Ex-roller skating champ Matteo Guarise makes smooth transtion to ice for Olympics

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SOCHI, Russia – Glancing at Matteo Guarise’s biography, it’s easy to glaze over the fact that he was a world champion in 2008. But look a little more closely and a single word pops out: roller skating world champion.

Right, roller skating.

As the Vancouver Games got underway in 2010, Guarise, a 21-year-old Italian who had won the 2008 World Roller Figure Skating Championships, made a promise to himself: he would be in Sochi in four years’ time. As a figure skater.

“My friends told me I was crazy,” Guarise tells NBCOlympics.com, smiling. “They laughed at me.”

It seemed to be a laughable proposition for Guarise, who strapped on ice skates for the first time in his life in January 2010 and began to chase a lifelong dream, even as he struggled to stay on his feets while on the ice.

VIDEO: Russian pair are “superstars”

“For me, the easiest stuff was the hardest because of the blade,” Guarise explains alongside partner Nicole Della Monica. “Every time I pushed off I wasn’t able to control what I was doing. It was impossible to do crossovers, but then I could easily do a triple toe jump. If you looked at me on the ice I looked like a beginner, but then I could do a triple jump. People were saying, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’”

Watching roller skating – if you’ve never dived into it on YouTube – is eerily similar to figure skating. The pairs skate to the same moving music, wear the same colorful costumes and perform the spins, throws and jumps that you see on the ice – but instead on wooden floors, wearing the four-wheeled skates most American kids grew up flying down the sidewalk on.

“Sometimes I tell Matteo, ‘Come on! This is so easy!’ says Della Monica, who was an Olympian in 2010 with a different partner. “But then I realize that he’s only been skating on the ice for four years. It’s already amazing what he’s doing now.”

After his roller skating world title in 2008 with partner Sara Venerucci, Guarise was ready to give up the sport, though they skated together for the following year, winning another national title in Italy. Guarise finally hung up his (roller) skates, moving to Milan in 2009 and traveling for a year as a model, all the while still dreaming of being an Olympian.

“It wasn’t the life for me,” Guarise explains of modeling. “I wanted competition.”

Living just across the street from a rink in Milan, Guarise began skating there a few times a week, then moved to Russia to try out with one pairs partner (it didn’t go well) before being sent to Colordao (that didn’t pan out, either) and landing in Detroit, where he partnered with Caitlin Yankowskas, the 2011 pairs champion.

“I never competed in this whole time I was traveling, it was always just trying out with new partners,” Guarise says. “But it didn’t work out with Caitlin, so I went back home and thought I would give up. That’s when a coach suggested Nicole.”

Della Monica had hung up her (ice) skates after the 2010 Vancouver Games, her partner going back to France and she returning to school. But when a call came from Matteo he “sounded nice” and she was “pleasantly surprised.”

“I didn’t actually want to come back, but they called me and I was missing skating a little bit,” Della Monica remembers. “I took one year off and thought, ‘You know this might happen.’”

The pair skated together for three weeks, first in November of 2011, before going to the Italian National Championships and being sent to the World Championships in 2012, only four months after they had joined forces and just two years after Guarise first set foot on ice.

“I changed to the ice because of my Olympic dream,” says Guarise, who grew up in the Italian beach town of Rimini. “For me, I thought, ‘What am I doing if I can’t participate in the Olympics?’ Being in Sochi, for me, is unbelievable.”

There are plenty of roller skaters who have made the transition from that sport to the ice, including 2012 U.S. pairs champion Caydee Denney and Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion. But Guarise’s turnaround time – from stepping onto the ice for the first time in January 2010 to skating at the Olympics in 2014 – is unheralded.

“It’s different technique, but it’s all similar. A lift is a lift, a jump is a jump, but they are different so I had to adjust each and every element,” says Guarise. “The worst was just simply skating. I had no feeling on the ice. I started from zero. I think a lot of people thought it was impossible for me to go to the Olympics.”

Della Monica and Guarise skated second Tuesday night at the Iceberg Skating Palace, and as if telling his transition story on ice, the 25-year-old stumbled in the opening seconds of their short program, the crowd gasping because he went down when, well, he was just simply skating.

“These are not our Olympic Games this time,” Della Monica explains the day before. “We are looking forward to 2018 – or past it. This time is just to feel the experience.”

And the goal in Pyeongchang?

“The goal is to win a medal,” smiles Guarise.

“Yeah, why not?” Della Monica adds. “This can be our dream and whatever will come, will come.”

Noah Lyles takes next step to stardom as youngest U.S. 100m champion in 34 years

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Incredible, Noah Lyles.

