Shaun White turns to snowboarder who kept him off 2002 Olympic team

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The man who kept a 15-year-old Shaun White from making the 2002 Olympic team is now helping White’s bid to make the 2018 Olympic team.

White, the 2006 and 2010 Olympic halfpipe champion, has been working with a new (sort of) coach, 2002 Olympic bronze medalist J.J. Thomas, since an October training camp in New Zealand.

“We’re keeping it caj [casual],” White joked in a phone interview ahead of competing at this weekend’s Burton U.S. Open in Vail, Colo. “J.J. might become my full-time guy at the Olympics, or around the Olympics, but for now it’s kind of like a good friend, which is so funny because the guy beat me out of the Olympics when I was 15 for Salt Lake. It’s funny how life goes around.”

In 2002, White and Thomas were both in the running for the fourth and final U.S. Olympic men’s halfpipe berth for the Salt Lake City Winter Games.

Thomas beat White in the fifth and final qualifying competition to keep White from becoming the youngest American to compete in a Winter Olympics since 1992 (and younger than any American to compete in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympics, too).

Thomas went on to earn bronze in Salt Lake City, part of the second-ever U.S. sweep of a Winter Olympic event behind gold medalist Ross Powers and silver medalist Danny Kass.

One week after losing to Thomas in the Olympic qualifier, White earned his first Winter X Games medal, a halfpipe silver behind Thomas.

“He’s been close to unbeatable ever since that whole [2002] season,” Thomas said. “We all kind of knew it, once he gets his man strength. We knew [2002] was the last chance to keep him under control.”

Thomas retired in 2011 or 2012 and started coaching, most notably guiding 2010 Olympian Louie Vito.

Thomas said he and White, who have known each other for nearly 20 years, began chatting as friends while Vito and White trained in New Zealand in October.

“By the second or third day I couldn’t keep my mouth shut,” talking about halfpipe tricks, Thomas said. “I started chirping. It kind of went from there. I started giving him my two cents, and we took it from there.”

In December, White competed for the second time since the Sochi Olympics at the Dew Tour Mountain Championships in Breckenridge, Colo., the same ski resort that hosted that final 2002 Olympic qualifier.

This time, Thomas was there to support White rather than beat him.

White prevailed, beating the Sochi Olympic gold and silver medalists and bouncing back from fourth-place finishes at the 2014 Olympics and 2015 Winter X Games.

“[Dew Tour] was a big statement,” Thomas said. “In my mind, I think he’s back. … When he’s feeling good, everyone else is in trouble.”

White is competing this weekend for the first time since Dew Tour, entered in both halfpipe and slopestyle at the U.S. Open. It’s his first slopestyle competition since he pulled out one day before the discipline’s Olympic debut in Sochi.

White said Wednesday that he wasn’t sure if he would try to qualify for the 2018 Olympic team in slopestyle.

“I kind of wanted to ride [the U.S. Open] and see where the competitors are at,” said White, who went on to finish 31st out of 31 riders in the event Friday, falling on the first feature (a rail) on both of his runs.

As for White’s coach at the last three Olympics, Bud Keene, both said they parted amicably after the Sochi Olympics.

Keene said he and White accomplished all they could together, and the coach wanted to invest more time in grass-roots snowboarding and instructing at his BKPro Camps.

“Working with Shaun was awesome and some of the best years of my life,” Keene said. “At the same time, working with an athlete of that caliber in any sport takes up most of, if not all of your time. There were a lot of things that I still wanted to accomplish as a coach or a mover and shaker in the snowboard world.

“It had nothing to do with what did or did not happen in Sochi.”

White never had an official coach before he linked up with Keene through the U.S. snowboarding team in the run-up to the Torino 2006 Winter Olympics.

Keene came out of retirement to reconnect with White leading up to and during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games. He became White’s full-time coach for the first time leading into Sochi.

“Having someone like Bud around for the Olympic run was nice, it was great to have somebody in my corner, but as a full-time coach it just didn’t really work for me,” White said.

Plus, White planned to take the entire 2014-15 season off from competition, and he and Keene had “two-year chill-out periods” between past Olympics, Keene said.

