Lindsey Vonn

Lindsey Vonn talks risk, fear and her future in skiing

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Lindsey Vonn remembered being there for the crash, on March 22, 2001, at Montana’s Big Mountain.

Vonn, then 16 and known as Lindsey Kildow, was embarking on a career that would include three (she hopes four) Olympics, four World Cup overall titles and the record for most World Cup victories by a woman.

At the 2001 U.S. Championships, the most talked-about racer was a man 24 years older than Vonn. Bill Johnson, the 1984 Olympic downhill champion, was trying to make the 2002 Olympic team after 14 years away from ski racing.

Johnson crashed in a training run at Big Mountain that left him with a traumatic brain injury after awakening from a three-week coma.

“I haven’t thought about it in a long time, since you just mentioned it,” Vonn said from St. Moritz, Switzerland, via phone Tuesday. “None of us really knew what was going on. We didn’t know how severe the injury was. None of us saw the crash. But I didn’t really connect it with my life, because he was coming back and quite a bit older than I was. My thought process never drifted into, well, that could be me. More so when I see girls my age crashing.”

Crashes, fear and risk are parts of ski racing. Vonn knew that well before she tore the MCL and ACL in her right knee and suffered a fractured tibial plateau on Feb. 5, 2013 at the World Championships in Schladming, Austria. Her injury history is outlined here.

She persevered through accelerated rehabilitation that spring and summer. Then, she crashed again on Nov. 19, 2013, in training in Copper Mountain, Colo., and eventually needed another surgery on Jan. 14, 2014.

“I had to take things a lot slower [the second time],” Vonn said. “The pain was greater.”

Vonn missed the Sochi Olympics, and a chance to defend her Olympic downhill title, and faced more grueling rehab.

“Lindsey Vonn: The Climb,” a one-hour documentary chronicling her comeback to the top of her sport, debuts on NBC on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET.

Vonn has won four times in eight races this season, culminating in breaking the women’s Alpine skiing World Cup victories record set 35 years ago. Vonn, 30, has won 63 races going into this weekend’s competition in St. Moritz and the World Championships in Vail/Beaver Creek, Colo., in two weeks.

“Breaking the record has much more meaning to me now than it would have two years ago because I’ve been through so much,” said Vonn, who spoke to the woman whose record she broke, Annemarie Moser-Proell, on the phone, in fluent German, from a Red Bull-owned Salzburg Airport hangar on primetime Austrian TV on Monday night, after winning a super-G in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, that afternoon.

Vonn repeated Tuesday that she would have probably retired after the 2015 World Championships had she been able to defend her downhill gold in Sochi.

“Probably 90 percent likely,” Vonn said. “Everything happens for a reason, I’ve always believed that. … We’ll see what it means by the end of my career.”

But now, she will try to become the oldest Olympic women’s Alpine skiing medalist in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, when she will be 33.

Risk will accompany her. Dr. James Andrews, who performed the January 2014 surgery on Vonn, still checks in.

“He calls me his daredevil,” Vonn said.

There are times when the knee swells, gets sore or just plain hurts, when she skis over bumpy terrain or catches an edge on her ski. She has to warm up her knee every morning before she skis, and she still competes with a knee brace.

“I’ll probably always have to do that,” Vonn said.

Vonn said she must now weigh risk when competition conditions are not ideal, such as in Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria, two weeks ago, when races were ultimately canceled due to heavy snow.

“That would never have crossed my mind before these last two surgeries,” Vonn said. “If anything else happens, I’m pretty much done. That’s the risk I’m willing to take.”

What about when she’s at the starting gate, wiggling her hands around her ski pole handles seconds before she starts speeding down a mountain at 70 miles per hour? Does she fear anything then?

“Nothing,” Vonn said. “Once I make the decision to race, there’s no uncertainty. Zero fear or hesitation.”

Two years ago, the biggest storylines about Vonn were her competition with Slovenia’s Tina Maze to be the world’s best skier and whether she would be allowed to race against men.

It’s different now. Maze, who could retire after this season, is the only skier in the world who can win races in all five Alpine disciplines. Vonn may never have that kind of versatility again, but she has proven in just eight comeback races that she’s already the world’s best speed racer (downhill and super-G) again.

“I picked up right where I left off,” Vonn said Tuesday. “Maybe even a little bit better and a little bit stronger than I was before.”

Most, if not all, of Vonn’s peers are awed. That includes six-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller, the greatest U.S. men’s skier in history.

“She’s just physically more dominant than any of the other girls of this era,” Miller said, according to the Denver Post. “The way she skied speed [downhill and super-G], she was able to put the edge in the snow and do things that changed the sport. The records are fine, but I would say she really changed the way women approached this sport. That’s a great legacy to have.”

Vonn, an ardent Roger Federer fan, equated it to Venus and Serena Williams.

“They changed the sport of tennis by the pure power that they brought,” Vonn said. “They just played to the best of their ability. It wasn’t something that they tried to be different. It was just who they were and who they naturally became over time. They got stronger and just started dominating.”

What will dictate how much longer Vonn competes?

She said she will continue past the 2018 Olympic season if she was close to the overall World Cup record of 86 wins held by retired Swede Ingemar Stenmark. But records aren’t the decider.

“If I’m in too much pain, or if my knee breaks down,” Vonn said. “If I’m not enjoying it anymore. If I’m not able to ski fast, in a way that I can push myself, in a way that I can feel happy and proud of myself, then no, that’s when I will pull the plug and stop my career. I think having these last two years gives me a lot more motivation to continue as long as I can.”

Vonn eyes 3 or 4 events at World Championships

Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

MORE: Wyomia Tyus’ Olympic protest resonates 52 years later

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NBA participation in Tokyo Olympics could be limited, Adam Silver says

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Tokyo Olympics’ effect on the league’s schedule planning for 2021 is unclear, but that it’s possible that Olympic participation may be limited.

“There are a lot of great U.S. players, and we may be up against a scenario where the top 15 NBA players aren’t competing in the Olympics, but other great American players are competing,” Silver told Bob Costas on CNN on Tuesday. “Obviously, there are many NBA players who participate in the Olympics from other countries. That’s something we’re going to have to work through. I just say, lastly, these are highly unique and unusual circumstances. I think, just as it is for the Olympic movement, it is for us as well. We’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those two competing considerations.”

Silver said his best guess is that the next NBA season starts in January with a goal of a standard 82-game schedule and playoffs. A schedule has not been released.

In normal NBA seasons that start in late October, the regular season runs to mid-April and the NBA Finals into mid-June.

The Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony is July 23. If an NBA season is pushed back two or three months to a January start, and the schedule is not condensed, the Olympics would start while the NBA playoffs are happening.

The current NBA season is in the conference finals phase in an Orlando-area bubble after a four-month stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a factor in our planning,” Silver said of the Olympics. “It would be tough for us to make a decision in January based on the Olympics happening on schedule when that’s so unclear.”

The NBA has participated in every Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Monday was the 29th anniversary of the announcement of the first 10 members of the original Dream Team on an NBC selection show (hosted by Costas).

Before the NBA era, U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams consisted of college players.

MORE: When Michael Jordan lost in wheelchair basketball to Paralympian

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