Alise Post
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Alise Post, Sam Willoughby take tear-filled road to Rio together

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Alise Post and Sam Willoughby wouldn’t be the first engaged couple to compete in the same Olympics, but the BMX riders’ story is more unusual and emotional than others.

They are separated by nationality. Post is American. Willoughby is Australian. They are both medal contenders as the Rio Olympics approach.

They met in 2008, in person at a customary jersey swap when Post wanted to leave the World Championships with an Australian uniform, and virtually via MySpace messages.

“I always had a crush on Alise,” Willoughby, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist, said in a recent phone interview. “I would write her almost like a fan. She didn’t reply that often, but I got a few replies.”

Willoughby, then 16, and Post, then 17, both promising junior riders, fell shy of the age minimum of 19 to compete in BMX’s debut at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Willoughby, an Adelaide native who had given up Australian rules football to concentrate on BMX at age 15, decided in late 2008 to move to the U.S. as he pursued a professional career.

He stayed that first year with Post’s parents in St. Cloud, Minn., saw snow for the first time (“I tried to make a snowman, couldn’t do much”) and began dating Post.

Post grew up a state champion gymnast writing school reports on Nadia Comaneci but also picked up BMX at age 6. One of her two older brothers urged her into it, looking to toughen her up. She eventually embraced it and earned a nickname — “The Beast” — that sounded close to her first name.

Both Post and Willoughby qualified for the London 2012 Games. They raced on the same day. One earned a medal. The other tried in vain to crawl toward the finish line.

Post crashed in the final straightaway of her last semifinal heat.

Alise Post
Post helped up after crashing in the Olympics. (Getty Images)

She attempted to get up after the others had finished but tumbled to the ground in her first steps and was eventually helped across the finish by two officials, each holding up Post by one of her shoulders. A red, white and blue helmet hid her emotions.

“All I remember is a lot of tears and just feeling like I haven’t been able to give it my best,” Post said.

Later that day, Willoughby showed veteran poise in the men’s final on the same course. He slid into second place around the first turn, behind the defending Olympic champion, and remained runner-up through the finish while other riders spilled behind them.

In April 2013, Post’s mother, Cheryl, was diagnosed with melanoma. She died Jan. 14, 2014.

“My mom always instilled in me to never quit on something,” said Post, who now rides with the words “Cheryl Strong” facing her on her bike’s front hub axle and on the outside of her helmet. “It would be so special to be able to have a better experience in Rio than I had in London.”

Then in April 2014, Post broke her tibia at the season’s first World Cup, adding to an injury history that included a broken fibula and partial to complete tears of ankle and knee ligaments, a meniscus and a hamstring tendon, plus two hand surgeries following her 2012 Olympic crash.

She came back that July to earn silver at the World Championships in the Netherlands.

Sam Willoughby
Sam Willoughby earned silver at the London 2012 Olympics.

Also at the 2014 Worlds, Willoughby earned gold in the men’s race while wearing a black right wrist bracelet with pink letters that read, “TEAM CHERYL NEVER, EVER GIVE UP!”

He teared up while pointing to the bracelet in a post-race interview.

In 2015, Willoughby and Post were the subject of a documentary, “Every Pedal with You.”

The title may make one think of Willoughby and Post’s relationship, but it was actually taken from a line about Cheryl in Post’s five-minute victory speech after the USA BMX Grand Nationals in November 2014.

“I thanked her for basically being with me every pedal that I rode the whole year,” Post said.

Then last July, Willoughby and Post took early leads in rain-soaked World Championships finals, but both crashed coming around the same turn and finished out of the medals.

They capped the year on a high, with Willoughby proposing to Post in December.

Post and Willoughby are now ranked Nos. 3 and 4, in their respective genders, by the International Cycling Union with May’s World Championships the biggest event ahead of the Rio Games.

Both are medal favorites, along with riders from Colombia, Venezuela and Great Britain, plus other Americans. They’re both training for the Worlds and the Olympics in Southern California, where they moved from Minnesota.

“Alise, there’s probably three or four girls at the top with her,” said her coach, Australian Sean Dwight, who also coached Willoughby until this year, when Willoughby started working more with the Australian national program with the Olympics nearing. “The men’s game is a lot more competitive. He’s in the top four or five on any given day.”

NBC Olympics researcher Rachel Thompson contributed to this report.

MORE: Venezuelan’s sacrifices pay off for BMX World title

Mikaela Shiffrin races for another reindeer

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Mikaela Shiffrin already has three Olympic medals. She can win her third reindeer on Saturday.

Shiffrin headlines the first slalom of the World Cup season in Levi, Finland, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming via NBC Sports Gold’s Snow Pass.

The first run is at 4:15 a.m. ET. The second is at 7.

The traditional (and unconventional) winner’s prize in Finland is a reindeer. Shiffrin captured the Levi slalom in 2013 and 2016, naming her furry friends Rudolph and Sven.

The reindeer stay in Finland while Shiffrin criss-crosses Europe and North America on the World Cup tour.

