Sporting world shocked by charges against inspirational athlete Oscar Pistorius

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News that South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius had been charged with murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, on Thursday came as a shock to nearly everyone who had heard the runner’s inspirational story of his struggle to become the first double-amputee ever to compete at the Olympics.

Pistorius, now 26, was born without fibulas and and had to have his legs amputated below the knee at only eleven months old. That didn’t stop him from competing in rugby, tennis, and water polo while growing up in Pretoria, before being introduced to running in after suffering a knee injury.

Fueled by his competitive spirit and riding on his new racing “blades,” fitted for him by prosthetist Francois Vanderwatt, Pistorius went on to win gold in the 200m at the Paralympic Games in Athens only months after starting to race, and then finished sixth in at the 400m able-bodied national championships the next year.

He won the 100m, 200m, and 400m Paralympic world championships in 2006, and then set his sights on qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. One problem: Pistorius had a number of detractors, including world record holder Michael Johnson, who suggested that his disability was actually an advantage, since the runner raced on specially engineer carbon fiber limbs.

“I know Oscar well, and he knows my position; my position is that because we don’t know for sure whether he gets an advantage from the prosthetics that he wears it is unfair to the able-bodied competitors…

“Oscar sees no limits; he has no fear when competing against able-bodied athletes. So it is hard for people to understand and to accept when you start to talk about whether or not he may have the advantage.”

The IAAF, track’s governing body, agreed, and banned any device using springs, wheels, or any other device that might provide an advantage in 2007, marking Pistorius ineligible for the 2008 Games.

Pistorius eventually won a reprieve with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in April 2008, which, after a two-day hearing in Switzerland, determined that Pistorius held no advantage and was allowed to compete against able-bodied runners.

“Oscar’s done so much for Paralympic sport and I’m grateful for all the eyes he has opened to what Paralympic sport can be,” British Paralympic gold medal sprinter Johnnie Peacock, who started racing after seeing Pistorius on TV, told the London Telegraph.

The “Blade Runner,” as he’s now known, didn’t qualify for the Olympics in 2008, but was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people after winning the right to compete, and signed sponsorship deals with Oakley, Nike, Thierry Mugler, and running blade manufacturer Ossur, in all totaling nearly $5 million.

Now able to compete against the world’s best, Pistorius became the first double-amputee to win an able-bodied world championship medal when his 4×400 relay team took silver in Daegu in 2011. And despite failing to run the necessary Olympic “A” standard qualification time twice, the South African Olympic Committee announced last July 4 that Pistorius had been selected for the Olympic team for the 400m and 4x400m relay.

Two months later, on August 4, 2012, Pistorius became the first double-amputee runner to compete at the Olympics. And better than that, he took second in his preliminary heat with a time of 45.44 seconds, a season best that put him into the semifinals.

“It just felt really magical,” Pistorius said. “If I could predict what it would feel like or imagine beyond my wildest dreams, this was probably 10 times that. To step out in front of a crowd this massive, it’s a mind-blowing experience,” he added. “I’ve had support in the last couple of days like I have never felt before.”

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Pistorius was knocked out in the semis, finishing eighth in the race. After the event, the South African symbolically exchanged racing bibs with Kirani James of Grenada, who eventually went on to win the gold.

“This whole experience was amazing… to step out here in an Olympic final is more than I could have ever hoped for,” Pistorius said after that race. “That opportunity to come here once again and finish today and not yesterday is a dream come true.”

The inspirational athlete was asked to carry the South African flag at the Olympics Closing Ceremony as a tribute to his struggle and success, and went on to earn two more Paralympic golds a month later.

Loena Hendrickx on the rise, making Grand Prix debut at Skate America

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Belgian teenager Loena Hendrickx made her Winter Olympic debut in PyeongChang, and began her short program with the aim of becoming the first from her country to qualify for a ladies’ singles free skate since Katrien Pauwels in 1988.

Fresh off a 14th place finish in the men’s event, brother Jorik sat in the stands. He looked away as the music – a cool arrangement of Madonna’s “Frozen” – began, and covered his eyes as the 18-year-old set up for a planned triple lutz, triple toe combination.

Eight years younger than her two-time Olympian elder brother, Hendrickx knew the feeling.

“I get nervous when he competes, too,” she explained after winning a bronze medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy, an ISU Challenger Series event. “I might be even more nervous watching him than when I have to skate myself, because I don’t know how he’s feeling on the ice, and I can’t control his skate.”

She ultimately landed the combination – albeit under-rotated – and bested Pauwels’ result from Calgary by one place, finishing 16th overall. Even stronger skates were to come at the world championships in Milan, where she beat reigning Olympic champion Alina Zagitova in the free skate to earn a Top 10 total score and qualify for her first-ever Grand Prix events in the upcoming season.

