Paraguayan skier’s long road to Sochi

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SOCHI, Russia — Julia Marino doesn’t speak fluent Spanish. She went two decades without stepping foot in her native country.

Yet she is embraced in Paraguay as the nation’s first Winter Olympian.

It is very fitting that on Friday night she will wave a national flag that has different images on the front and back at the Opening Ceremony.

“I’m so excited to have the honor to be the first to represent where I’m from for the Winter Games,” Marino, 21, said in a telephone interview from her Olympic Village room. “It’s a really unique way to give back to where I’m from and reconnect.”

Marino is a slopestyle skier from Winchester, Mass., Boulder, Colo., and, for the first several months of her life, the village of Bahia Negra, Paraguay, about 500 miles north of the capital of Asuncion.

A Boston area couple adopted her and then a boy named Mark, who is seven months younger and from Asuncion, and essentially raised twins. Her adoptive father died of a heart attack in 2007.

She started skiing at age 2 or 3 and began excelling in freestyle skiing as a teenager, competing as an American with the likes of 2014 U.S. Olympians Julia Krass and Annalisa Drew.

When she was 19, the International Olympic Committee added slopestyle skiing to the Olympic program for 2014.

A dual citizen, Marino got to thinking about what it meant to represent a nation in an Olympics and decided Paraguay was where she was from. Even though she had been competing as an American.

That triggered her to Google “Paraguay” and “Olympics,” which yielded few results. Snow is foreign to this nation of no Winter Olympic history. Its only Summer Olympic medal was a men’s soccer silver in 2004.

She spent a year delving, researching and pursuing. Her godmother, who lives in Paraguay, had connections with the National Olympic Committee to get the process rolling.

The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association supported her switch to Paraguay a year ago, the beginning of a long, logistical road to Sochi.

Marino and Paraguay’s Olympic Committee started a ski association from scratch to be eligible to compete in the Olympics. The International Ski Federation recognized Paraguay three months ago, clearing the way for her to go to Sochi.

She sketched out her national ski suit, but there was still work to be done.

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She returned to Paraguay for the first time in 20 years in November, spending 10 days in Asuncion. She met with the National Olympic Committee, the sports ministry and possible sponsors.

Her mission was acceptance. She had to prove she was not just switching countries for an easier path to the Olympics with less domestic competition for a berth.

She took a week to prepare an introductory speech, in Spanish, to tell the story of her humble village roots, adoption to America and pride to be from Paraguay.

After she finished, an audience of reporters and sports governing body presidents stood and applauded.

“It took a lot of work to make my athletic dream possible,” Marino said. “It’s been a really special process.”

Marino has persevered with her skiing, too, coming back from a torn ACL in 2009 and a broken collarbone last year.

Now, at the Olympic Village, she introduces herself with pride to athletes from some 200-member delegations. When she says, “Paraguay,” the reaction is usually the same.

“I see their faces,” Marino said. “They’re impressed.”

Marino expects the best moment of her first Olympics will not come in competition but in Fisht Stadium on Friday night during the Parade of Nations. Her adoptive mother and brother will be in the crowd.

“I don’t think I can prepare myself enough for that moment,” she said.

She won’t be alone on the stadium floor. A Paraguayan official, coach and trainer Erik Kaloyanides will be at her side as she carries the flag between Pakistan and Peru. Kaloyanides played left guard at Syracuse from 1998 to 2002.

The people of Paraguay will watch her, too. Marino said the nation is streaming or broadcasting both the Opening Ceremony and her competition Tuesday.

“I’m seeing the most support and love,” she said. “I felt that right away when I was down there … explaining my story and reasoning for all of this.”

On Tuesday, she will perform tricks racing down a venue deemed unsafe by slopestyle snowboarders this week. The top 12 from qualifying advance to the final later that day.

“There’s some dangerous options [on the course], but I don’t think it’s nothing that anybody, both men and women snowboard and skiing, can’t handle,” said Marino, who took second in her final World Cup race as an American last season and 17th and 18th in her first two for Paraguay this season. “I really don’t have any complaints about the course.”

Marino’s post-Olympic plans include finishing her psychology degree from the University of Colorado in spring 2015. Before that, she wants to return to Paraguay and maybe visit her birthplace for the first time since she was an infant.

There is some risk in going back to Bahia Negra, a poor village that is not easy to fly or drive into, she said. Marino has no interest in finding her birth parents, who are unknown to her due to a closed adoption. She says several people have claimed to be her mother and father on Facebook and Twitter, posting pictures.

That’s been disheartening, but if she knew who the real ones were, she would like to relay a positive message.

“I would wish them nothing but thanks and so much gratitude for giving me this opportunity and allowing me to live in the United States,” Marino said, “but I don’t really have any strong motivation to find who my parents are.”

Marino may be the only athlete from her nation, the only option to carry the Paraguayan flag Friday and sans roommate in the village, but she sees familiarities across the Games.

She knows a Chilean slopestyle skier, and she empathizes with the formerly cash-strapped Jamaican Bobsled Team.

“Everybody has a story,” Marino said. “There’s something unique about every athlete you talk to.”

