Russian pair delights home crowd with ‘amazing moment’

1 Comment

SOCHI, Russia – If you walked by the Iceberg Skating Palace Wednesday night, you would be forgiven for thinking there was a World Cup-caliber soccer match going on. A very intense soccer match, at that.

But it was figure skating on this night, pairs figure skating in particular, when the host nation’s best chance for individual winners were taking to the ice and the country stood still for three hours, waiting to see if Russia could re-capture a gold medal that it lost at the Vancouver Games four years ago.

If the nation was immovable, the arena itself was shaking with anticipation as Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov took to the ice, the leaders after the short program. A roar burst through the packed facility that is not heard often in figure skating, a sport that prides itself on grace and power, not fist-pumping and screams.

VIDEO: Russian pair are “superstars”

A host-nation pair had not won a gold medal at the Olympics in 78 years, since Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier climbed to the top of the podium in 1936 at the Games in Germany; World War II was just gaining steam.

The home-ice advantage – the shaking walls and unfurled red, white and blue flags numbering in the hundreds – all waited for the moment to crown new Olympic champions. But first they had to skate.

“It was hard to skate in front of our people,” Trankov told NBCOlympics.com after their win. “We’ve never had an audience like this in our lives. It was amazing moment when we finished our program.”

“The pressure helped us,” Volosozhar added. “It pushed us to skate better.”

VIDEO: “Strength and power” led Russia to silver as well

While the crowd roared for Volosozhar/Trankov, the applause was muted for their German rivals Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who came into the free skate in second place and needed to land their difficult throw triple Axel (as well as skate a clean program) in order to capture the gold.

“We are in Russia and Russian skaters are on the ice,” shrugged Szolkowy after his team fell – literally – to bronze. “It would be the same if we were in Germany and it was German skaters … at least I hope.”

Szolkowy fell early on a jump, not completing a side-by-side with Savchenko. The crowd at that moment let out a sudden yet sure cheer, obviously elated that its gold-medal hopes were assured with a German blip.

“After I came back up to my feet, of course I noticed the crowd was cheering,” said Szolkowy. “And that helped us through the next element.”

VIDEO: Fall derails Szolkowy and Savchenko

It couldn’t carry them through the throw triple Axel, however, an element that – should they have executed it – would have helped them be in contention for silver. Instead, that medal went to another Russian pair, Ksenia Stolbova and Fyodor Klimov.

“At least they clapped after our performance,” Szolkowy added. “You felt the arena was packed and you felt that everyone was here to support at least some of the guys. For me, it was great.”

After winning gold in 12 straight Olympic Games in the pairs events – dating back to Innsbruck 1964 – Russia not only lost that stronghold on first place in Vancouver, it didn’t land one team on the podium. The Sochi Games was seen as a redemption moment for Volosozhar/Trankov, but also the Russian pairs institution as a whole.

“Of course we remember Vancouver, but that was another life,” Trankov said. “Here, it was a situation that was completely changed. We weren’t fighting for just a medal, but for gold.”

VIDEO: Watch Castelli and Shnapir’s “Skyfall” routine

It was fitting that Volosozhar and Trankov were wearing gold on this night: he a buzzed-about pair of golden pants he had donned all season for their “Jesus Christ Superstar” free skate, and she a newly-revealed gold dress.

As she walked by a group of young Russian girls in the hallway backstage, they squealed in delight, Tatyana stopping to wave. On this night, gold-medal winners treated like rock stars in an arena – and a country – that roared with approval.

Caeleb Dressel, after 7 golds in 2017, is on record watch at swim worlds

Getty Images
Leave a comment

For Caeleb Dressel, the comparisons began in earnest two years ago when he matched Michael Phelps‘ record seven gold medals at a single world championships (albeit two were in mixed-gender relays that weren’t on the program when Phelps swam).

They will likely spread at this summer’s worlds, which begin Sunday in Gwangju, South Korea (TV schedule here). And they likely won’t dissipate through the next year and the Tokyo Olympics.

