Brittney Griner returns as Olympic finalist, this time without fear

Brittney Griner
Getty Images

Brittney Griner unfurled from her vacation hammock in Cabo San Lucas last week to fly into snowy Storrs, Conn., and a three-day training camp for U.S. Olympic team finalists.

The towering center was not warmly received by all.

“Got my shot blocked a couple of times out here with the guys,” Griner said Tuesday, laughing, of male practice players, typical partners for elite-level women’s workouts. “It only counts when it happens in a game. This doesn’t count, so it’s cool.”

Griner was then asked the last time she was blocked in a game that does count.

She paused a few seconds, determined her answer, stared down at the reporter and delivered a deep pitch.

“B.G. doesn’t get blocked,” Griner boomed, paused again and then briefly chuckled and grinned.

Griner, at 6 feet, 8 inches, was three inches taller than the next-biggest player among 16 in red Team USA jerseys at the University of Connecticut practice facility.

She is the can’t-miss of the 25 finalists overall to make the U.S. Olympic team, not only for her unmistakable presence but also for her story. The narrative is highlighted by but not limited to her decision four years ago to pull her name out of Olympic team consideration while a Baylor University junior.

Sixteen Rio Olympic hopefuls took part in two-hour practices on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, led by UConn and Olympic coach Geno Auriemma and overseen by USA Basketball officials who will choose the 12-woman team later this year to go to Brazil.

Nine of the 25 finalists missed the camp for various reasons, including injuries and professional seasons overseas. It’s expected to be the final camp before the team is named for the Olympics, where the U.S. will seek its sixth straight gold medal.

Griner wore No. 23 and defended her paint in a one-year-old practice gym, surrounded by a combined 36 UConn banners adorning three of the four walls — 10 NCAA titles, eight Olympic gold medalists, eight NCAA Players of the Year and 10 first-team All-Americans (not counting the NCAA Players of the Year).

She wasn’t intimidated.

“I definitely feel a lot more confident this go-around, at a different place [than 2012],” Griner said at the end of the camp. “I hate sounding cocky, but I just feel like I should be here. It feels right.”

Griner had the chance four years ago to become the first college basketball player to make a U.S. Olympic team since 1988.

On March 30, 2012, USA Basketball announced 11 of the 12 players for the London Olympic team. Griner, leading undefeated Baylor into the Final Four at the time, wasn’t one of the 11. But she was seen as a candidate to be named to the team after Baylor won the NCAA title four days later.

Before the 12th player was named, Griner announced on April 19 her withdrawal from Olympic team consideration due to a family illness (she later said her mother had been diagnosed with lupus two years earlier) and her summer school schedule.

Griner said Tuesday that a “fear of being away from what was going on at home” was on her mind before she withdrew.

“That was a hard decision,” she said. “Sitting there, just missing out, just, like, dang, I wish I was there. That feeling. Hopefully, this time I get a chance.”

Griner watched the U.S.’ 86-50 rout of France in the London Olympic gold-medal game on a computer screen in her bed.

“I’m kind of lazy,” she said. “I lay in the bed a lot.”

Griner joined the WNBA one year later and the U.S. national team for the next major tournament — the World Championship in 2014.

At Worlds in Turkey, Griner started all six games with four former UConn stars — Sue BirdDiana TaurasiMaya Moore and Tina Charles — who were four of the primary starters at the 2012 Olympics. When they huddled, the coach delivering instructions was UConn’s Auriemma.

“The UConn squad,” joked Griner, who wore glasses at Worlds after suffering an eye injury in the WNBA Finals.

Griner ranked second on the team per game in points (12.3) and rebounds (6.2) and blocked two shots per game while averaging 19 minutes per contest (sixth on the team).

She also bumped chests and shared technical fouls in a tense moment with Spain forward Laura Nicholls in the third quarter of the final.

“Somebody stares at me, I’m not going to back down,” said Griner, listed five inches taller than Nicholls.

That’s the type of presence Auriemma stressed on Griner as she’s dug into international basketball — both professionally and for her country — the last two years.

“I’m always after Brittney to, you know, you’ve got be tougher, you’ve got be stronger, you’ve got to be more aggressive, you’ve got to be more assertive, because there’s no give when you’re playing in the Olympics,” Auriemma said. “Sometimes when I think you’re a big kid in women’s basketball, you’re kind of a little bit reluctant to be. Little by little, she’s starting to understand that we need her physical presence to be dominant — to be dominant.”

U.S. national team director Carol Callan said she’s known Griner since she was a dunking Houston high school phenom.

Since London, Callan said she’s had more conversations with Griner than the older national team veterans.

“I’m just thrilled that we got her into the World Championship, and she got some experience there,” Callan said. “Now this [the Olympics] is another step on that stage, but it’s not as big a step because she had that transition World Championship year.”

In September, Griner was suspended for a portion of a USA Basketball European training camp due to a domestic violence arrest.

“Brittney, with her struggles a year ago, she’s, as they all are, valuable to us, and we just like to check in and make sure things are OK all along the way,” Callan said.

At the end of the Connecticut camp, Griner was largely jocular during a five-minute interview. Even when looking ahead to a possible appearance at the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“I heard it’s a really long walk,” Griner said of marching in the Parade of Nations. “I’ve got to get ready for that one. Get some stretch on, some Icy Hot.”

MORE: Auriemma: UConn ‘wouldn’t make it at the Olympics’

Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)

Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

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Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze

Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

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