Catching up with Blaine Wilson

Blaine Wilson
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This three-time Olympic men’s gymnast once described himself as a cross between Dennis Rodman and Michael Jordan.

Blaine Wilson had a one-of-a-kind personality and a performance record rivaled by few others in USA Gymnastics history. The pierced, tattooed and motorcycle-riding Ohioan preceded the Hamm twins, Jonathan Horton and Danell Leyva and John Orozco as the rock of U.S. men’s gymnastics.

He won five straight U.S. all-around titles from 1996 through 2000, a record he shares with George Wheeler. The 1936 Olympian Wheeler won his titles when the floor exercise was called “calisthenics” and ended his career to go into the Navy for World War II.

Back to Wilson. He competed in three Olympics, winning his sole medal in his final Games in 2004 as part of the U.S. team that bagged silver.

OlympicTalk recently caught up with Wilson to reflect on his career and discuss his current work.

OlympicTalk: Let’s talk about your Olympic experiences, beginning with 1996 [the U.S. men finished fifth; Wilson 10th in the all-around].

Wilson: I was young [21 years old] and just in awe of everything. You don’t realize how much of a big stage you’re on. I didn’t realize it until we actually walked out for our first day of competition. The curtain swung open, and 45,000 people in the Georgia Dome were chanting U-S-A. Wet behind the ears is all I can say.

OlympicTalk: In 2000, you were the leader, but it’s been said you overtrained [U.S. men were fifth; Wilson sixth in the all-around].

Wilson: I think we did overtrain just a little bit too much. I expected a whole lot of things to happen and was pushing to make things happen. I got a lot of media. I think I let a lot of that get to me. Instead of focusing on what I had to do, I believed it had already happened. Before I knew it, the Games were over. I should have done so many different things.

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OlympicTalk: In 2004, you finally got that Olympic silver medal as a team veteran.

Wilson: I was only fortunate enough to compete in two of six events in the team final — parallel bars and still rings [solid 9.712 and 9.637 scores]. I would have liked to do the all-around, but we had guys much more equipped to get higher scores [Paul Hamm and Brett McClure].

I remember getting to the last event, and I had to watch my teammates on high bar. Something I had worked my entire career for, a team medal, knowing it was completely out of my hands, I couldn’t watch it. I sat with my back to the high bar. All I did was cheer based on how my teammates were reacting. It made me sick and happy at the same time.

OlympicTalk: Who was your favorite fellow competitor?

Wilson: My idol was John Roethlisberger [1992, 1996, 2000 Olympian]. Still to this day. He taught me a lot about being passionate and wearing the American flag on your heart.

Internationally, I looked forward to competing against everybody. I hated competing against Russia, but I respected them. China, they were always smiling at us, unless things were really going south and they were sour. Japan never really showed any emotion.

OlympicTalk: What about competing against Russian legend Aleksey Nemov [12-time Olympic medalist]?

Wilson: If you didn’t know him, people would say he’s a real jerk. But I got a chance to go on tour with him, and he was a whole different cat. Between him and [Belarusian] Ivan Ivankov and others, there were a lot of guys I had the utmost respect for. Watching Nemov in his heyday, there was nobody touching him. He was phenomenal.

source: Getty Images
Blaine Wilson hugs Paul Hamm after the U.S. clinched team silver at the 2004 Olympics, Wilson’s first and only Olympic medal. (Getty Images)

OlympicTalk: What was it like being a part of U.S. men’s gymnastics as it evolved into one of the best teams in the world?

Wilson: I’ll never forget watching shows [early in my career] calling it the “dark days of U.S. men’s gymnastics” [laughs]. I was fortunate to come up in that time.

I loved being in the limelight. I loved being on TV, being different. It helped USA Gymnastics. You either liked me or you hated me.

We were close in 1996 and close with some problems in 2000 and then finally got it done in 2004. The only thing that really got to me was that John Roethlisberger retired before I could win a medal with him.

OlympicTalk: What are you doing now?

Wilson: I’m part owner of Integrity Gymnastics in Plain City, Ohio, 20 minutes outside of Columbus [where Wilson attended Ohio State].

I enjoy watching the kids attain a goal or get a new skill, do well at meets. It’s almost worse for me now [than when I competed] because I’m watching and I can’t control what they do at meets.

I also have three kids and a lovely wife [1996 U.S. Olympic rhythmic gymnast Aliane Baquerot]. Jackson, my 4-year-old, takes some gymnastics classes. My younger son, Bodhi, will be 2 on June 1st. He’s definitely not a gymnast. My daughter, Wakaya, is 11 and 5 feet tall, so gymnastics is definitely out of the question. Maybe golf or basketball.

OlympicTalk: Tell me about a current U.S. senior gymnast you like.

Wilson: I love Sam Mikulak. I was coaching the girls at SCATS Gymnastics [in Southern California] when he was there, in 2006 I think. I had a chance to help him out.

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OlympicTalk: What would you like to see changed in gymnastics?

Wilson: I’m really not a fan of the open-ended scoring. It’s terrible for the fan base. You have a lot of people watching the sport who don’t have a dang clue what’s going on. The 10.0 system is the way to go, and you have to find a way to bring it back.

Also the state of men’s college gymnastics. The fact is we only have 16 or 17 teams left. Temple should be ashamed of themselves for dropping the men’s program. Cal was in danger of losing their program. Air Force is in danger of losing their program, and there’s nothing they can do about it because it’s a government program.

If you look at the amount of guys on any U.S. Olympic Team, the majority of people came from college programs. I know USA Gymnastics is doing as much as they can, but that’s only one avenue.

OlympicTalk: Where do you keep the Olympic silver medal?

Wilson: It’s downstairs on a shelf with the rest of my wife’s memorabilia from the 1996 Games.

U.S. women sweep Pacific Rim team, all-around titles

Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara
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Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)
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There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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