Why does Vernon Davis love curling? ‘It just grows on you’

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SOCHI, Russia – Sunday provided a unique Olympic experience – watching curling with Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis.

Davis arrived for his second Winter Games as USA Curling’s honorary captain on Friday and has been taking in the U.S. men’s team games at the Ice Cube Curling Center.

He arrived about 20 minutes after bagpipers opened play Sunday night. Davis took a seat about 20 yards from the round-robin play action on an elevated press row. He stood out, of course, wearing a black San Francisco 49ers Foundation jacket, an official Olympic credential and several Olympic pins, including a Guatemalan one. He barely took his eyes off the ice.

“It’s like watching my kids play, watching my son play,” Davis said. “I’m not playing, but I have a relationship with these guys. I want them to win.”

The open-minded Davis learned about curling from a 49ers beat writer before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, gave it a try and took to it.

Within weeks, USA Curling found out and extended the honorary captain offer.

“I’m open to try new things and different things,” Davis said. “I find it fascinating.”

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Davis’ role the past four years has been to promote awareness for a sport that’s gained a cult following at the last four Winter Games, but still has plenty of room to grow in the U.S. (Hawaii became the 45th state to host a curling event in October.)

On Sunday, he played analyst for two reporters as U.S. skip John Shuster and his team faced Sweden. Davis was a natural.

He talked peels, guards and shoe covers for about 45 minutes. He peered across the ice and gestured just like the curlers about positioning.

A telestrator would have come in handy.

“You have to know when to use finesse and when to use strength,” Davis said. “It’s a thinking game. You have to be strategic and come with a good plan to execute to be able to dominate your opponent.”

His passion for curling was evident as he predicted how shots would be played.

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“At first it took me a while to figure out the reason for the sport,” Davis said. “I’m like, ‘Is this really an Olympic sport?’ I needed some answers. I had a lot of questions, technical stuff.

“Once you find out what’s going on in this game, it just grows on you.”

He curls for fun in San Jose, joining “random people” for games. Davis has his own USA Curling jacket with “V. Davis” on the back. The V will keep people from confusing him for U.S. speed skater Shani Davis as they did at the 2010 Olympics.

“The only thing I don’t have is my own stone,” Davis said. “They said they’re going to send me one. They sent me two brooms.”

He sees plenty of parallels between his primary trade and his new hobby.

“[In football] you have to really use your mind, set your opponent up in a way that you can gain leverage and beat him and beat him easily,” Davis said. “That’s the way it is with curling, coming up with a plan, setting up your defense, curling your stone, knowing when to use strength and when not to.”

Davis said his 49ers teammates questioned how serious his commitment was. They asked: “Why curling?”

“There’s no NFL player that promotes curling but me, which is pretty cool,” said Davis, who thinks he can persuade Frank Gore to join him on the ice. “It shows that I’m different and am willing to open up and do something different.”

The Olympics and the Super Bowl, where Davis played last season, are very similar, he said.

“They’re both enormous, everyone’s there, everyone wants to be involved, whether it’s sponsorship or just coming to support,” said Davis, who watched 1996 Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes and 1992 Olympic bobsledder Herschel Walker growing up. “Tons of people there, entertainers, you name it. From a marketing standpoint, it’s huge.”

Davis’ early tour of Sochi included a visit to USA House, a photo in front of the Olympic cauldron and a mob scene when he ate a cafeteria and was swarmed by about 30 people. He also scored a ticket to the U.S.-Russia hockey game Saturday.

“I get a chance to go to [San Jose] Sharks games,” Davis said. “It’s nothing like what I saw yesterday.”

A highlight was talking shop with Shuster on Saturday, learning about how the curlers game plan. Again, it equates to football.

“At the snap of every ball, before I take off the line of scrimmage, I need to really think, I need to really focus,” Davis said. “Their focus is the same focus that I need to have before I release off the line of scrimmage.”

How committed is Davis to raising curling’s awareness?

He wants to go to a third Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, and wouldn’t rule out becoming competitive in the sport once his football career ends.

“The Winter Olympics, when everyone hears curling, they’re thinking … oh, Vernon does that,” he said. “It makes people want to look at it. They want to get involved. They want to see what’s going on. They want to learn more about it. They’re on the Internet, Googling curling, trying to find out about it. Which is a pretty good thing.”

‘In Deep with Ryan Lochte’: Watch clips from Peacock film

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“In Deep with Ryan Lochte” is an hourlong journey of how a rambunctious Florida kid became the second-best swimmer of his generation (perhaps history). Of how he became an Olympic embarrassment. Of how he’s trying to regain respect by becoming the oldest male swimmer in U.S. Olympic history, this time as a father.

“After the Olympics, I read a headline, the worst person in the world,” Lochte says at the start of the film, now available for Peacock Premium subscribers. “Everyone’s been, well, where the hell’s Ryan Lochte?”