Lyles, wearing red “The Incredibles” socks, won the U.S. 100m title in 9.88 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year, at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Des Moines on Friday night.

Lyles overtook Ronnie Baker in the final strides to win by .02 and become the youngest man to take the sprint crown since Sam Graddy in 1984. Nationals were held a week before Olympic Trials won by Carl Lewis in 1984. Essentially, Lyles is the youngest U.S. 100m champ since Lewis in 1981.

What’s more incredible is that Lyles is primarily a 200m runner, having finished fourth in that event at the 2016 Olympic Trials as an 18-year-old. Lyles is joint fastest in the world in the 200m this year and has not lost an outdoor 200m since the trials (he missed 2017 Nationals, and thus 2017 Words, with a hamstring tear).

“I wanted to prove myself as a 100m runner,” Lyles, who turned pro after Olympic Trials and skipped NCAA track, told Lewis Johnson on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “I’ve kind of been cheatin’ on my 200m. It’s time to go back to my baby.”

NCAA champion Aleia Hobbs won the women’s 100m in 10.91 seconds, beating Ashley Henderson by .05 and Olympian Jenna Prandini by .07.

Hobbs, 22, was seventh in her senior nationals debut last year. She entered Des Moines with the four fastest times among Americans this year, ranked No. 3 in the world behind Marie-Josée Ta Lou of Cote d’Ivoire and Nigerian Blessing Okagbare-Ighotegunor.

The U.S.’ established 100m stars — world gold and silver medalists Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman and world champion Tori Bowie — are not racing at nationals. This is the only year in the four-year cycle without an Olympics or world outdoor championships.

USATF Outdoors continue Saturday on NBC (4-6 p.m. ET) and NBC Sports Gold (11 a.m.-6 p.m.), highlighted by 400m, 1500m and 100m hurdles finals.

USATF Outdoors: TV Schedule | Results | Women’s Preview | Men’s Preview

Earlier Friday, Olympic champion Christian Taylor fouled and passed out of the triple jump after three jumps, shortly after finishing fifth in his 400m semifinal to miss Saturday’s final by one spot.

Olympian Zach Ziemek became the first man other than Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee to win the U.S. decathlon title since 2010. Ziemek, who finished third, third and second the last three years, scored 8,294 points to win by 275 over Solomon Simmons.

Favorites Kendall Ellis, Courtney Okolo and Shakima Wimbley advanced to Saturday’s women’s 400m final. Olympic silver medalist Allyson Felix and 2017 World champion Phyllis Francis chose not to race the 400m in Des Moines. Eighteen-year-old pro Sydney McLaughlin, fastest in the world this year in the 400m hurdles, entered the 400m but scratched before Thursday’s first round after feeling tightness in her quad in warm-up.

World bronze medalist Ajee’ Wilson and Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy highlighted the qualifiers into Sunday’s 800m finals.

MORE: Lyles, Norman, green teens at Olympic Trials, now stars at USATF Champs

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He won a gold medal with Michael Phelps, then he lived in his car

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Klete Keller, a five-time Olympic medalist who anchored the U.S. 4x200m freestyle relay to gold (holding off Ian Thorpe) at the 2004 Athens Games, went into “a deep depression” after a 2014 divorce and said he lived in his car for almost one year, according to USA Swimming.

“I was paying child support for my kids and couldn’t afford a place, so I lived in my car for almost a year,” Keller, a 36-year-old who retired after his third Olympics in 2008, said, according to USA Swimming. “I had a Ford Fusion at the time, so at 6-foot-6, it was challenging to make the room to sleep. But I made it work.”

Keller, who has three kids, was jobless and homeless.

“He alternated parking at one of the two Wal-Marts in his area and at rest stops and kept his gym membership active so he had somewhere to shower and workout,” according to the story.

In a spring 2014 interview, Keller said he was bitter toward his swimming career and didn’t know where three of his Olympic medals were located.

“It’s not right, but I still probably hold some bitterness toward myself mostly, but also a little bit toward my sport because I let myself get too deep into it,” Keller said then. “I’m still not quite over that, unfortunately, but I’m working on it. I do love the sport. I’m just a little disappointed overall.”

The effects of leaving swimming spread through his life.

“After swimming, I thought I had to find the same title or level of success in my work — no matter what I was doing or how much I didn’t enjoy it – to feel that same success that I did in swimming,” Keller said, according to USA Swimming. “In swimming, you have to be selfish to a large degree to be successful, but when you are a husband and father, you have to be more selfless — and I wasn’t. As I look back now, I wasn’t a very good husband.”

Now, Keller is back on his feet, having moved to Colorado Springs, working in residential real estate and accruing airline miles on his credit card to fund trips to see his children, according to USA Swimming.

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