Jesse Owens "Race"
Focus Films

Stephan James discusses playing Jesse Owens in ‘Race’

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NEW YORK — Stephan James feels like a member of the Owens family after submerging himself in research, training and learning from the daughters and granddaughters of legendary Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens for the film “Race,” which hits theaters Feb. 19.

James, a 22-year-old Canadian, said he spent two months doing track workouts at Georgia Tech ahead of film shooting, partially at the Berlin Olympic Stadium, site of the 1936 Games where Owens won four gold medals in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

James also worked with Hank Palmer, a Canadian Olympic 4x100m relay sprinter at Beijing 2008.

James sat down with OlympicTalk at the NYRR Millrose Games Trials at The Armory in Manhattan on Wednesday afternoon.

OlympicTalk: What was your initial reaction when you found out you would be playing Jesse Owens?

JAMES: I was speechless, just like I am every time I’m reminded that I’ve done it. When you get a call to audition to play one of the greatest athletes ever, somebody who’s a hero the world over, it’s an incredible opportunity. Obviously, I was extremely elated.

OlympicTalk: How did you research for the role?

JAMES: You look at 1936 and that whole time, there’s not a whole lot documented from Jesse, or from that time. Luckily enough, a filmmaker named Leni Riefenstahl made a film about the 1936 Games called “Olympia”. So I was able to use that, sort of, in my research and some other clips I had seen of Jesse speaking in interviews after his races, so I could get a feel of the type of person he was, how he spoke, how he carried himself. Like I said, 1936, there’s only so many YouTube clips you can find on his running. But I took all that I could, along with my training regimen.

Leni Riefenstahl was fascinated with Jesse, so he was prominently featured over the course of the film.

Editor’s Note: Angelina Jolie also made use of “Olympia” in researching for “Unbroken,” the 2014 film on 1936 U.S. Olympic runner Louis Zamperini. More from OlympicTalk’s interview with Jolie here.

OlympicTalk: What interaction did you have with Owens’ family?

JAMES: [Owens’ daughters] have been instrumental in the whole film-making process, pretty much from the beginning. They were helpful in telling me about the type of man their father was, what type of father he was, so I could get a feel for him. We spent a lot of time together. They hung out on set when we were out in Berlin shooting. Even now, we still hang out. We’re like a family. I’m like a part of the Owens family, honorary member.

OlympicTalk: What was the most interesting part of filming in Berlin?

JAMES: Just to go there, honestly, and see how many people still remembered and loved Jesse. You go into the Olympic Stadium, which is still there, and you go onto the floor, and they’ve got a lounge called the Jesse Owens Lounge on the third floor, and his photos are just all over the place. The street that the stadium is on is called Jesse Owens Allee.

OlympicTalk: Did you have any background in track and field?

JAMES: Not really, no. I’ve been an athlete, basketball and volleyball. I’m familiar with athletics, but track and field is something I had to really dig my feet into and then learn how to do things like how Jesse did it specifically, a whole ‘nother ball game.

OlympicTalk: What were Owens’ daughters reactions after they saw the film?

JAMES: They were lovely and gracious, and they told me that they really admired the way that I portrayed their father. To me, that means the most. Jesse’s obviously not here to see the film, but to have his daughters there and have them react and accept the film the way they have, it’s been wonderful.

OlympicTalk: You’re obviously an Owens expert now. Tell me something track fans might not know about him.

JAMES: Jesse’s so much bigger than an athlete. I tell people that all the time. When I first took on this role, I approached it from a really human perspective, because I wanted to show people the type of humanitarian he was. Very, very loving human being and a person who always treated people as he wanted to be treated. Other than that, he loved to dress. He was very fashionable. He loved to get dressed up and to smell good. That’s something I learned from his daughters.

MORE: Watch full ‘Race’ trailer

Loena Hendrickx on the rise, making Grand Prix debut at Skate America

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Belgian teenager Loena Hendrickx made her Winter Olympic debut in PyeongChang, and began her short program with the aim of becoming the first from her country to qualify for a ladies’ singles free skate since Katrien Pauwels in 1988.

Fresh off a 14th place finish in the men’s event, brother Jorik sat in the stands. He looked away as the music – a cool arrangement of Madonna’s “Frozen” – began, and covered his eyes as the 18-year-old set up for a planned triple lutz, triple toe combination.

Eight years younger than her two-time Olympian elder brother, Hendrickx knew the feeling.

“I get nervous when he competes, too,” she explained after winning a bronze medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy, an ISU Challenger Series event. “I might be even more nervous watching him than when I have to skate myself, because I don’t know how he’s feeling on the ice, and I can’t control his skate.”