Shiffrin lost in her trademark discipline in Levi last fall to a new rival, Petra Vlhova of Slovakia.

Motivated, Shiffrin won the next six slaloms before skiing out of the last slalom before the Olympics. Then in PyeongChang, Shiffrin shockingly finished fourth in defense of her Sochi Olympic title (after a giant slalom gold and before a super combined silver).

She bounced back, winning the last two World Cup slaloms of the 2017-18 season.

In the past, Shiffrin voiced a goal of winning every slalom in a season. She won all but three each of the last two years. Levi is the first of 12 World Cup slaloms this season.

Shiffrin must overcome the three women who made the PyeongChang podium ahead of her — Swede Frida Hansdotter, Swiss Wendy Holdener and Austrian Katharina Gallhuber.

She has already shown strong form, taking third in the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, three weeks ago.

Nothing but a third reindeer will suffice in Saturday’s slalom, though.

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Gracie Gold wants to be new skater in comeback event; TV/stream schedule

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When Gracie Gold was in treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder last year, she received a message from two-time Olympian Jeremy Abbott.

“If you ever want to come back to skating, I want to do an exhibition piece for you as a gift,” Abbott, who has taken up choreography in retirement, told his friend. Gold said it was a sweet offer and thanked him.

“At that point I don’t think that she had thought about coming back at all,” Abbott said last week.

Several months later, Gold had thought it over. She contacted Abbott in the spring.

“I’m going to make a go at this. Would you be willing to do my programs?” Abbott recalled Gold telling him. “I was shocked,” Abbott continued, “but also, at the same time, I was not.”

Gold, a two-time U.S. champ who finished fourth at the 2014 Olympics, competes this week for the first time since the January 2017 U.S. Championships. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage of Rostelecom Cup from Moscow.

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Friday 6 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
8 a.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
10:30 a.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
12 p.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
Saturday 5:30 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
7:30 a.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
9:30 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
11:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold | STREAM LINK
Sunday 12 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

Gold, who detailed her last two years in a video published a month ago, is refraining from more interviews until after she skates. Abbott choreographed both her short and long programs, making a few trips to her Pennsylvania training base in the last six months. Gold is coached by former French skater Vincent Restencourt.

“She told me that she wanted to be a new skater and a new Gracie,” Abbott said. “She said that she always admired the artistry that I had and that she really wanted to bring something new to her skating.”

Abbott said her program music choices — “I Put a Spell On You” and “She Used to Be Mine,” the latter from the Broadway musical “Waitress” — reflect the new Gold. The former is “a little more mature and a little more sexy and playful than anything she’s done in the past.” The latter speaks to how she got from there to here in the last two years.

“At one point, she was on top of the world and had everything at her feet,” Abbott said. (Gold has said she spiraled psychologically after squandering a short-program lead at the 2016 Worlds and missing the podium altogether.) “Then she had some really big struggles and had to really step back from the life that she knew. Now she’s having to rebuild herself. It’s kind of looking back at who she was and who she used to be and now where she is and who she wants to become.”

Gold made it clear to Abbott whom she wanted to become.

“She was like, ‘I always was viewed as a jumper and not a skater. I always wanted to be an artist, but everyone told me stick to what you’re best at,'” Abbott said. “Working with her, she is an artist. She is sensitive. She understands the music. She gets it.”

Abbott visited Gold once this fall for choreography touch-ups and will not be in Moscow with her and Restencourt. Rather, he will be performing in 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton‘s show in Nashville on Sunday.

Abbott doesn’t know how Gold is handling the comeback nerves or what to expect of her jumps.

“This isn’t like a big massive coming-out party for her,” he said. “This is really just the first step to get her feet back under her, get her going again because the plan isn’t about this competition. The plan isn’t about this season. The plan is really about building for her future and the next four years.”

The field is led by Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, fellow Russian Sofia Samodurova and Japanese Yuna Shiraiwa, all 16-year-olds with a chance to make December’s exclusive, six-skater Grand Prix Final.

This is Gold’s lone competition until the new year. Many will watch and wonder how she stacks up among Americans heading into January’s national championships. (Two U.S. women are ranked in the top 30 in the world this season, with many big names sitting out the fall.)

“From where her life was, I think it takes some major balls to even put herself back into this situation,” said Abbott, who noted that when he first visited Gold in the spring, she had her double jumps back. “For where she came from, she’s made huge strides. It’s really been impressive to watch her growth.”

In the men’s field, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu is a heavy favorite given the absence of his top rivals, Nathan Chen and Shoma Uno. Canadian Keegan Messing and Russian Mikhail Kolyada are also in the mix to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

In pairs, Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov are the clear favorites on home ice, but Americans Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc carry the intrigue.

They have a great chance at the Grand Prix Final if they can finish second, after taking third at Skate America four weeks ago. Cain and LeDuc rank fourth in the Rostelecom field by best scores this season but are only 4.21 points behind the second-ranked pair.

Russians Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin headline the ice dance. They’re ranked second in the world behind Americans Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, who clinched their Grand Prix Final spot three weeks ago.

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 HERE 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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