Racing toward the Olympics, in between plumbing gigs

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The day before Jonathan Cheever flew to Argentina to open the snowboard cross season, he labored at the U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah.

The job? Replacing six feet of rotted-out piping beneath a garbage disposal. The drain was clogged with a few days’ worth of coffee grounds.

The 32-year-old Cheever has been a snowboarder and a plumber for more than a decade.

Lately, he’s been pretty valuable to U.S. Ski & Snowboard in both and, after an out-of-nowhere finish Saturday, appears headed to his first Olympics in February.

“‘[Plumbing] is still my bread and butter,” Cheever said.

He used the organization’s money for fixing its pipes toward $7,500 in travel costs to Argentina for the first World Cup stop of the Olympic season last weekend.

Years removed from his career highlights, Cheever is no longer a national A team member. He must pay his own way to competitions.

In Argentina, Cheever picked an opportune time to make his first World Cup podium since Feb. 21, 2012, finishing in third place on Saturday. That one result may be enough to make his first Olympics.

“There’s not a switch that’s flipped,” said Cheever, whose previous top finish since December 2012 was eighth. “Everything last year was firing on all cylinders, but there was always just one little thing that would change a result from a top-10 to a top-40, whether it was somebody hitting me in a turn or getting unlucky with some wind or maybe even a bad decision on a roller.”

In U.S. snowboarding team selection, a top-three finish at one of four events — Saturday’s race in Argentina, plus three more in Europe in December — provisionally qualifies for the Olympic team.

Cheever can only be knocked off the Olympic team if three other Americans make a podium at the remaining three selection events. If more than three total U.S. men earn a podium, then the tie is broken by best finish.

It’s unlikely to reach a tiebreaker. The top U.S. men — who all outperformed Cheever last season — rarely land on the World Cup podium. Their stats since the start of the 2015-16 season:

Nick Baumgartner — three podiums in 16 starts (18.8 percent)
Alex Deibold 
— two podiums in 16 starts (12.5 percent)
Nate Holland — one podium in 13 starts (7.7 percent)
Hagen Kearney — one podium in 15 starts (6.7 percent)

Cheever also has a safety net. A potential fourth and final place on the Olympic team is a discretionary pick by a committee after the selection events.

“It’s not guaranteed that I’m on Team USA, but I definitely made things a lot easier on myself,” he said.

A 32-year-old snowboarder making his Olympic debut may sound strange, but snowboard cross is not necessarily a young rider’s event like the sport’s other disciplines.

Lindsey Jacobellis, her Olympic misses aside, continues to be the world’s best female racer at age 32. Seth Wescott won the first two Olympic men’s snowboard cross gold medals at 29 and 33, respectively.

Snowboarding pioneer Shaun Palmer made a World Cup podium at age 41 in 2010.

Today’s top international stars — Alex Pullin of Australia and Pierre Vaultier of France — will both be 30 years old in PyeongChang.

Riders help pay the bills by sticking sponsor logos on the bottom of their boards. On Cheever’s board reads, “Bradford White Water Heaters,” his biggest financial supporter for seven or eight years.

Now, Cheever must focus on his plumbing before the next races in December.

An eight-hour class is ahead to keep his license in his home state of Massachusetts, where his dad has been in the plumbing business for more than 30 years. However, Cheever plans to move to Austria this fall to live with his wife, two-time Olympic snowboarder Maria Ramberger.

“If money was the motivating factor, I would be installing toilets or water heaters,” he said. “I race snowboards because I love everything about it.

“Hopefully, I can line up enough sponsors where, you know, the plumbing is more of a side thing than a main source of income.”

Cheever, who took up snowboarding at age 12, graduated as class president from an all-boys Catholic school in 2003. He pursued a plumbing license while also enrolling at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in mechanical engineering.

He soon reasoned that plumbing would net more money. He left school after one year and moved to Utah as a snowboarder/plumber. Strong results soon followed.

Cheever made his first World Cup podium in February 2009 and ranked sixth in the world for the season (third among Americans). But the pressure of an Olympic season got to him, and he didn’t make the Vancouver team of four men.

Cheever rebounded to nearly win the World Cup overall title in 2011, but before Saturday he had not made a World Cup podium since rupturing his Achilles in March 2012.

The difference this year is primarily mental. Cheever said he went into Saturday’s race — his 69th World Cup in 12 seasons — believing he was not only the fastest American, but also fastest in the world.

Now, the goal isn’t just to make it to PyeongChang. It’s to find the podium there, too.

“I don’t base my life around the Olympics, but it’s extremely important,” he said. “We sit down, we have a meeting, and we talk about what you have to do to make the U.S. Olympic team, and my heart rate jumps up.”

