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

Nathan Chen, from flu-ridden on the floor, fights for 4th U.S. title

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Rafael Arutunian showed me a photo on his phone of Nathan Chen sleeping on the floor in a dressing room at Great Park Ice Arena when he was supposed to be practicing earlier this month.

Arutunian said he could have taken the same picture on eight days in the 2 1/2 weeks they spent together at his Irvine, Calif., training base during Chen’s semester break from Yale.

Arutunian would see the flu-ridden and feverish Chen curled up asleep, turn off the light, leave the room and wait until Chen woke up before trying to have him do any training.

In the past, Arutunian said, Chen could train through sickness. This time it was futile.

“He couldn’t move,” Arutunian said.

It wasn’t until about 10 days ago, after Chen returned to college on the East Coast, that he was able to do anything resembling training.

At that point, the coach knew he had to be more hands-on than usual, or as much as he could be from 3,000 miles away.

“This time, I was managing everything, calling every day to give him exactly what he needed to do to get ready for the U.S. Championships,” Arutunian said.

NATIONALS: Full results | World championships team named

What Chen did on the ice Saturday and Sunday left Arutunian shaking his head in admiration.

He landed six clean quads in six attempts, two in the short program Saturday, four in the free skate Sunday. The short program was of the surpassing excellence that forces writers to exhaust the superlatives in our language for accurate portrayals of his skating.

The free skate did not require consulting a dictionary for new ways to say extraordinary. That was not unexpected, given how diminished fitness figured to take a toll over the length of a free skate, four minutes, compared to the two minutes, 50 seconds in the short.

Yet Chen’s overall skating still drew superlatives from Arutunian, not a coach given to gushing.

“I don’t know anybody who could recover and do what he did after that sickness,” Arutunian said.

This time, his performance was one for historians more than lexicographers, making it one for the ages from a different perspective.

Chen, 20, became the first U.S. man to win four straight U.S. titles since Olympic champion Brian Boitano in 1988. Others who have done that since World War II include Olympic champions Scott Hamilton, David Jenkins, Hayes Jenkins and Dick Button, the last a winner of seven straight.

Chen was fifth at his only Olympics so far, in 2018.  He has won 10 straight events since, including two world titles, two Grand Prix Final titles and the third and fourth U.S. titles.

“It’s a huge deal for me to be able to take the next step to not necessarily being one of the legends but to sort of follow their footsteps,” Chen said. “These guys have done amazing things, well beyond what I have accomplished. It’s amazing to have that inspiration in front of you, to see how far I can take myself.”

For the fourth straight year, Chen was far ahead of his contemporaries, even if his winning margin of 37.29 points was less than any of the previous three: 58.21, 40.72, 55.44.

That smaller gap owed less to Chen’s flaws in the free skate than to Jason Brown’s having done what his coach, Tracy Wilson, thought was the best skating of Brown’s career, especially for its interpretive maturity.

Chen finished with 330.17 points to 292.88 for Brown and 278.08 for Tomoki Hiwatashi, who had a breakthough performance. World bronze medalist Vincent Zhou, who has had only a few weeks of good training after taking a leave from Brown University and moving to Toronto, was fourth at 275.23.

“A couple jump landings were a little shaky,” Chen said. “I wasn’t as controlled and calm as I was in the short program.”

Chen, Brown and Zhou were named to the U.S. team for the March world championships in Montreal. Better results over the past year, notably the world bronze, gave Zhou the third spot over Hiwatashi.

Brown, 25, once again failed to land a quadruple jump, with his quad toe attempt ending in a downgrade and two-footed landing. But he did everything else so brilliantly in a mesmerizingly beautiful performance to music from “Schindler’s List” that his individual grade of execution marks were higher than Chen’s. This was a Brown at a level he had not approached since his 2014 Olympic season.

“I think that was just a glimpse of what’s to come,” Brown said. “One hundred percent, it’s probably the best skating I have done. I think I still have a long way to go as far as the technical aspect as well as the skating skills, but as far as being strong and confident, I really feel things coming together.”