Lochte is back living and training in Gainesville, Fla., where coach Gregg Troy molded him into the world’s best swimmer what seems like a lifetime ago. Lochte attended the University of Florida in the mid-2000s and, by the end of the decade, supplanted Michael Phelps as the king of the sport before moving to different coaches.

“A lot of people ask me if Michael Phelps wasn’t swimming in the same era, you would be the Michael Phelps,” Lochte said. “That could be true.”

Phelps retired with an Olympic record 28 medals. Lochte owns 12, tied for the second-most for an American and for a swimmer and the most for any active athlete.

Before he matriculated at UF, Lochte was coached by his father, Steve, a junior college All-American who started the Daytona Beach Swimming club after moving the family from New York when Lochte was 12.

When Lochte earned his first individual gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, TV cameras caught his proud father in tears in the Water Cube crowd. Steve felt fulfilled, years after first telling his son that, to be great, a swimmer needed to break a world record and win an Olympic title.

From there, he started breaking Phelps’ records and beating Phelps in races, through the 2012 Olympics and Phelps’ first retirement.

Everything changed in 2016. Phelps was in the shape of his life for his last Olympics, winning another six medals. Lochte, slowed by a groin injury at Olympic Trials, made the team in one individual event and one relay and placed fifth in the 200m IM in Rio.

After he was done competing in Brazil, Lochte lied about an early morning gas-station incident after a late night of drinking. The spiral led to sponsors dropping him and a 10-month suspension. Then there was the alcohol addiction rehab stint. And the 14-month ban for an IV of an illegal amount of a legal substance, brought on by Lochte posting a photo of the infusion on his social media.

Lochte was planning to come back in full this year. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic halting sports, he must do it in 2021, looking to become, at 36, the oldest U.S. Olympic male swimmer in history.

“Yes, I made a mistake in Rio, and I need to earn the respect fro my fellow swimmers, from Team USA, from everyone in the world,” said Lochte, now married with two kids. “I gotta earn the respect. If I don’t make the Olympic team, they won’t see the change that I’ve made.”

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Wayde van Niekerk took 163 marvelous steps in Rio. One misstep in tag rugby changed everything.

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South African Wayde van Niekerk‘s talent turned out to be sprinting — to become the fastest 400m runner in history at age 24 in 2016 — but when the opportunity came in 2017 to play tag rugby with the nation’s other champion athletes, he did not pass it up.

“As a young boy, wanting to do a bit of sports and playing a bit of rugby with the legends of the country and so on, as you know, the rich history of South African sports,” van Niekerk said in a recent interview. “I got that privilege to rub some shoulders with such greats.”

The likes of not only rugby players, but also cricketer JP Duminy and soccer player Benni McCarthy.

Van Niekerk, two months after taking 400m gold and 200m silver at the 2017 World Track and Field Championships, took his place alongside them on the pitch at the 51,900-capacity Newlands Stadium in Cape Town. The celebrity game was a curtain-raiser for a match between New Zealand’s and South Africa’s national teams.

Fourteen months earlier in the Rio Olympic final, van Niekerk authored the perfect race from lane eight: a 43.03-second lap to break Michael Johnson‘s world record from 1999. He took 163 steps, according to World Athletics. He was expected to spend the rest of the Tokyo Olympic cycle trying to break 43 seconds in the 400m and cementing himself as the world’s best 200m runner, too.

In the rugby match on Oct. 7, 2017, one misstep and a twisted knee changed the trajectory of his career.

“This whole injury was so innocuous,” said van Niekerk’s career-long agent, Peet van Zyl, who was in the stands that day. “He tried to side step a guy, and he just stopped and he sat down. He got up again, and he walked off the field. He just said, ‘Guys, I’m done. I don’t want to play any further. I think I’m a bit injured.’ He walked off the field and all that. It wasn’t the case of him being stretchered off or anything like that. I think we thought maybe he’s just done something. It’s not too bad.”

Van Niekerk said it was quite painful.

“But I think you somewhat try and fight against the thought of it, or kind of denying your reality at that moment, hoping that it’s nothing serious, hoping that it’s something you can bounce back from really quickly, that it’s a bit of a knock, a bit of a twist,” he said. “The reality was totally different to what I was hoping it to be.”

Van Niekerk left the stadium and went across the street to the Sports Science Institute of South Africa for scans. He was with his fiancee, Chesney, whom he married three weeks later, and his stepfather. A doctor delivered the findings: an ACL and meniscus tear.

“He thought, he’ll be fine. It’ll be ready within a few months. and he’ll be able to start running again,” van Zyl said. “I think the actual severity of it sank in a little bit later.”

Van Niekerk sought another opinion, but surgery was inevitable. After his wedding, he flew to Vail, Colorado, for the operation.

