Jilleanne Rookard, Jonathan Kuck win at U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Trials

Jilleanne Rookard
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Jilleanne Rookard and Jonathan Kuck are going back to the Olympics.

The 2010 Olympians won the opening races at the U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Trials in Kearns, Utah, on Friday night, clinching spots on the 2014 Olympic Team that will officially be named next week.

Rookard, 30, claimed the 3000m in 4 minutes, 9.66 seconds. She beat second-place Anna Ringsred by more than four seconds. Ringsred is also likely going to Sochi.

The U.S. qualified two entries in the Olympic 3000m, an event it hasn’t won an Olympic medal in since Beth Heiden‘s bronze in 1980.

Kuck, 23, won the men’s 5000m in 6:19.76, as expected. Emery Lehman and Patrick Meek, who were second and third, are also likely going to Sochi as the U.S. has three entries into the Olympic 5000m.

The U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Trials continue with the men’s and women’s 500m from the 2002 Olympic oval Saturday at 11:30 a.m. ET. NBC will broadcast the competition at 3 p.m.

U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Trials Preview, Schedule

Rookard finished 12th in the 2010 Olympic 3000m and is a contender to make the U.S. Olympic Team in the 1500m and the 5000m again, too. The former inline skater and weightlifter competed in Vancouver two months after her mother died of cancer.

“I’m going to pop champagne and celebrate with my teammate,” Rookard said, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee. “I’m really excited.”

Ringsred, 29, will join Rookard on the Olympic team as long as no more than 10 different women’s skaters qualify over the total of five distances at trials. It will help if stars Brittany Bowe and Heather Richardson qualify in multiple distances to keep the overall team size down.

Ringsred would be a first-time Olympian. The University of Calgary chemical engineering graduate briefly retired after failing to make the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team.

“Last Olympic Trials, I really did have too many nerves, and it really ruined my race; I didn’t perform well at all,” Ringsred said on NBCSN. “I went into this realizing that speed skating, for the first time in my life, amidst all the turmoil and the pressure, it makes me really feel alive.”

Among the women who missed out on the top two were 2010 Olympians Maria Lamb (fifth) and Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr. (ninth) and three-time Olympic short track speed skater Allison Baver (14th). They’ll try to qualify in other distances.

Kuck won an Olympic silver medal in the team pursuit in Vancouver and placed eighth in the 10,000m, his lone individual event in 2010. One month later, Kuck took silver in the World Allround Championships behind Dutch superstar Sven Kramer.

Kuck also won bronze in the 5000m and 10,000m at the 2012 World Single Distance Championships, though it will be hard for him to get past the Netherlands’ powerful trio in Sochi. Kuck is expected to win the 10,000m at the Olympic Trials on the final day of skating Wednesday.

“It’s nice to have it out of the way,” Kuck said on NBCSN. “A couple more races coming up [at trials], but there isn’t any question mark [about making the U.S. Olympic Team].”

Lehman and Meek are going to Sochi so long as 10 or fewer male skaters qualify over the five Olympic distances.

Lehman, an Oak Park (Ill.)-River Forest High School student, is likely to be the youngest male athlete among the entire U.S. Olympic delegation in Sochi. He’s 17 and the reigning world junior champion in the 5000m.

Meek, like Lehman, would be a first-time Olympian.

Comeback story at U.S. Olympic Trials

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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