The Super Bowl of ski jumping

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BISCHOFSHOFEN, AUSTRIA – With the Super Bowl less than a month away, it’s nearly that time of year when the nation shifts its focus to the NFL’s championship game on that unofficial holiday. Few sporting events can compare, of course, so when I was told I would be attending the “Super Bowl of ski jumping” – the Four Hills tournament – I was a bit skeptical of this bold proclamation.

But, as someone who has now attended both sporting events, I can attest that it’s not far off.

Since 1952, the world’s best ski jumpers have competed in the Four Hills, officially the Vierschanzentournee, descending upon four cities in Germany and Austria every year for this eight-day competition in hopes of being crowned champion of this prestigious event. I hadn’t been in Germany for more than a few hours when I began seeing evidence of the Four Hills’ popularity. Posters in the Munich airport, billboards along the streets, pictures in the newspapers and on TV – this is a big deal, especially for the two host countries whose rivalry is filled with centuries of history.

Always donning their countries’ colors, the crowds came in astonishing numbers – over 100,000 throughout the competition – packing into these small venues for a chance to see their nation’s finest take off at over 55 miles per hour, traveling nearly the length of a football field-and-a-half. The skiing-mad Austrians would go wild when one of their athletes soared through the air. Waving Austrian flags created a sea of red and white in the Innsbruck and Bischofshofen stadiums and everyone shouted “ZZZ,” which I was told is supposed to be the sound a ski jumper’s flight makes.

Luckily for the Austrians, they have the best ski jumper in the world in Gregor Schlierenzauer, a 23-year-old phenom who’s already considered among the sport’s all-time greats. With a nearly flawless performance throughout the tournament, “Schlieri” clinched his second straight Four Hills title, sending the fans and local press into a frenzy. After his final jump in Bischofshofen, the young Austrian star basked in the moment at the bottom of the hill, pumping his skis toward the sky. When he finally lifted the Four Hills trophy above his head, the crowd erupted one final time, as fireworks lit up the night sky.

The Super Bowl metaphor certainly has its holes, but the Four Hills Tournament lived up to its billing.

Daniel Romanchuk’s ascent to marathon stardom accelerated at University of Illinois

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The rise of Daniel Romanchuk has been one of the major stories of this Paralympic cycle. The wheelchair racer was eliminated in the first round of all five of his races in Rio.

But now, he’s the world’s best marathoner with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, a world-record holder on the track and already qualified for the Tokyo Games.

Romanchuk, born with spina bifida, was profiled by NBC Sports Chicago as part of a series of NBC Sports Regional Networks pieces published this week — marking 150 days until the Tokyo Olympics and six months until the Tokyo Paralympics.

NBC RSN Olympic and Paralympic Profiles
NBC Sports Bay Area

Abbey Weitzeil (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Boston
Margaret Bertasi (Rowing) — LINK
Abbey D’Agostino Cooper (Track and Field) — LINK

NBC Sports Chicago
Ryan Murphy (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Northwest
Galen Rupp (Marathon) — LINK
Mariel Zagunis (Fencing) — LINK

NBC Sports Philadelphia
Vashti Cunningham (Track and Field) — LINK
Julie Ertz (Soccer) — LINK

NBC Sports Washington
Katie Ledecky (Swimming) — LINK
Kyle Snyder (Wrestling) — LINK

Romanchuk, 21, swept the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City Marathon titles in 2019. He attributes that success to his native Baltimore and his training residence of the University of Illinois.

At age 2, he was enrolled in Baltimore’s Bennett Blazers, an adaptive sports program for children with physical disabilities. Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist who dominated women’s wheelchair marathons, planted her athletic roots there.

“Their motto is to teach kids they can before they’re told they can’t,” Romanchuk said.

Things really blossomed for Romanchuk after he moved from Baltimore to the University of Illinois. Illinois was designated a U.S. Paralympic training site in 2014 and has produced McFadden, Jean Driscoll and other U.S. Paralympic stars.

“Without this program, I certainly would not be where I am,” Romanchuk said. “It’s a very unique combination of coaching and teammates.”

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MORE: Ten Paralympic hopefuls to watch for 2020 Tokyo Games

Chloé Dygert wanted to be Steve Prefontaine. Then Larry Bird. Now, her coach.

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Chloé Dygert is the U.S.’ top cyclist, an Olympic medalist and world champion in line to race on the track and the road at the Tokyo Games.

To get to this point — leading the American contingent at the world track cycling championships this week — Dygert was kicked off a soccer team, bribed by her father and, when she thought her career was over, enrolled in 5 a.m. classes to get back on the bike.

“I had no interest in being a cyclist. I did not want to be a cyclist,” she said. “The funny thing is, my dad kept getting me bikes.”