“I’m very excited because that’s something you wish for. The first one is immediately in Skate America, so it’s very exciting. I’ve never been to the States before!”

Jorik was initially scheduled to skate alongside his sister at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Wash., but opted to withdraw and spend the start of the season working with other athletes, including Loena.

“He is working with me sometimes. I really can learn a lot from him because he has the knowledge and experience. I think he can teach me a lot.”

While the siblings work primarily with coach Carine Herrygers, Jorik assisted Loena in selecting her “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” short program music, another ’90s hit by Céline Dion.

“I really liked my program [“The Prayer” by Dion and Josh Groban] from two years ago, and so I think I chose the same style. I researched more of her music, and it was my brother who found this song. I didn’t like it at the beginning because I had another song I liked more.

“In the end, Jorik convinced me to take this one because it’s more powerful and I can skate better to powerful music.”

Hendrickx debuted the program in Oberstdorf, earning personal best scores to make the podium alongside Zagitova and Mai Mihara. More importantly, she achieved her pre-season goal of landing the lutz-toe combination – with positive Grades of Execution – in both phases of the competition.

While most of her competitors made waves as juniors, the Belgian struggled with multiple injuries – a 2016 stress fracture in her back, later a bone bruise on her landing knee – that kept her from eliciting the buzz many top skaters get on the Junior Grand Prix.

“After I healed, I was very happy to begin building back up again. For a long time, I worked on my fitness to make my back and body stronger. That made my jumps stronger and helped me perform better, more consistently.”

In a field that includes two-time world medalist Satoko Miyahara and U.S. national champion Bradie Tennell, Hendrickx heads to Skate America armed with a competitive technical arsenal, and a dose of inspiration imparted by her brother on the ice.

“In Belgium, there are fewer opportunities to be successful when you’re younger because it’s very difficult to combine skating with school. Jorik taught me that you never have to give up on your dreams. If you work hard, you’ll see where you can go.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Chris Mazdzer adds doubles luge after Olympic medal

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Olympic luge silver medalist Chris Mazdzer is doubling up this winter.

Mazdzer has decided to compete in both singles and doubles in World Cup events, in large part because USA Luge didn’t have another option to partner with Olympic doubles veteran Jayson Terdiman.

If the Americans didn’t have a senior doubles team ready for the World Cup, they wouldn’t have been able to compete in team relays this winter — and Terdiman effectively would have been forced into retirement.

“It’s a lot of motivation,” Mazdzer said Monday from Lake Placid, New York, where he and Terdiman took five training runs together at Mount Van Hoevenberg on the season’s opening day for sliding at USA Luge’s home track. “I like when people are like, ‘Chris, you won’t be able to do that.’ This hasn’t been done successfully in two-plus decades. But why not now?”

The move also brings Mazdzer back to his roots. He and Terdiman were successful as a junior team, medaling twice at world championships and winning USA Luge’s team-of-the-year honors for the 2007-08 season.

“It could be something,” Terdiman said. “We’re hoping we’re able to find that magic. It’s asking a lot, but we have a lot of confidence in our own abilities.”

Mazdzer became the first American men’s singles luge athlete to win an Olympic medal, grabbing the silver at the PyeongChang Games earlier this year. Terdiman is a two-time Olympian in doubles, going in 2014 with Christian Niccum and this year with Matt Mortensen. Niccum retired after the 2014 Olympics, and Mortensen retired after PyeongChang.

So Terdiman spent the summer without a partner, and a couple of hours before former USA Luge teammate Megan Sweeney’s wedding, he and Mazdzer got together for coffee.

“I thought about retirement a lot this summer,” Terdiman said. “It was going to be forced if I didn’t have anybody to slide with, and that was a very real thing until Chris and I sat down a couple hours before Megan’s wedding. We talked about him doing both. The confidence he has in himself is very large. He’s going to give it a shot and we’ll see what happens.”

Mazdzer understands that this means he will have a most unusual winter.

There are nine World Cup races this season, and six of those call for the men’s race and the doubles race to be contested on the same day — so Mazdzer will be logging very long hours at the track. There also were International Luge Federation rules to consider about training runs; sliders typically get five or six runs at a track before a World Cup, and Mazdzer will be permitted to get the full allotment of training in both disciplines.

“I’m really pumped about this,” Mazdzer said. “Having the team relay is a huge part of being on the U.S. team. I want to see the U.S. win team relays. I think we’re capable. We have a fantastic team and if doubles works out, we’ve got a shot.”

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