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

Alise Post
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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

Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

Laura Nolte Bobsled
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Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

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