For as Dressel endured new obstacles in and out of the pool last summer, winning two of seven individual races at the two major 2018 meets, he came back this May and June with his fastest times since 2017 Worlds.

“I personally think he’s going to break three world records,” next week, NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said. “I think he’s going to break two for sure, 50m and 100m freestyle. The only one that’s doubtful, to me, would be the 100m fly.”

Dressel, the former prep prodigy who left the sport for five months before joining the University of Florida team in 2014, is expected to swim no less than the same program next week that he did in 2017.

That would mean eight races — the 50m and 100m freestyles and butterflies, the 4x100m free, 4x100m medley and two mixed-gender relays. Two years ago, Dressel won seven of eight, surprisingly taking fourth in the 50m fly (which is not on the Olympic program).

His coach in Gainesville, Gregg Troy, did not rule out adding a ninth event as part of the 4x200m free. However, that would likely give Dressel three swims in one session next Friday and next Saturday, something Phelps never did in his prime when contesting eight events at the Olympics and worlds.

The 2020 question is whether Dressel will try to swim a Phelpsian eight events in Toyko. With no 50m fly and only one mixed-gender relay on the Olympic program, he must add two events to get to eight, perhaps the 200m free and 4x200m free relay.

“I’m not too sure,” Dressel said. “I just want to stay focused on this year. I’ve got the biggest meet of my year coming up in less than a week. I’ll get through this meet, and then me and Troy, we’ll start looking forward next year and maybe add some new events. But I’m not too sure at the moment.”

Dressel turned pro last spring after an unprecedented NCAA career, where his routine included carrying a blue bandana in his mouth on the pool deck. The demands on his time were new, from choosing an agent to signing with a swimwear company.

Troy, who coached Ryan Lochte in his prime to overtake Phelps as the world’s best swimmer in 2011, said he may have overtrained Dressel before last summer’s nationals and Pan Pacific Championships.

After Pan Pacs, Dressel revealed that an earlier motorcycle incident where he was forced off the road by another motorist, but didn’t suffer serious injury, maybe interfered with training.

Now, Dressel chalks that summer to uncharacteristically poor swimming at the wrong time. “I can put as many excuses as I want on that, but that’s really just what it was,” he said. “I mean, it happens to athletes all over the world.

“I’m glad it happened when it did. It can mess with you. It can turn into a downward spiral of self-doubt if you don’t just pick and choose what you want to learn from bad experiences like that. I don’t take it as all too negative. I certainly wouldn’t want it to happen again. Just a bad meet. Move on from it.”

Troy went further, noting the scrutiny on Dressel. Phelps is retired, Lochte suspended (and, at age 34, staving off Father Time), creating an opening for a male U.S. swim star to pair with Katie Ledecky. In 2017, Dressel became that alpha.

“It’s one thing being the guy coming up. It’s another thing being the guy that’s hunted,” Troy said this week. “He’s a little more mature to handle all the outside factors that we had to deal with last summer.”

In 2017, Dressel’s winning times in the 50m and 100m freestyles and the 100m butterfly were a combined .56 shy of three world records. This year, he’s ranked Nos. 1, 3 and 5 in the world in those events.

His 2019 times are a combined .64 faster than his best pre-worlds times in 2017, which is why some believe he’s in for a special week in South Korea. But not everyone buys that logic.

“The meets leading up to it don’t really mean too much,” Dressel demurred.

Dressel didn’t have to peak this year for an NCAA Championships or a nationals (the world team was decided last summer) like in 2017. He had the luxury of putting all his focus the last several months on Gwangju.

“My gut feeling,” Gaines said, “I think he’s going to destroy ’em.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Katie Ledecky faces toughest tests yet at swim worlds

World’s fastest mom leads London Diamond League fields; stream schedule

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jamaican sprinters headline this weekend’s Diamond League meet in London, while most American stars rest up for next week’s USATF Outdoor Championships.

