J.R. Celski, Jessica Smith make U.S. Olympic Team at short track trials

J.R. Celski
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J.R. Celski cruised to victory. Jessica Smith crossed the finish line in second. But both raised their arms at the end of the second day of the U.S. Olympic Short Track Speed Skating Trials on Friday night.

Celski qualified for his second Olympic team and Smith made her first by winning the men’s and women’s 1500m standings at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, Utah. Celski swept both races. Smith won her first and finished runner-up in the second.

The U.S. Olympic Short Track Speed Skating Trials continue with two men’s and women’s 500m races each Saturday (12 p.m. ET, 4-5:30 p.m. NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

Short track trials preview, schedule

“It’s an honor to be representing the United States again,” Celski said on NBCSN. “I’ve been waiting four years for this.”

Celski, 23, won both 1500m races after sweeping four- and nine-lap time trials Thursday. He’s going to his second Olympics after winning two bronze medals in 2010, five months after slicing his left thigh open in a crash at the last Olympic trials.

“It’s definitely, naturally, a little bit more pressure than last time,” Celski said. “I take it more serious than I did last time as well. If I’m properly prepared, then I think my results are going to show that I’m ready. Take those nerves off.”

Celski beat Chris Creveling in the first 1500m race and Eddy Alvarez in the second. Creveling was penalized in the second, allowing Alvarez to move into second place overall in the distance and all but secure his first Olympic berth.

Celski won’t let up the next two days.

“There’s two more distances left, and I want to qualify my spots in all of them,” he said. “The pressure’s off a little bit, but definitely a lot to prove, still.”

Smith only needed to finish second in the second of two 1500m A finals to clinch her first Olympic berth. Emily Scott won that second race, but Smith was right behind, knowing she had done enough to qualify for Sochi.

She then jumped over barrier padding to high-five her coach, Jae Su Chun, who was suspended and then resigned as the US Speedskating National Team coach in October 2012 after being accused by some skaters of physical and emotional abuse and being wrapped up in the Simon Cho skate-tampering scandal.

“It’s been a long road, a long journey,” Smith said on NBCSN. “A proud moment for me and my coach, Jae Su Chun, and all the other coaches before.”

Smith, 30, just missed making the 2010 Olympic Team and was named an alternate for Vancouver.

“It definitely gave me motivation, but I don’t think I needed the motivation to want to make the Olympic team and represent my country and wear the stars and stripes,” Smith said. “That’s enough motivation in itself.”

Five men and three women will make the Olympics by the time races conclude Sunday. Other Olympic team contenders ran into trouble Friday.

World Cup medalist John-Henry Krueger crashed in both 1500m semifinals. Kyle Carr and 2010 Olympian Travis Jayner crashed in the first 1500m final.

Skaters’ time trial results from Thursday are added to their results from races Friday, Saturday and Sunday in points standings for all three distances (500m, 1000m, 1500m) and in one overall standing. A time trial is worth 20 percent of a skater’s standing per distance. Each result in a race is worth 40 percent.

The top-ranked skater in every distance will make the Olympic team. That could be one skater per gender (if he or she sweeps every distance), two skaters or three skaters (if a different skater wins each distance).

After that, if there are Olympic roster spots still available (there definitely will be for men), the second-ranked skater in every distance will make the Olympic team. If adding all of the second-ranked skaters exceeds the maximum Olympic roster size, priority would go to a skater who finished second in two of the three distances.

If that didn’t happen, the tiebreaker is a skater’s overall distance standing, adding up points from both time trials and all three distances.

If there are Olympic roster spots still available after taking the top two skaters from every distance, the Olympic team will be filled by the top skaters remaining in the overall distance standings.

Here are the individual distance standings:

Men’s 500m
1. J.R. Celski — 500
2. Chris Creveling — 400
3. Eddy Alvarez — 320
4. John-Henry Krueger — 256
5. Jordan Malone — 205

Men’s 1000m
1. J.R. Celski — 500
2. Chris Creveling — 400
3. Eddy Alvarez — 320
4. John-Henry Krueger — 256
5. Jordan Malone — 205

Men’s 1500m — FINAL
1. J.R. Celski — 2,500 (clinched Olympic berth)
2. Eddy Alvarez — 1,632

Women’s 500m
1. Jessica Smith — 500
2. Emily Scott — 400
3. Alyson Dudek — 320
4. Sarah Chen — 256
5. Katherine Ralston — 205

Women’s 1000m
1. Jessica Smith — 500
2. Emily Scott — 400
3. Alyson Dudek — 320
4. Kimberly Goetz — 256
5. Sarah Chen — 205

Women’s 1500m — FINAL
1. Jessica Smith — 2,300 (clinched Olympic berth)
2. Emily Scott — 2,200

Here are the overall distance standings:

Men
1. J.R. Celski — 3,000
2. Eddy Alvarez — 1,952
3. Chris Creveling — 1,928
4. Jordan Malone — 1,562
5. Kyle Carr — 1,237
6. Travis Jayner — 968.5

Women
1. Jessica Smith — 2,800
2. Emily Scott — 2,600
3. Alyson Dudek — 1,920
4. Sarah Chen — 1,485
5. Lana Gehring — 969

Apolo Ohno adjusts to TV analyst role

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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