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.”

U.S. women’s basketball team, statistically greatest ever, rolls to FIBA World Cup title

FIBA Women's World Cup
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The revamped U.S. women’s basketball team may have been the greatest of all time.

The Americans completed, statistically, their most dominant global championship ever by routing China 83-61 in the FIBA World Cup final on Saturday in Sydney — giving them 60 consecutive wins between the Olympics and worlds dating to 2006.

It marked the largest margin of victory in a World Cup final since the event converted from a fully round-robin format in 1983.

For the tournament, the U.S. drubbed its opponents by an average of 40.75 points per game, beating its previous record between the Olympics and worlds of 37.625 points from the 2008 Beijing Games. It was just off the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Dream Team’s legendary margin 43.8 points per game. This U.S. team scored 98.75 points per game, its largest at worlds since 1994.

“We came here on a mission, a business trip,” tournament MVP A’ja Wilson said in a post-game press conference before turning to coach Cheryl Reeve. “We played pretty good, I think, coach.”

Since the U.S. won a seventh consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired. Tina Charles ceded her national team spot to younger players. Brittney Griner was detained in Russia (and still is). Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury that ruled her out of World Cup participation (who knows if the 40-year-old Taurasi will play for the U.S. again).

Not only that, but Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, implementing a new up-tempo system.

“There was probably great concern, and maybe around the world they kind of looked at it and said, ‘Hey, now is the time to get the USA,'” Reeve said Saturday.

The U.S. response was encapsulated by power forward Alyssa Thomas, the oldest player on the roster at age 30 who made the U.S. team for the first time in her career, started every game and was called the team’s glue and MVP going into the final.

Wilson and Tokyo Olympic MVP Breanna Stewart were the leaders. Guard Kelsey Plum, a Tokyo Olympic 3×3 player, blossomed this past WNBA season and was third in the league’s MVP voting. She averaged the most minutes on the team, scored 15.8 points per game and had 17 in the final.

“The depth of talent that we have was on display,” Reeve said. “What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in.”

For the first time since 1994, no player on the U.S. roster was over the age of 30, creating a scary thought for the 2024 Paris Olympics: the Americans could get even better.

“When you say best-ever, I’m always really cautious with that, because, obviously, there are great teams,” Reeve said when asked specifically about the team’s defense. “This group was really hard to play against.”

Earlier Saturday, 41-year-old Australian legend Lauren Jackson turned back the clock with a 30-point performance off the bench in her final game as an Opal, a 95-65 victory over Canada for the bronze. Jackson, who came out of a six-year retirement and played her first major tournament since the 2012 Olympics, had her best scoring performance since the 2008 Olympics.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

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The U.S. women’s basketball team won its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headlined a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, included neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team had nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 60 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The U.S. beat China in the final, while host Australia took bronze to send 41-year-old Lauren Jackson into retirement.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), wasn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA 88, Serbia 55 Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada 79, Puerto Rico 60 Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China 85, France 71 Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia 86, Belgium 69 Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA 83, Canada 43 Semifinals
5:30 a.m. China 61, Australia 59 Semifinals
11 p.m. Australia 95, Canada 65 Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. USA 83, China 61 Gold-Medal Game