Olympic champions Shelly-Ann Fraser-PryceElaine Thompson and Yohan Blake dot the two-day meet at the 2012 Olympic Stadium. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage each morning at 8:15 and 8:50 ET.

Fraser-Pryce and Thompson, who combined to win the last three Olympic 100m and share the fastest time in the world this year of 10.73 seconds, are in separate events in London.

Fraser-Pryce goes in the 100m against the fastest women from Europe and Africa. Thompson faces a less daunting field in the 200m; she’s the only entrant who has run sub-22.3. They could both double up in the 100m and 200m at the world championships in Doha in two months.

As for Blake, he races after being called out by former training partner Usain Bolt for leaving their shared coach of several years, Glen Mills. Blake is the second-fastest man in history but hasn’t been within two tenths of his personal-best 9.69 in nearly seven years.

Here are the London entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

Saturday
8:15 a.m. — Men’s Long Jump
9:04 — Women’s 400m
9:09 — Women’s Pole Vault
9:13 — Men’s 5000m
9:20 — Women’s Javelin
9:40 — Men’s Triple Jump
9:55 — Men’s 800m
10:06 — Women’s 200m
10:17 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
10:29 — Women’s 100m Hurdles
10:39 — Women’s 1500m
10:50 — Men’s 100m

Sunday
8:50 a.m. — Men’s Discus
9:04 — Men’s 400m
9:20 — Men’s High Jump
9:35 — Women’s 800m
9:40 — Women’s Long Jump
9:45 — Men’s Mile
9:56 — Women’s 5000m
10:19 — Men’s 200m
10:29 — Women’s 400m Hurdles
10:39 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
10:50 — Women’s 100m

Here are five events to watch:

Men’s 800m — Saturday, 9:55 a.m. ET
Perhaps the greatest race in history came on this track at the 2012 London Games — the men’s 800m final won by David Rudisha in a world record. Botswana’s Nijel Amos took silver that day at age 18 to become the fourth-fastest man ever. Amos has not earned a global championship medal since, but last Friday he clocked his fastest 800m since that evening in London. Here, he faces the next-fastest man in the world this year, Kenyan Ferguson Rotich, and the fastest man of 2017 and 2018, Kenyan Emmanuel Korir.

Men’s 100m — Saturday, 10:50 a.m. ET
Blake hasn’t raced a Diamond League this season and last won on this stage in 2017. Here, he gets an opportunity with the world’s fastest men — all Americans — sitting out. Andre De Grasse, who like Blake has been slowed by leg injuries, is the other marquee name, but he hasn’t broken 10 seconds in 13 tries since taking bronze in Rio, according to Tilastopaja.org.

Men’s Discus — Sunday, 8:50 a.m. ET
Perhaps the deepest field of the meet with the Olympic and world gold and silver medalists and the top three in the world this year. The favorite has to be Swede Daniel Ståhl, who takes up nine of the first 11 spots on the 2019 top list. Ståhl broke the Swedish record three weeks ago with the world’s top throw in 11 years.

Women’s 5000m — Sunday, 9:56 a.m. ET
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan follows up her world record in the mile (4:12.33) from the last Diamond League stop in Monaco. Hassan was primarily a 1500m runner through the Rio Olympics (where she was fifth) but since added 5000m work. She faces the ultimate test here in world champion Hellen Obiri, the only woman who has been faster over the last two years.

Women’s 100m — Sunday, 10:50 a.m. ET
Fraser-Pryce owns fond memories at this track, though she missed the 2017 World Championships in London due to childbirth. She won her second Olympic 100m in London in 2012 and scored her first post-baby Diamond League win here last summer. Fraser-Pryce has a chance to become the third woman to break 10.75 three times in one year, joining Florence Griffith-Joyner (1988) and Marion Jones (1998). She could get the necessary push from Ivorian Marie-Josee Ta Lou and Brit Dina Asher-Smith, the fastest in the world in 2018.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Olympic champions, world-record holder to miss USATF Outdoor Champs