Larry Bird, Kim Zmeskal remember Olympic bus meeting in Barcelona

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INDIANAPOLIS — As the nation’s best gymnasts compete here with the Rio Olympics in the back (or front) of their minds, an Olympic gold medalist from another sport expects to peek into the action.

The Indiana Pacers team president said he planned to emerge from his downstairs office to take in the P&G Championships at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

It would not be Larry Bird’s first encounter with gymnastics.

Bird was of course part of the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team — the Dream Team — in Barcelona.

There, he triggered a meeting among the basketball giants and the shortest girls on the U.S. delegation in Spain.

“We went over to [the athletes’ village to] get, I think, our credentials,” Bird said while leaning back in his office and holding a soda can on Thursday morning. “There was a lot people around, but these little girls were by our bus. I just went on the bus and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to let these kids come on here.’

“They brought them all on, and they did what they had to do and they left.”

Four of the six members of the 1992 U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team came aboard, according to reports from 1992.

“They were nervous,” Bird said. “All of us had been in the league, and we’re older, but the guys were excited about them coming on there. I know that.

“I think the guys probably enjoyed that as much as anything, of everyone they met, because [the gymnasts] are so little and so perfect. They work so hard. Like we always said, they’re a lot tougher than we can ever be. They’re tough athletes. They put their body through so much. They do so much to be perfectionists. To be a gymnast, you just can’t do it an hour a day.”

Bird would know. He went to Indiana State at the same time as gymnast Kurt Thomas, a 1976 Olympian who won six medals at the 1979 World Championships. The two are reportedly friends.

One of the four U.S. gymnasts who boarded the bus that day was Kim Zmeskal, who was 16 then and is now also in Indianapolis this week as a coach.

Zmeskal clearly remembered meeting the Dream Team.

“A group of us were walking from the cafeteria back, and we had heard that the Dream Team was coming by to do the credentialing,” she said Wednesday. “We knew where the buses were parked, so we immediately ran over to go check that out. We were kind of just a part of a big mix of people. Obviously, we went over to that direction, so we figured that’s where all the action was happening. We’re just kind of standing there outside the bus, and someone had come out of the bus and said, ‘Hey, ladies on the gymnastics team, Larry Bird has asked if you guys would come in.’ We were freaking out, went up on the bus and was able to meet the whole team. It was pretty spectacular.”

Zmeskal said the experience was like meeting larger-than-life, fictional characters.

“I joke saying thank goodness we were on a bus, that they were sitting,” said Zmeskal, who was listed at 4 feet, 7 inches, and 80 pounds in 1992 articles. “I was actually two inches shorter than I am now.”

Two of Zmeskal’s gymnastics teammates, Wendy Bruce and Shannon Miller, missed the experience. Though at least Miller met Dream Team members later in the Games.

Even though the basketball players were sitting, Zmeskal’s head was level with center Patrick Ewing’s elbow, according to a St. Petersburg Times report in 1992.

“We walked over there, and Michael Jordan said, “Hi, I’m Michael,’” Zmeskal reportedly gushed then. “Like we didn’t know.”

Shannon Miller on meeting the Dream Team, more Olympic memories

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Wendy Bruce missed meeting the Dream Team because she was swimming.

Richard Callaghan, figure skating coach, banned for life

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Richard Callaghan, a figure skating coach best known for helping Tara Lipinski earn 1998 Olympic gold, was ruled permanently ineligible for violations including sexual misconduct involving a minor.

Callaghan can still appeal the sexual misconduct violation, according to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a watchdog for U.S. Olympic sports organizations that updated Callaghan’s status Wednesday.

He was first suspended in March 2018 pending an investigation into allegations first made against him more than 20 years ago.

Earlier this month, another former skater, Adam Schmidt, said in a lawsuit that he was sexually molested as a teenager by Callaghan starting in 1999.

Callaghan was previously accused of sexual misconduct in April 1999 by Craig Maurizi, one of his former students and later an assistant to him in San Diego and Detroit.

Maurizi told The New York Times that Callaghan had engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with him beginning when he was 15 years old. The alleged misconduct had begun nearly 20 years earlier. Callaghan denied the allegations.

In March 2018, Callaghan told ABC News: “That’s 19 or 20 years ago. I have nothing to say.”

Maurizi’s previous grievance against Callaghan with the U.S. Figure Skating Association, the precursor to U.S. Figure Skating, was dismissed on procedural grounds.

He was Callaghan’s assistant at the Detroit Skating Club until they split after Lipinski turned pro, left Callaghan and decided to train with Maurizi.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Pita Taufatofua, Tonga flag bearer, finishes last in kayak debut

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Pita Taufatofua, the Tonga Olympic flag bearer who went viral in Rio and PyeongChang, began his quest to make a third straight Olympics in a third different sport with a last-place finish in his opening-round heat at the world sprint kayak championships in Hungary on Wednesday.

The start of the heat appeared delayed as Taufatofua struggled to get his kayak into position in the water. He was left at the start as the other six kayakers raced out and finished between 33 and 40 seconds. Taufatofua took 58.19 seconds, the slowest of 53 finishers among seven total heats.

“Well that was slightly better than the first time I competed in Taekwondo or skiing,” was tweeted from Taufatofua’s account. “Would have liked to start facing the right way but that’s life.”

Taufatofua, 35, was the oldest athlete in the heat by nearly a decade. He is also entered in doubles races with Tonga canoe federation president Malakai Ahokava with heats Thursday and Friday.

Taufatofua hopes to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in taekwondo, where he competed in Rio, and in sprint kayak.

But he hasn’t competed in taekwondo in three years and just started training kayak this spring. At worlds, Taufatofua told the BBC he is still having trouble staying afloat in the water.

Taufatofua said in announcing the new sport in April that it would be “largely impossible” to qualify for Tokyo. He could be the first athlete to compete in a different sport in three straight Olympics (Summer and Winter) since the Winter Games began in 1924, according to the OlyMADMen.

“It’s certainly going to be the greatest challenge that I’ve ever had to embark on,” he said then.

Taufatofua’s results at worlds this week has little bearing on his Olympic qualifying prospects. Rather, he just needed to compete in Hungary to stay eligible for the Olympics.

The key will be an Oceania qualifying event early next year, where one Olympic bid is available. He will likely have to beat the best kayakers from Australia and New Zealand to grab it. Australian Stephen Bird placed eighth at the Rio Olympics and 11th at the 2018 World Championships.

If Taufatofua fails, he could receive a special tripartite invitation sometimes offered to smaller nations like Tonga.

Taufatofua became a social-media celebrity by marching into the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony shirtless and oiled up. He then lost in the first round via mercy rule in his taekwondo tournament.

He made a quixotic bid for the PyeongChang Winter Games in cross-country skiing — and accomplished the feat, barely, in a sport that has lenient qualifying requirements for nations with a lack of Winter Games depth.

Taufatofua finished 114th out of 116 in his 15km Olympic cross-country skiing race, nearly 23 minutes behind the winner.

If Taufatofua is able to carry the Tongan flag at a third Opening Ceremony, he will definitely be shirtless again, in a similar outfit to what he wore in Rio and PyeongChang, he said last year.

MORE: Five-time Olympic kayak medalist banned four years

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