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Ashley Wagner details dropping ‘La La Land’ free skate

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Ashley Wagner, the pre-eminent U.S. female figure skater of the last decade, changed her mind on one of the most significant decisions a skater can make going into the Olympic season.

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist and three-time U.S. champion, tossed out the new free skate she had been working on last month.

It was set to music from “La La Land,” which earned a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations earlier this year and won six Oscars (and, briefly, infamously, a seventh for Best Picture).

Now, she’s back to music from “Moulin Rouge.” It accompanied her free skate in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

Those years, Wagner posted the highest free skate scores in U.S. Championships history and for an American in international competition history.

“I really did love the [‘La La Land’] program,” Wagner said Wednesday, while promoting the Dick’s Sporting Goods Contenders program, which assists 41 Winter Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls with their preparation for the PyeongChang Winter Games.

“I was very passionate about what I was doing,” she continued. “I started training it day to day, and the music is beautiful. But just something wasn’t quite clicking, and the character didn’t really feel as complicated as I wanted her to be. There really didn’t feel like there was much of an emotional range. And I love drama. I love having those moments.”

The return to “Moulin Rouge” came abruptly as Wagner described it. One day at practice in early August, she consulted her steely coach, Armenian Rafael Arutyunyan.

“Is this program good?” Wagner asked.

“Yeah, it’s a really good program,” Arutyunyan responded.

“Is it good enough? Is this going to get me through the Olympics?” she pressed.

Arutyunyan told Wagner to put “Moulin Rouge” music on and skate.

“I made it to the first double Axel in the program,” Wagner said. “He turns off the program, and he goes, this is the program I want you to do.”

Wagner agreed.

“It’s my Olympic moment,” she said Wednesday, “and this is the person I want to be at the Olympics.”

Wagner, who lives and trains in Southern California, said publicly as far back as February that she wanted to skate to “La La Land” at the Olympics. Skaters usually wait until after the preceding season ends in early spring to announce program music for the following season.

But Wagner was so enamored that she texted her choreographer from a movie theater to say she had chosen “La La Land” for her Olympic free skate.

Wagner’s 11-year senior international career is marked by ups and downs, tears and several concussions. She identified with the film’s theme of hope.

“I love the music. I still do,” she said. “I just think that it was very much like an inspirational kind of a setup. I loved that. I loved the choreography. I can’t speak highly enough of the music. But I just know myself, and I know that after a couple of months of just one emotion, I get bored.”

Two weeks after the switch, Wagner performed to “Moulin Rouge” at last month’s U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp. At Champs Camp, skaters receive preseason feedback from officials on programs before debuting them in competition.

“I gave them the opportunity to see ‘La La Land’ if they wanted to, but everyone at U.S. Figure Skating was very supportive of my decision,” Wagner said.

Wagner said she will make her Olympic season debut at a small, local event. She won’t say where or when it will be. Her international season debut is at Skate Canada the last weekend of October.

She’s gearing up for the U.S. Championships in January, after which three women will be named to the Olympic team. That team will be chosen by a committee based on results not only at nationals but also previous top-level competitions.

Wagner is familiar with the selection process.

She was the top U.S. woman in fall 2009 but finished third at the 2010 U.S. Championships and was left off the two-woman Olympic team.

Wagner was fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships and placed on the three-woman Olympic team over third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu. Wagner earned that spot based on performing the best of all U.S. women nationally and internationally the previous year.

Now 26 years old, Wagner can become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.

Wagner wants to separate from her own past this season, even as she performs to music associated with some of the biggest triumphs of her career.

Skating to “Moulin Rouge” again last month, “made me feel like the athlete that I was at 2016 Worlds, so that definitely made me feel nostalgic,” she said, referencing moving from fourth to second in the free skate in Boston to become the first U.S. world medalist in a decade. “Maybe that’s why I like this program so much.”

But judges may want to see something new.

So Wagner added professional dancer Benji Schwimmer to her choreography team. Schwimmer has worked with Wagner’s best friend and training partner Adam Rippon.

“This is a new season,” Wagner said, “and hopefully somewhat of a new version of Moulin Rouge.”

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Officer body checks fan at world road cycling championships (video)

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A man dressed as a police officer leveled a fan at the world road cycling championships men’s time trial in Bergen, Norway, on Wednesday.

Spectators often run up close enough to touch riders on mountain stages at the Tour de France.

However, this man in a red hooded sweatshirt was decked while chasing German Tony Martin from two or three strides behind near the summit finish of a 19-mile time trial.

Martin, eyeing his record fifth world title in the time trial, was ninth on a course not suited to his strengths.

A full recap of the race is here.

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