Shaun White turns to snowboarder who kept him off 2002 Olympic team

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The man who kept a 15-year-old Shaun White from making the 2002 Olympic team is now helping White’s bid to make the 2018 Olympic team.

White, the 2006 and 2010 Olympic halfpipe champion, has been working with a new (sort of) coach, 2002 Olympic bronze medalist J.J. Thomas, since an October training camp in New Zealand.

“We’re keeping it caj [casual],” White joked in a phone interview ahead of competing at this weekend’s Burton U.S. Open in Vail, Colo. “J.J. might become my full-time guy at the Olympics, or around the Olympics, but for now it’s kind of like a good friend, which is so funny because the guy beat me out of the Olympics when I was 15 for Salt Lake. It’s funny how life goes around.”

In 2002, White and Thomas were both in the running for the fourth and final U.S. Olympic men’s halfpipe berth for the Salt Lake City Winter Games.

Thomas beat White in the fifth and final qualifying competition to keep White from becoming the youngest American to compete in a Winter Olympics since 1992 (and younger than any American to compete in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympics, too).

Thomas went on to earn bronze in Salt Lake City, part of the second-ever U.S. sweep of a Winter Olympic event behind gold medalist Ross Powers and silver medalist Danny Kass.

One week after losing to Thomas in the Olympic qualifier, White earned his first Winter X Games medal, a halfpipe silver behind Thomas.

“He’s been close to unbeatable ever since that whole [2002] season,” Thomas said. “We all kind of knew it, once he gets his man strength. We knew [2002] was the last chance to keep him under control.”

Thomas retired in 2011 or 2012 and started coaching, most notably guiding 2010 Olympian Louie Vito.

Thomas said he and White, who have known each other for nearly 20 years, began chatting as friends while Vito and White trained in New Zealand in October.

“By the second or third day I couldn’t keep my mouth shut,” talking about halfpipe tricks, Thomas said. “I started chirping. It kind of went from there. I started giving him my two cents, and we took it from there.”

In December, White competed for the second time since the Sochi Olympics at the Dew Tour Mountain Championships in Breckenridge, Colo., the same ski resort that hosted that final 2002 Olympic qualifier.

This time, Thomas was there to support White rather than beat him.

White prevailed, beating the Sochi Olympic gold and silver medalists and bouncing back from fourth-place finishes at the 2014 Olympics and 2015 Winter X Games.

“[Dew Tour] was a big statement,” Thomas said. “In my mind, I think he’s back. … When he’s feeling good, everyone else is in trouble.”

White is competing this weekend for the first time since Dew Tour, entered in both halfpipe and slopestyle at the U.S. Open. It’s his first slopestyle competition since he pulled out one day before the discipline’s Olympic debut in Sochi.

White said Wednesday that he wasn’t sure if he would try to qualify for the 2018 Olympic team in slopestyle.

“I kind of wanted to ride [the U.S. Open] and see where the competitors are at,” said White, who went on to finish 31st out of 31 riders in the event Friday, falling on the first feature (a rail) on both of his runs.

As for White’s coach at the last three Olympics, Bud Keene, both said they parted amicably after the Sochi Olympics.

Keene said he and White accomplished all they could together, and the coach wanted to invest more time in grass-roots snowboarding and instructing at his BKPro Camps.

“Working with Shaun was awesome and some of the best years of my life,” Keene said. “At the same time, working with an athlete of that caliber in any sport takes up most of, if not all of your time. There were a lot of things that I still wanted to accomplish as a coach or a mover and shaker in the snowboard world.

“It had nothing to do with what did or did not happen in Sochi.”

White never had an official coach before he linked up with Keene through the U.S. snowboarding team in the run-up to the Torino 2006 Winter Olympics.

Keene came out of retirement to reconnect with White leading up to and during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games. He became White’s full-time coach for the first time leading into Sochi.

“Having someone like Bud around for the Olympic run was nice, it was great to have somebody in my corner, but as a full-time coach it just didn’t really work for me,” White said.

Plus, White planned to take the entire 2014-15 season off from competition, and he and Keene had “two-year chill-out periods” between past Olympics, Keene said.

Keene was at White’s side for a last-minute decision to compete at the 2015 Winter X Games, but that was a one-off deal.

“Bud and I had a great run together, and we did some amazing things,” White said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done, and I consider him a great friend, but there was part of that season of not having a coach [in 2014-15] and not doing those things and not competing to get me back into the mind frame of, man, this is really fun, and this is why I started doing it in the first place. I’m having a good time, and not sitting there beating myself over the head with this trick after trick and like we’ve got to do it and we’ve got to win it. And I put that on myself.”

White said if he does have a coach with him at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics, high-fiving or fist-pounding him before a halfpipe run like Keene used to do, it would probably be Thomas.

White made other additions to his staff since Sochi, including hiring a full-time trainer and physical therapist for the first time.

The physical therapist, Esther Lee, used to work with Venus and Serena Williams.

“So Serena came to my Halloween party, which was pretty dope,” White said. “[Esther] is getting to know this world of snowboarding because it’s completely different from tennis, obviously.”

White plans to compete again after the U.S. Open, heading to China for a competition later this month.

Next year, White plans to expand his Air & Style brand to include halfpipe and slopestyle competitions and at more venues, including Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

That means he also plans to compete in Air & Style for the first time since he bought a majority stake in the company before the Sochi Olympics.

“We were talking on the lift yesterday, the next Olympics start right now,” Thomas said. “It’s time to start planning out where to go and where to practice.”

VIDEO: Shaun White interview on ‘Last Call: Carson Daly’

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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