Hail Ilia Malinin’s first U.S. figure skating title for six-quad ambition, Jason Brown’s advice

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SAN JOSE, California – Ilia Malinin clearly will have mixed emotions when he remembers winning his first U.S. figure skating title.

That was apparent from his reaction after finishing Sunday’s free skate.

The 18-year-old with limitless potential and seemingly limitless confidence had been rattled by his worst free skate of the season.

He shook his head sadly. Then he shook it again.

“Of course, this wasn’t the skate I wanted, but there’s always ups and downs, and you just after get over it and move on,” Malinin said.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Results

He planned the hardest technical program anyone ever had attempted, with six quadruple jumps and two challenging combinations in the second half of the four-minute program. And he gamely kept trying to execute it, even after significant mistakes that would leave him second to surprising Andrew Torgashev in the free skate.

Malinin (287.74 total points) still finished comfortably ahead of the evergreen Jason Brown (277.31). Torgashev was third overall at 256.56.

Malinin skated with doggedness rather the dynamism that infused his brilliant short program Friday, by far his best short program of the season.

“I think I was just a little bit sluggish, and I just wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen,” he said.

Malinin fell on his opening jump, the quadruple Axel, then reeled off three other quads flawlessly. He popped two other planned quads into doubles, then turned his final jumping pass, planned as a sequence of two jumps, into an unprecedented triple Lutz-triple Axel-triple toe loop sequence. For context: only Malinin has done a triple Lutz-triple Axel sequence.

“I think its’s not that I was planning too much,” he said. “I think it was I wasn’t really prepared for this amount. And it was mostly because we were focusing on that short program.”

Brown, 28, who first competed at senior nationals 12 years ago, skated magnificently. If it weren’t for a fall on his ambitious final free skate jump, a triple flip coming out of a knee slide, Brown’s overall performance in both the short and free would have been as good as any he had done in the U.S. Championships.

With his longevity and insight, Brown, a two-time Olympian and seven-time national medalist (gold in 2015) was able to put what had befallen Malinin into accurate perspective and encourage him not to lose confidence over it.

Brown heard the press conference questions Malinin was getting over what went wrong, questions both legitimate and expected, and he wanted his younger teammate not to dwell on them.

“You did a triple Lutz-triple Axel-triple toe at the end of your program, and I did a knee slide and could barely stand up to do the flip,” Brown said to Malinin, sitting next to him at the dais.

“The way you keep pushing the sport is incredible. So don’t stop being you.”

Malinin, an unexpected second at last year’s nationals, came here under a spotlight brighter than any he had experienced, largely due to his history-making success earlier this season as the first to land a quad Axel in competition.

For all his disarming bravado, evidenced by choosing quadg0d as his social media name, Malinin is not immune to the pressure of a big event and his position as favorite.

“There is an amount of experience (necessary) that it takes time to get,” Brown said. “I’ve been through it all. I’ve had a lot of ups, I’ve had a lot of downs. As you (Malinin) said, it’s how you take this experience and learn from it and grow from it. That’s what you’re going to do.”

Both Malinin and Brown leave Monday to perform eight shows in three Swiss cities over 11 days with the Art on Ice tour. They are both expected to be on the U.S. team for the world championships this March in Japan.

Malinin leaves with the title and the satisfaction of not having minimized risk given his big lead after the short program.

“This was an opportunity for me to try this new layout,” Malinin said. “Of course, it didn’t go off the best. We’ll take advice from this and look forward to worlds.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Mark McMorris breaks Winter X Games medals record with slopestyle gold

Mark McMorris
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Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris broke his tie with American Jamie Anderson for the most Winter X Games medals across all sites, earning his 22nd medal, a slopestyle gold, in Aspen, Colorado.

On the final run of Sunday’s contest, McMorris overtook Norway’s Marcus Kleveland with back-to-back 1620s on the last two jumps. McMorris’ last three Aspen slopestyle titles were all won on his final run (2019, 2022).

“It’s something I never thought would ever come to me as a kid from Saskatchewan,” McMorris, 29, said on the broadcast. “Everything’s just been a bonus since I became a pro snowboarder.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression of their best run over the course of a jam session rather than scoring individual runs.

McMorris won his record-extending seventh X Games Aspen men’s slopestyle title, one day after finishing fourth in big air.

“It just keeps getting crazier because I keep getting older,” he said. “People just keep pushing the limits, pushing the limits. Last night was such a downer, almost bums me out, like, dude, do I still have it? … To have one of those miracle wins where you do it on the last run and someone makes you push yourself, those are the best feelings.”

McMorris won slopestyle bronze medals at each of the last three Olympics and reportedly said last February that he was planning to compete through the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games.

Canadian Max Parrot, the 2022 Olympic slopestyle champion, is taking this season off from competition.

Anderson, a two-time Olympic snowboard slopestyle champion, is expecting her first child.

Later Sunday, U.S. Olympian Mac Forehand won men’s ski big air with a 2160 on his last run, according to commentators. It scored a perfect 50. Olympic gold medalist Birk Ruud of Norway followed with a triple cork 2160 of his own, according to commentators, and finished third.

Canadian skier Megan Oldham added slopestyle gold to her big air title from Friday, relegating Olympic champion Mathilde Gremaud of Switzerland to silver.

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