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.”

Morgan Hurd left off U.S. gymnastics team for world championships

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Simone Biles is joined on the U.S. team for the world gymnastics championships by five women bidding to make their first Olympic team next year.

Sunisa LeeKara EakerJade Carey, Grace McCallum and MyKayla Skinner were named to the team at the conclusion of selection camp competition Monday in Sarasota, Fla. Biles locked up the first spot by winning an all-around competition on Sunday.

A notable omission was Morgan Hurd, the 2017 World all-around champion in Biles’ absence who was fourth in the all-around at the U.S. Championships in August and ninth at the selection camp on Sunday. Hurd, who came back from December elbow surgery, was named a non-traveling alternate along with Leanne Wong.

Had Hurd made the team, she could have bid to join Biles as the only women to earn all-around medals at three straight world championships. Instead, her absence is a testament to the U.S. women’s depth.

The Americans won every Olympic or world team title dating to 2011, the longest reign of dominance since Soviet teams of the 1970s. Last year, their margin of victory — 8.766 points — was the largest in history at an Olympics or worlds.

A look at the six women on this year’s team, one of which will be designated an on-site alternate at worlds in Stuttgart, Germany:

Simone Biles
Undefeated in all-around competitions for six years, Biles will break more records in Stuttgart. The biggest one is career world championships medals. Biles is at 20, tied with Svetlana Khorkina for the female record. The overall record is 23, held by retired Belarusian Vitaly Scherbo. Last year, Biles became the first gymnast to earn medals in every event at worlds in 31 years and won the all-around by a record margin despite two falls and a kidney stone.

Sunisa Lee
The revelation of this summer. Lee went from third in the junior division at last year’s nationals to second to Biles both at nationals in August and in Sunday’s selection competition. At the latter, Lee was only .35 of a point behind Biles, closer than any of Biles’ last five margins of victory at nationals. She is the national champion on uneven bars and the youngest woman on the team at 16.

Kara Eaker
Eaker solidified her spot by placing third at the selection camp with a score that would have been runner-up to Biles on either day at nationals. Eaker was 10th at nationals with scores more than two points lower than what she did on Sunday. She is a medal contender on balance beam. Eaker had the second-highest beam score in qualifying at worlds last year but fell off the apparatus in the final, placing sixth.

Jade Carey
The 2017 World silver medalist on floor and vault. Carey decided last year to try to make the Olympic team on her own individually — a new wrinkle in Olympic qualifying this cycle — which precluded her from competing at the 2018 Worlds. She’s well on her way to clinching an Olympic spot before June’s trials, but first she will be an asset to this team as its second-ranked floor and vault gymnast behind Biles.

MyKayla Skinner
The 2016 Olympic alternate pulled off the rare feat of making a world team while being an NCAA gymnast (at Utah). Skinner returned to elite gymnastics this season for the first time since Rio and impressed Sunday, placing fourth in the all-around. Like Carey, she specializes on floor and vault.

Grace McCallum
McCallum was third in the all-around at nationals and sixth at the selection camp. The 2018 World team member is best known for her floor, too. She was seventh in qualifying at 2018 Worlds on the event but missed the final due to the two-per-country rule.

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Tommie Smith, John Carlos part of U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame class

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Tommie Smith and John Carlos are part of the 2019 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame class that will be inducted later this year.

The sprinters were sent home from the 1968 Mexico City Games after staging a protest by raising their gloved fists on the medals stand. They were long left on the sidelines at the USOPC, but the federation has worked to bring them back inside the family in recent years.

“It sends the message that maybe we had to go back in time and make some conscious decisions about whether we were right or wrong,” Carlos said, according to USA Today. “They’ve come to the conclusion that, ‘Hey man, we were wrong. We were off-base in terms of humanity relative to the human rights era.'”

The class will be inducted at a ceremony in Colorado Springs on Nov. 1. It will be the first class inducted since 2012.

The rest of the class: Candace Cable, Erin Popovich, Chris Waddell (Paralympics), Lisa Leslie (basketball), Nastia Liukin (gymnastics), Misty May-Treanor (beach volleyball), Apolo Anton Ohno (short track speedskating), Dara Torres (swimming), the 1998 U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team), Ron O’Brien (diving coach) and Tim Nugent (special contributor).

After the Hall of Fame essentially stalled out, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland pushed to revive it as part of a federation effort to focus more on athletes.

“We thank them for their impact on sport and society, and for continuing to inspire the next generation of athletes and fans,” Hirshland said.

The induction of Smith and Carlos is long overdue. After being kicked out of the 1968 Olympics for their iconic raised-fist protest on the medals stand, the sprinters were left on the sideline of the official U.S. Olympic movement. Their 2016 visit to the White House, along with USOPC leaders, marked the first official event they’d been part of since their ouster in 1968.

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