Chen, on the other hand, felt as unprepared as he ever had been for a nationals because of the illness. So he was “absolutely pleased” with his performance to music from the Elton John biopic, “Rocketman.”

“I was able to make good use of the week I had relatively healthy to sort of get myself back in check before this competition,” Chen said.  “I’ve had a lot of experience over the past few years competing in different sorts of situations, and that helped me here in how to still keep myself in a positive, confident mindset.”

Chen’s concession to his physical condition was no quad Lutz. His execution of three of the four quads he did, two toes, a salchow and a flip, was exceptional – especially the opening flip in combination and the final toe. The judges also rewarded him with 15 perfect component scores, six for composition and five for interpretation. 

As much as he impressed the judges, Chen impressed his coach more.

“Amazing,” Arutunian said. “Who else could do this?”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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MORE: Why retired Adam Rippon was at nationals 

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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.

Nathan Chen wins fourth straight U.S. figure skating title in dominant fashion

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Nathan Chen has leaned on Brian Boitano during times of crisis and injuries. At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships the last two days, Chen showcased not only his jumps — six quads between two programs — but some of the mental strength gleaned from the 1988 Olympic champion.

Chen, who said he competed on one week of full training after a flu bout, was his usual standout self, becoming the first man to win four straight national titles since Boitano in 1988.

He distanced runner-up Jason Brown by 37.29 points, totaling 330.17. Chen won all of his national titles by at least 37 points. No other skater, pair or dance couple has won by more than 33 points since the Code of Points was instituted in 2006.

Chen landed a pair of quad toe loops, a quad flip and a quad Salchow in his Elton John-themed free skate.

“I was, again, pretty worried about my stamina coming into this competition, but the audience really helped me get through it,” the Yale sophomore told Andrea Joyce on NBC.

NATIONALS: Full results | World championships team named

Boitano and Scott Hamilton, the other most recent man to win four straight, sat together inside the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.

“It’s a huge deal for me to be able to take the next step to, not necessarily becoming one of these legends, but sort of follow in their footsteps,” Chen said. “These guys have done amazing things well beyond what I’ve already accomplished. It’s amazing to be able to have that sort of inspiration in front of you and have something to look forward to.”

Besides Chen, five of the six men to earn four straight U.S. titles since World War II went on to earn Olympic gold, which Chen will aim for in 2022. He’s undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics with a disastrous 17th-place short program followed by a leading free skate. He was arguably the favorite for gold.

Chen now heads to March’s world championships for another matchup with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu. Chen routed Hanyu twice in 2019, by 22.45 points at worlds and 43.87 at December’s Grand Prix Final.

“If I start focusing too much on the results, and I start trying to focus on going to this competition because I want to continue this quote-unquote streak, it will probably be the end of it,” Chen said. After his Grand Prix Final romp, Chen called Hanyu a “skating god” and said the Japanese megastar was still capable of outperforming him.

Brown, skating Sunday to music from “Schindler’s List,” earned his best nationals finish since winning the title in Greensboro five years ago.

He did so without a clean quad, having his one attempt in the free skate downgraded. Brown has never landed a quad in competition. Still, he beat Chen in artistic scores in the short program, coming back from a preseason concussion in a car accident.

“It’s probably the best skating that I’ve done,” said Brown, a 2014 Olympian who changed coaches after missing the PyeongChang Olympics, moving to Brian Orser‘s group in Toronto.

Tomoki Hiwatashi, the world junior champion, jumped from fifth after the short program onto the podium in third. He landed a pair of quads in a clean free skate, making his case to be named to the three-man world championships team.

But that spot was instead given by a U.S. Figure Skating committee to fourth-place finisher Vincent Zhou.

Zhou, the world bronze medalist, finished fourth with one quad in his free skate. Zhou had minor jump landing errors, competing after not training properly for the entire autumn while a freshman at Brown. He moved to Toronto in late December, changed coaches and resumed training a month before nationals.

Andrew Torgashev, the surprise third-place skater from the short program, fell twice on quad attempts and dropped to fifth.

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MORE: Why retired Adam Rippon was at nationals 

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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.