She ultimately landed the combination – albeit under-rotated – and bested Pauwels’ result from Calgary by one place, finishing 16th overall. Even stronger skates were to come at the world championships in Milan, where she beat reigning Olympic champion Alina Zagitova in the free skate to earn a Top 10 total score and qualify for her first-ever Grand Prix events in the upcoming season.

“I’m very excited because that’s something you wish for. The first one is immediately in Skate America, so it’s very exciting. I’ve never been to the States before!”

Jorik was initially scheduled to skate alongside his sister at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Wash., but opted to withdraw and spend the start of the season working with other athletes, including Loena.

“He is working with me sometimes. I really can learn a lot from him because he has the knowledge and experience. I think he can teach me a lot.”

While the siblings work primarily with coach Carine Herrygers, Jorik assisted Loena in selecting her “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” short program music, another ’90s hit by Céline Dion.

“I really liked my program [“The Prayer” by Dion and Josh Groban] from two years ago, and so I think I chose the same style. I researched more of her music, and it was my brother who found this song. I didn’t like it at the beginning because I had another song I liked more.

“In the end, Jorik convinced me to take this one because it’s more powerful and I can skate better to powerful music.”

Hendrickx debuted the program in Oberstdorf, earning personal best scores to make the podium alongside Zagitova and Mai Mihara. More importantly, she achieved her pre-season goal of landing the lutz-toe combination – with positive Grades of Execution – in both phases of the competition.

While most of her competitors made waves as juniors, the Belgian struggled with multiple injuries – a 2016 stress fracture in her back, later a bone bruise on her landing knee – that kept her from eliciting the buzz many top skaters get on the Junior Grand Prix.

“After I healed, I was very happy to begin building back up again. For a long time, I worked on my fitness to make my back and body stronger. That made my jumps stronger and helped me perform better, more consistently.”

In a field that includes two-time world medalist Satoko Miyahara and U.S. national champion Bradie Tennell, Hendrickx heads to Skate America armed with a competitive technical arsenal, and a dose of inspiration imparted by her brother on the ice.

“In Belgium, there are fewer opportunities to be successful when you’re younger because it’s very difficult to combine skating with school. Jorik taught me that you never have to give up on your dreams. If you work hard, you’ll see where you can go.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Chris Mazdzer adds doubles luge after Olympic medal

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Olympic luge silver medalist Chris Mazdzer is doubling up this winter.

Mazdzer has decided to compete in both singles and doubles in World Cup events, in large part because USA Luge didn’t have another option to partner with Olympic doubles veteran Jayson Terdiman.

If the Americans didn’t have a senior doubles team ready for the World Cup, they wouldn’t have been able to compete in team relays this winter — and Terdiman effectively would have been forced into retirement.

“It’s a lot of motivation,” Mazdzer said Monday from Lake Placid, New York, where he and Terdiman took five training runs together at Mount Van Hoevenberg on the season’s opening day for sliding at USA Luge’s home track. “I like when people are like, ‘Chris, you won’t be able to do that.’ This hasn’t been done successfully in two-plus decades. But why not now?”

The move also brings Mazdzer back to his roots. He and Terdiman were successful as a junior team, medaling twice at world championships and winning USA Luge’s team-of-the-year honors for the 2007-08 season.

“It could be something,” Terdiman said. “We’re hoping we’re able to find that magic. It’s asking a lot, but we have a lot of confidence in our own abilities.”

Mazdzer became the first American men’s singles luge athlete to win an Olympic medal, grabbing the silver at the PyeongChang Games earlier this year. Terdiman is a two-time Olympian in doubles, going in 2014 with Christian Niccum and this year with Matt Mortensen. Niccum retired after the 2014 Olympics, and Mortensen retired after PyeongChang.

So Terdiman spent the summer without a partner, and a couple of hours before former USA Luge teammate Megan Sweeney’s wedding, he and Mazdzer got together for coffee.

“I thought about retirement a lot this summer,” Terdiman said. “It was going to be forced if I didn’t have anybody to slide with, and that was a very real thing until Chris and I sat down a couple hours before Megan’s wedding. We talked about him doing both. The confidence he has in himself is very large. He’s going to give it a shot and we’ll see what happens.”

Mazdzer understands that this means he will have a most unusual winter.

There are nine World Cup races this season, and six of those call for the men’s race and the doubles race to be contested on the same day — so Mazdzer will be logging very long hours at the track. There also were International Luge Federation rules to consider about training runs; sliders typically get five or six runs at a track before a World Cup, and Mazdzer will be permitted to get the full allotment of training in both disciplines.

“I’m really pumped about this,” Mazdzer said. “Having the team relay is a huge part of being on the U.S. team. I want to see the U.S. win team relays. I think we’re capable. We have a fantastic team and if doubles works out, we’ve got a shot.”

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