It began in Brownsburg, Ind., a 25,000-person town 15 miles northwest of Indianapolis. Dygert had an older brother, younger brother and a BMX dirt bike track on a 4.5-acre property.

She played soccer, but was moved from the girls’ team to the boys. Dygert developed physically earlier than the other girls. And, “I was a little too mean and aggressive,” she said.

She played basketball but broke too many bones — her own and those of other girls. “Not on purpose,” she said, “but I was just so much bigger and naturally so much stronger.”

Dygert ran cross-country, too, but none of those sports worked out.

“I was going to be Steve Prefontaine,” she said of the fabled 1972 Olympian. “I had some injuries, and I started playing basketball. I was going to be Larry Bird. I had some more injuries, and cycling was just kind of my go-to.”

Dygert, at first reluctant, picked up cycling at the urging of her father, David, a mountain biker. She received bikes for Christmas and her New Year’s birthday, but it wasn’t until later, when she was 15, that her father’s words changed her life.

That summer, when Dygert needed a shoulder surgery from a basketball injury, she went for a ride at a local park with her father. David marveled.

“He said, ‘Chloe, I don’t think a girl your age should be able to put out the power that you’re putting out,'” Dygert remembered. “That kind of stuck with me and got me into wanting to ride a little bit more and seeing where I could go with it.”

David lured her: a pair of Oakleys if Dygert won at her first major competition. She entered junior nationals and grabbed a victory.

“That’s kind of what gave me the motivation to keep going,” she said. “It took me a while to actually love the sport. It definitely was not an interest that I had. But I thrive on winning. I love to win.”

Dygert pursued cycling, but she didn’t stop basketball. Everything changed when she tore an ACL on the court at age 17, a nine-month injury. She never returned to competitive basketball, but she also lost motivation to get back on the bike. Again, David urged her. One last time.

She joined the cycling team at Marian University, a private Catholic school in Indianapolis. David signed her up for 5 a.m. classes.

“I’m still not happy about it,” she said. “I got really disciplined.”

And reinvigorated. The freshman Dygert noticed in a power booster class that her wattage was impressive.

“If it wasn’t for that and the structure and the discipline that I had gotten from that and my dad, I would not be here,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by, I’m just so thankful for that and for him.”

Dygert dropped out after that first fall semester to focus on a cycling career. That winter, she won a world title with the U.S. team pursuit and was named to become the youngest female U.S. Olympic track cyclist in history.

“I see myself being a Kristin Armstrong, following in her footsteps, being a good all-around rider and a very good time trialist,” Dygert said before earning team pursuit silver at the Rio Olympics, according to The Associated Press.

Armstrong earned her third Olympic road time trial title in Rio, a day before turning 43. She retired and transitioned from Dygert’s mentor to her coach. Dygert recently moved to Armstrong’s native Idaho.

On the eve of September’s world road cycling championships time trial, Armstrong told Dygert to make sure she hurt more than any other rider on the 18-mile course. Dygert obeyed. She went out and won by 92 seconds, the largest margin in history, to become the youngest world champion ever in the event. She collapsed onto the pavement getting off her bike.

“I didn’t race with a power meter,” Dygert said that day, “and I think that really helped not restricting myself, just kind of going as fast as I could the entire time and not really have anything to gauge it off of.”

It qualified Dygert for the Tokyo Olympics on the road. The track team hasn’t been named, but Dygert will surely anchor a new team pursuit quartet. The U.S. has never won an Olympic women’s track title, but the pursuit has been its trademark event — world titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Olympic silver medals in 2012 and 2016.

The only woman on both of those Olympic teams retired (Sarah Hammer).

The cycling community was floored when Kelly Catlin, on all three world title teams with Dygert, committed suicide last March at age 23.

“It’s definitely hard not having her there, but we will carry her legacy on,” Dygert said. “She will be with us every step of the way when we win gold in Tokyo.”

The U.S. women’s team pursuit finished seventh at last year’s worlds without Catlin and without Dygert, who sat out nearly a year after a May 2018 concussion from a road crash. Dygert wondered if she might not be able to come back from the head injury. Expectations were tempered when she and a new team entered a November World Cup in Belarus.

A coach predicted nothing faster than 4 minutes, 17 seconds. They clocked 4:13 and won in what Dygert believed was the U.S.’ second-fastest time since the Rio Games.

“We’ve never raced together before,” Dygert said. “We didn’t really know what we would be able to do.”

Dygert is bidding to race in three events in Tokyo — road race (July 26), road time trial (July 29) and team pursuit (Aug. 3-4). People compare combining the road and the track to training for both the sprints and the marathon. The plurality of the focus will be on the time trial and follow the path set by Armstrong.

“We’re going to be smart about which event that we choose to be full gas for so my fitness is still there for all the other events,” Dygert said. “Being fit for the time trial will also correlate for the track.”

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MORE: Full list of U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics