventh at the 2015 NYC Marathon (top American).

Dathan Ritzenhein
Age: 33
PR: 2:07:47 (Chicago 2012)
2012 Olympics — 13th place (10,000m)
2008 Olympics — ninth place
2004 Olympics — DNF (10,000m)

Ritzenhein has the fastest personal best in the field and ranked No. 2 among all Americans for 2015 (2:11:20 in Boston). For all his talent, Ritzenhein endured health problems throughout his career. In November, hip bursitis reportedly slowed him for about one month.

He last raced Oct. 4 and last raced a marathon April 20 (his last marathon before that was Oct. 13, 2013).

At the 2012 trials, Ritzenhein was in the lead pack of four from miles two through 19 until he fell off the pace and watched Keflezighi, Hall and Abdirahman pull away to secure Olympic berths. Ritzenhein nearly caught Abdirahman at the end, making up 17 seconds in the last 1.2 miles but coming up eight seconds short in Houston.

“Maybe I’m not made for the marathon,” Ritzenhein said that day, hanging his head while answering reporters’ questions.

Ritzenhein later made the 2012 Olympic team in the 10,000m and, two months after the London Games, ran that 2:07:47 in Chicago to become the third-fastest U.S. marathoner of all time. That’s 50 seconds faster than any other U.S. man since 2011.

Galen Rupp
Age: 29
PR: None
2012 Olympics — silver medal (10,000m)
2012 Olympics — seventh place (5000m)
2008 Olympics — 13th place (10,000m)

Rupp makes his much-anticipated marathon debut. The only U.S. man or woman to qualify for the Olympic marathon at trials in his or her 26.2-mile debut was George Young in 1968, the first year trials were held.

The lack of experience (Rupp’s longest race was a half marathon, which he’s done once in the last four and a half years) makes him a bit of a wild card. But there’s no doubting his talent. Rupp, one of the world’s best at 10,000m, is coached by three-time NYC Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, and may prove the strongest runner in the field.

Rupp was a late qualifier for the trials by posting a half marathon qualifying time of 1:01:20 on Dec. 13 in Portland, Ore., against a field that included a man dressed as an elf and another in the bunny suit from “A Christmas Story.” That time ranked second among U.S. men for 13.1 miles last year.

Rupp’s fastest half marathon, 1:00:30 from 2011, ranks second in the field behind Ritzenhein.

If Rupp finishes in the top three to make the Olympic team, he could still drop out to focus on the 10,000m and/or 5000m on the track, should he make the team in those events at the July 1-10 trials in Eugene, Ore. In that case, the fourth-place finisher on Saturday would be elevated onto the U.S. Olympic team.

Luke Puskedra
Age: 25
PR: 2:10:24 (Chicago 2015)

The former University of Oregon distance runner surprised at the Chicago Marathon by running the fastest time by an American for all of 2015. It was his third marathon. His previous two were 2014 NYC (2:28:54) and the 2015 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. (2:15:27)

The label “fastest American in 2015” means a little less when it’s combined with the fact no American broke 2:10 in the marathon in a calendar year for the first time since 2003.

Still, Puskedra is so young that he may not be near his peak. The top four at the 2012 Olympic trials all went sub-2:10, so Puskedra may need another personal best to make his first Olympic team. Then again, Keflezighi and Ritzenhein are the only men in the field who have broken 2:10, so he might not need it.

Elkanah Kibet
Age: 32
PR: 2:11:31

A Kenya native, Kibet went to Auburn, enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a U.S. citizen in 2013. He was deployed in Kuwait and Iraq from June 2014 to March 2015 and then made his marathon debut in Chicago on Oct. 11.

His 2:11:31 ranked No. 3 among U.S. men last year behind Puskedra and Ritzenhein.

Diego Estrada
Age: 26
PR: None

Estrada is the reigning U.S. champion in the half marathon, his 1:00:51 being the fastest by an American since Rupp in 2011. There’s little else to go on with Estrada, who like Rupp is making his 26.2-mile debut.

He also finished eighth in the 10,000m and 15th in the 5000m at the 2015 U.S. Outdoor Championships. In 2012, he placed 21st in the Olympic 10,000m for Mexico.

Sam Chelanga
Age: 30
PR: None

Chelanga is a native Kenyan who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in August. He owns a half-marathon personal best of 1:01:04 from 2013 and has the second-fastest 10,000m personal best in the field behind Rupp.

MORE: Rio Olympics six months out: Key trials, qualifying dates

U.S. Olympic marathon trials women’s preview, contenders

Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, Desi Linden
AP
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In a contrast from the men’s race, the U.S. Olympic women’s marathon trials outlook is not all that different from four years ago.

In 2012, Shalane Flanagan and Desi Linden (then Davila) entered as favorites to make the three-woman Olympic team and delivered a one-two finish in Houston.

Kara Goucher was certainly in the mix for an Olympic place as well, arguably a favorite to join Flanagan and Linden in the top three, and she did just that, taking third.

The younger Amy Cragg (then Hastings) and the older Deena Kastor (American record holder set in 2006) just missed, placing fourth and sixth, respectively.

