Ryan Hall

Ryan Hall returns to marathon racing in Boston, by way of Ethiopia

Leave a comment

BOSTON — The fastest U.S. marathon runner ever,* missing from 26.2-mile competition for nearly two years, his future questioned, found himself at a place called Yaya Village last month.

Ryan Hall trained for the Boston Marathon, essentially his comeback race, “buried in the sticks” in the Ethiopian countryside.

“A running monastery, very tranquil, very peaceful,” Hall said. “And the hardest training I’ve ever done in my life.”

Hall is arguably the top U.S. men’s hope in Monday’s race, his first Boston Marathon since he finished fourth in 2 hours, 4 minutes, 58 seconds in 2011, the fastest marathon ever by an American. The time does not count as an official American record, though, because of Boston’s point-to-point, downhill course.

Hall then took second at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in January 2012 to earn a trip to London. He hasn’t finished a marathon since. If that month in Ethiopia was the hardest training in his life, the two years prior may have been the most trying.

He dropped out of the 2012 Olympic marathon near mile 11 with a right hamstring injury.

“I’ve never DNF’d a race before, so this is a first for me,” Hall said in London. “Not finishing a race is not an option unless I think I’m going to do serious damage to my career.”

Hall withdrew from the 2012 New York City Marathon, before Hurricane Sandy canceled it, due to injuries that included plantar fasciitis and tightness in his legs.

Hall withdrew from the 2013 Boston Marathon due to a quadriceps strain.

Hall withdrew from the 2013 New York City Marathon due to a hip injury.

Hall came out of the stretch the better for it, calling it the best two years of his career, though he doesn’t want to relive it.

“I feel like I’m kind of failing my way to the top,” Hall, 31, said. “I see it as part of the process. I wouldn’t trade from 2012 to now. I don’t think I would have gotten to where I’m going to get to if I hadn’t gone through those two years. I’m grateful for them.”

Boston Marathon: The Boylston Street pre-race scene

Hall said he started up again “from ground zero” in December, after health issues cut short a training trip to Kenya in the fall.

The climb took him 9,000 feet above sea level in March to Yaya Village, a resort seven miles north of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. His wife, fellow runner Sara Hall, visited Ethiopia last fall and raved about it. They went to Yaya together in March.

Yaya was founded in 2009 by a group that included marathon legend Haile Gebreselassie and bills itself as “a runners paradise above the clouds.”

Hall saw something different. An image burned in his brain from his month in Ethiopia was of women his grandmother’s age carrying loads of firewood up the same mountain on which he trained.

Hall said a local coach told him the women trek 30km. He estimated they’d earn about $5 U.S. Dollars for their journey.

“I’ll never forget the look in their eyes when you drive past,” Hall said. “The best image I’ve seen of what true strength is. It wasn’t like the Hollywood glamour type strength. It was like I’m going to make this no matter what.”

That rolled into Hall’s learning experience there, both mental and physical. He got an up-close view of an Ethiopian’s way of life. An East African has won every Boston Marathon since 2002 and all but one since 1991.

“They’re accustomed to suffering,” Hall said. “That’s what makes them so good.”

His training runs included going downhill for 10km and then uphill for 20km. He ate injera and drank macchiatos.

“I’ve never seen so much growth in my training in such a short time,” Hall said. “It makes you tough as nails.”

Home in Flagstaff, Hall prepared for Boston on a special treadmill that mimics Boston’s hilly course, rising and falling with accompanying video. He flew into Boston on Thursday, sat at a table near the finish line at a Copley Plaza hotel on Friday and made two short statements two years in the making.

“I’m feeling great,” he said. “Ready to go.”

Boston Marathon: Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview | TV, Race Schedules

Tony Azevedo retires after 5 Olympics in water polo

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 14:  Tony Azevedo of the USA in action during the USA vs Italy Waterpolo group match at Julio de Lamare Aquatics Centre on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Tony Azevedo is ending one of the greatest water polo careers in U.S. history, retiring after a record five Olympics at age 35.

Azevedo, the first American to play in five Olympic water polo tournaments, said it was a tough decision but a necessary one to spend time with his family — wife Sara and two kids, according to the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram.

“The traveling and everything for them would be too much,” said Azevedo, who has a 3-year-old boy and a girl born after the Rio Olympics. “It’s time.”

Azevedo was a teenage prodigy dubbed the “Kobe Bryant of water polo.” A ball boy at the 1996 Olympics, Azevedo made a list of about 13 goals as a “slow, fat, chubby kid” who wanted to start on his high school team.

He reached all of those goals except for one — a gold medal. Azevedo made his Olympic debut out of high school in 2000 and then helped lead the U.S. to silver at Beijing 2008, his lone Olympic or world championships medal in 13 combined appearances. He led the U.S. in goals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.

“If anyone asks, am I going to miss the swimming? No. Am I going to miss the games? No. Are you going to miss the Olympics? No,” Azevedo said. “I’m going to miss those days of grinding with your teammates.”

Azevedo was one of the top U.S. stories of the Rio Olympics, since he was born in the Brazilian city and lived there for 23 days before moving to Southern California. Azevedo, whose father was a Brazilian national team member, played for a Sao Paulo club team for much of the past Olympic cycle.

