Simon Ammann trying to surpass Matti Nykaenen in medals, not idiosyncrasies

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Affable Swiss ski jumper Simon Ammann could overtake one of the most mercurial Olympians ever with another successful Games.

But when Ammann is asked about the embattled four-time Olympic champion Matti Nykaenen, he doesn’t recall the Finn’s ski jumping accomplishments. Nor Nykaenen’s problems in retirement.

“Last year, we had a really nice basketball game,” Ammann said after training Thursday night. “He was really in a good mood. Everything was fine. We had legends against the active jumpers. It was super cool.

“I got his shirt after, with his sweat and everything.”

Ammann came from nowhere to sweep the normal and large hill competitions at the 2002 Olympics at age 20. At the time, his resemblance to Harry Potter gave Ammann a hint of fame in the U.S.

He swept the same events at the 2010 Olympics to match Nykaenen’s record of four career Olympic ski jumping golds – though one of Nykaenen’s was a team gold. He also drew within one of Nykaenen’s record of five career Olympic ski jumping medals of any color.

One gold in Sochi and two medals of any color would make Ammann the solo most decorated Olympic ski jumper ever in either view.

WATCH: See Ammann’s golden moments at Vancouver

Ammann’s had his share of issues, capped by an equipment controversy and row with Austrians in 2010, but he’s dull compared to Nykaenen, who is now 50.

Here are some reported bullet points from the Finnish star since his triumphs at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics:

  • Fell asleep at the wheel and drove off a bridge
  • Engaged one week to a 17-year-old Estonian
  • Worked for a sex-chat phone line
  • Spent Christmas 2009 in jail after assaulting his estranged spouse, a sausage millionairess
  • Stabbed a friend after losing a finger-pulling competition
  • Worked as a stripper at a restaurant
  • Celebrity chef
  • Five marriages and bouts with depression and alcoholism
  • Released three music albums

Ammann is aware that Nykaenen’s reputation has been torn to shreds, again and again.

“I never went to his concerts,” Ammann said. “I was always a bit afraid of seeing him in a bad way.”

To Nykaenen’s credit, he has barely been in the news the last few years.

As for Ammann, he would not appear to be a gold-medal threat in Sochi. He’s ranked sixth in the World Cup standings and wasn’t better than 19th in three trial jumps Thursday night.

But history proves Ammann can’t be counted out. He soared to double gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games with a blank résumé of zero World Cup wins and no World Championships medals.

After a dreadful 2006 Olympics, Ammann upstaged Austrian megastar Gregor Schlierenzauer with the longest Olympic jump ever in 2010. Two more golds.

He’s since earned a pilot’s license and married a Russian, the latter inspiring him to make a serious run toward Sochi. Ammann questioned his future following the 2010-11 season.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Ammann said, pointing out the highs of Vancouver and taking part in the 2011 World Championships on the world’s most famous ski jumping hill in Oslo, Norway. “And so I was not able to really get rid of ski jumping. I was trying in one part, but inside I felt that I really have to go on and really get one more task to prove myself – not even prove – but to really find again the core of this sport, to get into this sport with all this extreme games in your mind, which this sport of course has. This is a great game. I’m happy that I really accept it.”

Ammann said his goal in Sochi is one medal. The color doesn’t matter. But to win one gold, a record fifth for a ski jumper, what would that mean?

“First I have to do it, then you can ask me that again,” he joked. “Five medals in our sport, it’s huge. I’m happy with my four. I would be even more happy with a fifth, but just with whatever color the medal is.”

Ammann then paused, thought and waxed on. His reflective words were a stark contrast to his memorable childlike screams following his first gold medal 12 years ago.

“Really, I come here for ski jumping,” Ammann said. “I see it more clearly. In the long-term view in the approach, you see the gold medal. When the first picture comes out, you look at it and think, oh, it’s a nice one. But the closer I get, the more it’s really about the sport because this is what I judge myself at the end.”

John McFall, Paralympic medalist, becomes first parastronaut in Europe

John McFall
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The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest batch of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and later won a Paralympic 100m bronze medal in 2008, called his selection at Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”

“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space … This is the first time that a space agency has endeavored to embark on a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.

The newly-minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in over a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disability will impair space travel. It’s uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut into space, according to the ESA.

Speaking with pride amid flashes of emotion, McFall said that he was uniquely suited to the mission because of the vigor of his mind and body.

“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about twenty plus years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally … All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to,” he added.

“I never dreamt of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to embark on this project that it really sparked my interest.”

The feasibility study, that will last two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut including how a physical disability might impact mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there that are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

Parker also says that he “thinks” it may be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I do not claim ownership.”

“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, that means someone who has been selected by the regular astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.

It will be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he is successful.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.

NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements call for each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added.

NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

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Ilia Malinin in familiar position after Grand Prix Finland short program

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Ilia Malinin landed a quadruple Axel in his free skate to win his first two competitions this season. Less known was that the 17-year-old American had to come from behind to win each time.

An at least slightly injured Malinin looks up in the standings again after the short program of his third event, Grand Prix Finland. Malinin had erred landings on two of his three jumping passes in Friday’s short, where quad Axels are not allowed, then said he had a left foot problem, according to the International Skating Union.

“I’m a little bit injured, I’m playing it safe, protect it to make sure the injury doesn’t get worse,” he said, according to the ISU.

He tallied 85.57 points for second place, which is 3.39 fewer than leader Kevin Aymoz of France going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin, the world junior champion ranked No. 1 in the world in his first full senior season, merely needs to finish fourth or better (perhaps even fifth) to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, which pits the top six per discipline in the world in a preview of March’s world championships.

Grand Prix Finland concludes with all of the free skates on Saturday.

GRAND PRIX FINLAND: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier Friday, world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium led the women’s short with 74.88 points, edging Mai Mihara of Japan by 1.3. Hendrickx and Mihara are in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. World champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, South Korea’s Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito already have spots in the Final.

The world’s top ice dance couple this season, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, improved on their world-leading rhythm dance score by tallying 87.80 points. They lead Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker by 6.87, with both couples in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini topped the pairs’ short program by 4.3 points over Americans Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia. The Italians rank fourth in the world this season behind three teams that aren’t in the Finland field but will be at the Grand Prix Final, including world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S.

Smirnova and Silanytsia are competing in their lone Grand Prix this season after withdrawing before Skate America, making them ineligible for Grand Prix Final qualification. Their short program score ranks fourth among American pairs this season, putting them in contention for one of three spots on the team for worlds, to be decided after January’s national championships.

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