Going into Saturday’s trials (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 1-4 p.m. ET), the four U.S. women who have clocked sub-2:28 since Jan. 1, 2014:

  1. Shalane Flanagan — 2:21:14 (Berlin 2014)
  2. Desi Linden — 2:23:54 (Boston 2014)
  3. Amy Cragg — 2:27:03 (Chicago 2014)
  4. Deena Kastor — 2:27:47 (Chicago 2015)

The biggest question again is who is favored to finish third. Six top contenders, including five Olympians, are outlined below:

Shalane Flanagan
Age: 34
PR: 2:21:14 (Berlin 2014)
2014 Berlin Marathon — third place
2012 Olympics — 10th place
2012 Olympic marathon trials champion
2010 NYC Marathon — second place
2008 Olympics — bronze medal (10,000m)
2008 Olympics — 10th place (5000m)
2004 Olympics — first round (5000m)

Four years ago, Flanagan entered the trials with one marathon (a 2:28:40) under her belt (plus that decorated track career). She pulled away from Linden in the final two miles in Houston to win the trials by 17 seconds.

Now, Flanagan enters as the second-fastest U.S. woman ever, following a 2:22:02 with a 2:21:14, both in 2014. Linden is the only American within five minutes of those times in the last two years.

Her last marathon, Boston 2015, was not as fast — 2:27:47 — finishing as the second American behind Linden. Plus, she’s dealt with “a lot of hiccups” in training, specifically back and Achilles pain, according to Runner’s World.

Desi Linden
Age: 32
PR: 2:22:38 (Boston 2011)
2012 Olympics — DNF
2011 Boston Marathon — second place

Linden was second at the 2012 trials but pulled out of her Olympic debut 2.2 miles into the race with right hip pain that had affected her training, what would later be diagnosed as a femoral stress fracture.

It took more than one year to return to her top form after the London injury. Linden made it, finishing as the No. 1 American in her last two marathons — Boston 2015 (over Flanagan and Cragg) and New York City 2014 (over Kastor and Goucher).

Kara Goucher
Age: 37
PR: 2:24:52 (Boston 2011)
2012 Olympics — 11th place
2009 Boston Marathon — third place
2008 NYC Marathon — third place
2008 Olympics — 10th place (10,000m)
2007 World Championships — bronze medal (10,000m)
2004 Olympics — ninth place (5000m)

By qualifying times, Goucher enters the trials seeded No. 43 overall. The qualifying window was Aug. 1, 2013, through Jan. 17, 2016. Goucher’s only marathon in that stretch was a wall-smacking 2:37:03 at cold-and-windy New York City 2014, her slowest career marathon.

But in her previous two marathons before 2013 and 2014 injuries, she finished in 2:26:07 at the Olympics (16 seconds behind Flanagan) and 2:28:11 at Boston 2013 (63 seconds behind Flanagan).

After the London Games, Goucher changed coaches, training locations and sponsors and underwent knee surgery. Optimism finally returned in November and December, when she won half marathons in 1:11:13 and 1:11:10, her fastest since 2012.

“This is literally a last chance for me,” Goucher wrote on a Jan. 12 blog.

Amy Cragg
Age: 32
PR: 2:27:03 (Houston 2011, Chicago 2014)
2012 Olympics — 11th place (10,000m)

At the 2012 trials, Cragg (then Hastings) was part of the four-woman lead pack through 19 miles before fading and finishing 71 seconds behind third-place Goucher, just missing the Olympic team. Not bad for her second career marathon.

“I cried every day for a month,” Cragg said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Like Dathan Ritzenhein, she dusted herself off to make the Olympic team on the track in the 10,000m six months later.

Cragg failed to finish her 2015 marathon, in Boston, dropping out in the 22nd mile with leg cramps, her then-coach said, according to LetsRun.com. Unlike (her new training partner) Flanagan, Goucher and Linden, she has only one strong marathon finish since the 2012 trials (Chicago 2014),

Deena Kastor
Age: 42
PR: 2:19:36 (London 2006)
2008 Olympics — DNF
2008 Olympic marathon trials champion
2006 London Marathon champion
2005 Chicago Marathon champion
2004 Olympics — bronze medal
2000 Olympics — first round (10,000m)

The American record holder and last woman to earn an Olympic marathon medal was thought to be done contending in elite marathons. Until Oct. 11, when Kastor clocked 2:27:47 in Chicago.

That made Kastor the second-fastest U.S. woman for the year (behind Linden). It was her first time breaking 2:30 in six years and her fastest time since her American record in 2006.

If Kastor can follow that up with a top three in Los Angeles (one day before her 43rd birthday), she will become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time.

Misiker Demissie
Age: 29
PR: 2:25:45 (Ottawa 2013)

The former Ethiopian runner has the best PR of the remaining field, though it came three years ago. Her qualifying marathon was a 2:29:03 in Shanghai in 2014. She also clocked an uninspiring 1:13:38 half marathon on Jan. 17.

“She’s more of a long shot than what her PRs are,” Scott Simmons, a coach in Demissie’s training group, said, according to Runner’s World.

MORE: Boston Marathon film to go beyond 2013 attacks