The U.S. went 2-3 in Rio, failing to advance out of group play.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: PyeongChang 2018 daily schedule highlights

Five takeaways from World Alpine Skiing Championships

Leave a comment

Five thoughts after an unpredictable world alpine skiing championships, looking ahead to the Olympics … 

1. Expect Mikaela Shiffrin to be busier in PyeongChang

Shiffrin chose not to enter the super-G or super combined in the first week at worlds, in order to maximize her medal potential in the giant slalom and slalom in the final weekend. It paid off with silver and gold medals.

It seems unlikely that Shiffrin adopts the same, two-race slate in PyeongChang. The 2018 Olympic schedule has the giant slalom and slalom in the first week, followed by the speed events of super-G, downhill and super combined.

Consider also Shiffrin’s mindset going into St. Moritz.

“Right now, I’m going with [only giant slalom and slalom] because I just don’t think that I have quite enough experience in speed [events] to be able to count on winning a medal in those events yet,” she said. “But by the time we go to South Korea next year, maybe I could. I might be in a position where I can at least be in contention for medals in giant slalom, slalom, combined, super-G and maybe even downhill, only because nobody’s ever skied on that track before.”

The women get their first look at the 2018 Olympic venue with World Cup races in two weeks, a downhill and super-G. Shiffrin said before worlds that she planned to travel to South Korea for training but to leave before the races start. She wanted to prioritize the following week’s World Cup giant slalom and slalom in Squaw Valley, Calif.

What’s for sure is we can learn plenty about Shiffrin’s Olympic potential in speed events this weekend. She’s set to race at the World Cup stop in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, which is made up of two combineds and a super-G.

If Shiffrin enters all three events, it will bring her career World Cup start total in downhill, super-G and combined up to 10 races. Her best finish in her first seven starts was fourth in a super-G last month.

“I have a lot of goals there,” Shiffrin said of speed events after bagging her third straight slalom world title Saturday. “Hopefully, some day, I’d like to win in super-G and downhill, but I think it’ll take some time before I can do that consistently. It’s definitely a long road from here. I still feel like I just started.”

2. Lindsey Vonn must heal

Vonn made it clear at worlds that she wasn’t 100 percent recovered from breaking her right upper arm in a Nov. 10 training crash. Her right hand movement was so limited that she couldn’t put her hair in a ponytail, let alone comfortably grip a ski pole at 75 miles per hour.

After skiing out of the opening super-G, troubled by that hand, she duct-taped her glove to her ski pole, placed fifth in the super combined and third in the downhill. She said the bronze medal felt like gold given her latest injury comeback.

Vonn became the oldest woman to earn a world championships medal. In PyeongChang, she can become the oldest woman to earn an Olympic Alpine medal.

Vonn’s biggest hurdle is her own health. A smooth finish to the season, regardless of wins, and a normal offseason is key.

“I want to be in a position at the Olympics where I’m at my top form not just struggling to kind of make it back into the mix,” Vonn said, according to The Associated Press. “It’s a different ballgame when I’m prepared.”

3. U.S. lacks young stars

Worlds went about to form for the entire U.S. team. Shiffrin and Vonn were the only medalists. No man placed in the top 10 for the first time since 1997.

Injuries and, especially, aging are the concerns.

Four-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso, out since November 2015 hip surgery, was on the team but didn’t enter any events. The top U.S. men on the World Cup in recent seasons, Ted Ligety and Steven Nyman, went out with season-ending injuries in January. Bode Miller, who has trained but not raced this season, was in the NBC Sports commentary booth.

All of them are 32 years and older. Maybe some summon one last Olympic medal surge next year, but what about after that?

Shiffrin is the only American younger than age 28 who owns a World Cup victory. U.S. men earned Youth Olympic and junior worlds gold medals last year, but they look destined for 2022.

4. Marcel Hirscher approaches Austrian legends

Hirscher was the best skier in St. Moritz, despite reportedly spending days in bed before his first race. He earned two golds and missed a third by .01 in the super combined.

Only Tony Sailer owns more individual world titles among Austrian men. Hirscher is en route to his sixth straight World Cup overall title this season, which no man from any country has accomplished.

He’s at 43 World Cup wins, 11 shy of the Austrian men’s mark held by Hermann Maier. At 27 years old, Hirscher ought to eclipse it.

But Hirscher’s résumé has a gaping hole — no Olympic gold medal. He was upset in the Sochi Olympic slalom by countryman Mario Matt. And there’s no certainty Hirscher will be a favorite in PyeongChang.

For years, he was the world’s second-best giant slalom skier behind the now-injured Ligety, who could reclaim the throne next season, though that is a tall order.

In slalom, young Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen has been neck and neck with Hirscher but had a poor worlds.

The super combined is the most unpredictable event, but even there Frenchman Alexis Pinturault has won six of the 11 World Cup races since 2013.

5. Surprises in St. Moritz

Most races provided surprise medalists.

In all five men’s events, either the gold or silver medalist had not won a World Cup race in at least two years (or, in three cases, never made a World Cup podium). Women’s medalists in downhill, super-G, giant slalom and the super combined had never won a World Cup race.

New names were going to emerge regardless, considering the list of recent stars not racing (retired Tina Maze, Ligety, Miller, Aksel Lund Svindal) and those who did compete but were slowed or forced out by injury (Vonn, Anna Veith, Gut).

More surprises could be in store in PyeongChang given, as Shiffrin said, it’s a new track for everybody.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Stenmark to Vonn: ‘Don’t beat my record too early’