Keene was at White’s side for a last-minute decision to compete at the 2015 Winter X Games, but that was a one-off deal.

“Bud and I had a great run together, and we did some amazing things,” White said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done, and I consider him a great friend, but there was part of that season of not having a coach [in 2014-15] and not doing those things and not competing to get me back into the mind frame of, man, this is really fun, and this is why I started doing it in the first place. I’m having a good time, and not sitting there beating myself over the head with this trick after trick and like we’ve got to do it and we’ve got to win it. And I put that on myself.”

White said if he does have a coach with him at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics, high-fiving or fist-pounding him before a halfpipe run like Keene used to do, it would probably be Thomas.

White made other additions to his staff since Sochi, including hiring a full-time trainer and physical therapist for the first time.

The physical therapist, Esther Lee, used to work with Venus and Serena Williams.

“So Serena came to my Halloween party, which was pretty dope,” White said. “[Esther] is getting to know this world of snowboarding because it’s completely different from tennis, obviously.”

White plans to compete again after the U.S. Open, heading to China for a competition later this month.

Next year, White plans to expand his Air & Style brand to include halfpipe and slopestyle competitions and at more venues, including Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

That means he also plans to compete in Air & Style for the first time since he bought a majority stake in the company before the Sochi Olympics.

“We were talking on the lift yesterday, the next Olympics start right now,” Thomas said. “It’s time to start planning out where to go and where to practice.”

VIDEO: Shaun White interview on ‘Last Call: Carson Daly’

Several women’s players spurn worlds inquiry from USA Hockey

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As sports organizations and notable hockey figures express support of the U.S. women’s team, several players say they rejected overtures from USA Hockey to serve as replacements for the upcoming world championships.

Two players told The Associated Press on Friday that USA Hockey reached out to them to gauge their interest for the worlds, which begin next week in Plymouth, Michigan.

Brittany Ott, a goaltender for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, and Annie Pankowski, a junior forward at the University of Wisconsin, said the email from USA Hockey was not an invitation but rather an inquiry about their availability.

“I responded to that email and I said I’m not willing,” Pankowski said.

A third player, goalie Lauren Dahm, told the AP on Saturday she also turned down an invitation. Dahm plays for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Boston Blades.

The U.S. team has said it plans to boycott the worlds over a wage dispute with USA Hockey, which confirmed Thursday it would begin reaching out to potential replacement players. Several players posted messages on social media saying they support the national team and would decline or have declined any outreach from USA Hockey.

“From a personal standpoint I have never been invited to a USA Hockey series or camp or anything like that and I would honestly love to be invited to something like that,” Ott said by phone. “However at the current time, this is a fight that I believe in and I’m definitely going to stand up and help fight as much as I can.”

Many players posted a version of a Jerry Rice quote on Twitter on Friday: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC.” Not all players who tweeted that message were asked by USA Hockey if they could play.

On Saturday, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith joined the chorus of support for the players, saying on Twitter the organization stands behind their pursuit of fairness and equality.

“These women understand inequality when they see it and are expressing their right to be treated fairly as athletes and workers,” Smith tweeted. “Of course, they have the NFLPA’s support in daring to withhold their services until a fair agreement is reached.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol posted his support on Twitter, calling players competitors and role models.

On Friday, the NHL Players’ Association and Major League Baseball players posted messages of support. The NHLPA posted on Twitter that it supports players and panned USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements, adding that the decision “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

The MLBPA encouraged all female hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period. The sides met for 10-plus hours Monday, but players have called USA Hockey’s counterproposal “disappointing.”

USA Hockey said Thursday its priority was to have all the players selected for the national team on the ice March 31 when the tournament begins. But the organization added that it informed players’ representatives it would begin reaching out to potential replacements with the tournament coming up.

Star national team forward Hilary Knight said last week she wished USA Hockey luck putting together a suitable team of replacements to defend the gold medal because the player pool was united in the dispute. Ott and Pankowski said they had not heard from any players expressing a willingness to play in worlds.

“It’s a very unified front,” Ott said. “It’s a tight-knit community that we have in women’s hockey here. This is definitely a big opportunity for us to make a big change and have a big impact on our sport and have it grow. We’re all standing together.”

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World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.