“With everything that happened, now I think how silly it was, exposing my body to something like that and then putting my body in somewhat of strain that it has never trained itself [for],” he said. “I mean, rugby is a sport that my body is not conditioned for. That’s where my mind goes toward when asked about it.”

Van Niekerk began breaking the news of such an unusual injury for a sprinter, and through such unusual circumstances, to those around him. The toughest conversation to initiate was with his coach, Ans Botha, whose fame also skyrocketed in Rio.

“First of all, she’s not a fan of us doing any sport, obviously, away from track and field,” van Niekerk said. “Which is right. Which is also the advice I was obviously supposed to follow.”

Van Zyl said Botha was “totally against” van Niekerk participating in the rugby match.

“I wasn’t keen for him to do it, but growing up as a boy in South Africa, rugby’s almost like a religion,” van Zyl said. “She was really, really livid [afterward].”

Still, van Niekerk had time. Three years until the Tokyo Olympics. Two years until the next world championships. Van Niekerk, who became the world’s top sprinter with Usain Bolt‘s retirement, had to learn how to walk again. He was on crutches for about three months.

“There was a lot of doubt that creeped in the process,” he said.

Van Niekerk didn’t race at all in 2018, track and field’s fallow year without an Olympics or biennial world championships.

The rehab went as planned. First in Vail, then in Doha. Van Niekerk trained to return for the South African Championships in April 2019. But the week before the competition, he learned he developed a bone bruise in that right knee.

“He really pushed himself a bit too hard in the week before nationals just to see really what he could do,” van Zyl said. “We decided to pull him out because we can’t afford him to race when he’s not 100 percent.”

Van Niekerk missed the entire outdoor season, including the autumn world championships. He began the 2020 campaign early, with rust-busting meets in February, for a run-up to defending his Olympic title. Van Niekerk felt his speed returned.

“He was really healthy and in the physical and mental condition that he was able to start handling tough races again,” van Zyl said.

Then came the Olympic postponement, which means van Niekerk will go nearly four years between races at global championships.

When he raced in Rio, van Niekerk was an emerging star who just turned 24. The Tokyo Olympics, postponed to 2021, will mark his last global outdoor championships before turning 30.

It’s difficult to predict what he’s capable of. NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon couldn’t think of another top-flight sprinter who returned from an ACL and meniscus tear.

Before the injury, van Niekerk in 2017 ran the fastest 300m in history and lowered personal bests in the 100m and 200m. He remains the only person in history to go sub-10 in the 100m, sub-20 in the 200m and sub-44 in the 400m.

Even without the injury, Boldon believes breaking his own 400m world record was a tall order due in part to the circumstances of Rio: van Niekerk had nobody in front of him in lane eight, and two past Olympic champions on his inside for motivation, even if he could not see them.

“You can look at a bunch of people that ran a PR in the beginning of their careers, like Bolt, or in the middle of their careers, like many other people, and never got back there,” Boldon said (Bolt’s PRs came at age 23; Johnson, the oldest man to win an Olympic sprint title, set that 1999 400m world record at 31). “Sometimes the planets don’t align again.”

After not seeing Botha for two months, van Niekerk and his coach have been reunited on the Bloemfontein track for about a month. The plan this summer: fly to Italy, where it’s warmer than South Africa this time of year, to train and see if there are opportunities to race. Van Zyl said last week they received clearance to travel but still needed to find a flight.

Can van Niekerk return to his pre-injury level? What about the potential mental hurdle of pushing that right knee to the limit in a major race?

Before van Niekerk, the heir to Bolt’s sprint throne was Jamaican Yohan Blake, who hasn’t returned to his record-teasing levels since major hamstring injuries in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, Blake’s coach (also Bolt’s coach) said that Blake was running scared, in fear of getting hurt again. In other sports, athletes faced that psychological obstacle, from Derrick Rose to Lindsey Vonn.

“The mental challenges that come with track and field is part of the process,” van Niekerk said. “Yeah, mentally, there will be additional this time around, thinking of my leg, but it’s now part of, basically, who I am as an athlete. I’ve been someone that accepts my circumstance very easily.”

Van Niekerk compares the comeback to his ascent. He began working with Botha in 2012 as a marketing student at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. He was a 100m and 200m sprinter.

Van Niekerk raced his first senior 400m in 2012, according to World Athletics. He broke the South African record in 2014. He broke the African record in winning the world title in 2015, when he ran himself to such exhaustion that he was stretchered off the track and taken to a hospital as a precaution. He ran another .45 faster in Rio.

But Rio actually wasn’t perfect. Van Niekerk said he was in tears before the 400m final due to hamstring and back injuries.

“I know how it is coming from nothing to achieving greatness,” he said last week. “Being able to break a world record with so much uncomfort that I did go through back then just shows me that I have the ability to continue pushing through the pain.”

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