Enkelejda Shehaj goes 20 years between Olympics after leaving chaos in Albania

Enkelejda Shehaj
Ron Morales/USA Shooting
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U.S. shooter Enkelejda Shehaj will compete in the Olympics for the first time in 20 years in Rio. Her last appearance at the Atlanta Games, representing her native Albania, was truly a lifetime ago.

Shooting was a popular sport in communist Albania when Shehaj started at age 17 in 1986, even though she said Albanians weren’t allowed to purchase guns at the time.

She grew up in the capital, Tirana, and trained at her local shooting club, where she picked up and left her pistol. Shehaj said she began competing in 1988. It would be another three years before communism fell in the country.

“It’s a different world, how you live in the communist era,” Shehaj, now a 47-year-old mother of two living in Florida, said in a recent phone interview. “I can’t say there was a danger, but it was a danger in a different way, like if you would not follow whatever the leaders of the country would say, you’d get imprisoned. Even if we would go to a competition, we were not allowed to talk to the other people and express our feelings. Any communication was not allowed. They were afraid that we might hear something, how people outside of Albania live. We were taught that we were the best country, and everybody else was miserable. … They would have people follow us and all that, and we were not supposed to say what we saw there. It was just unbelievable. When I tell my kids now, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, mom!'”

She did not consider fleeing Albania early in her career.

“Because family would have consequences,” Shehaj said. “Like my parents would go to jail. I always knew what would happen. I’ve heard stories from other people that their kids being abroad, Albania, with competitions, they were in danger. They would send them in the worst places to live and with no electricity or not even minimum things that you need to be alive.”

Shehaj worked her way up to a fourth-place finish in a World Cup competition in 1991 and earned a place on Albania’s team for the 1992 Barcelona Games. It marked the nation’s first Olympic appearance since 1972 and since the end of communism.

She finished 14th, 15th and 21st in three Olympic events between 1992 and 1996, giving birth to a girl, Megi, in between. Shehaj and her husband, also a competitive shooter, stayed in Albania, hoping a new government would bring stability.

It didn’t. The collapse of pyramid schemes led to chaos in 1996 and 1997.

“There was like a curfew,” she said. “You couldn’t get out after 7 p.m. There were people shooting. … My dad had a restaurant that they closed down and destroyed.”

Shehaj had enough and came to the U.S. on a visa in 1999, the year the bordering Kosovo War ended. She sought a better life for Megi, who was then 5 years old. Her husband stayed.

“It was not safe,” Shehaj said. “A lot of Albanians at the time were leaving the country, were going to Europe or whoever had the opportunity in the States.”

She flew to New York with Megi and two suitcases.

“One with my clothes,” she said. “And one luggage, it sits there in my closet with all my medals, magazines, articles that were written about me and all the diplomas and everything that had related to the sport. That’s it.”

Shehaj’s decision didn’t sit well with Albanian sports officials, whom she said left her off the nation’s 2000 Olympic team as a result.

Olympia Dining
Courtesy Enkelejda Shehaj

Shehaj stopped shooting competitively and settled with friends in Michigan for the first five years.

There she met through mutual friends countryman Tony Bekurti, who grew up in the same Tirana neighborhood and moved to the U.S. in 1997.

Bekurti never met Shehaj when they both lived in Tirana, but he played on the same table tennis team as her younger sister.

“Enka was one of the top 10 athletes in Albania,” Bekurti said. “I knew who she was.”

They married in 2001, and Shehaj had her second daughter, Enelda, in 2002.

The family moved to Florida in 2004. Shehaj’s shooting and Olympic mementos now line the walls of Olympia Dining, a Mediterranean restaurant in Naples they opened in 2009.

“[Olympia] was a meaningful name,” Shehaj said. “I always wanted to be in one more Olympics.”

Bekurti sensed it. He started playing table tennis again and prodded his wife to return to shooting in 2009 and 2010.

“We have the same mentality when it comes to sport,” said Bekurti, who wasn’t an Olympic-level table tennis player. “On morning runs together, I encouraged her. Even 10, 15 minutes, we can find time for you if we are busy. She started little by little competing.”

Shehaj became a U.S. citizen in 2012 and returned to top-level international competition for the first time since 2000 in 2014. This time, as a member of the U.S. national team.

“You never forget how to shoot,” she said, comparing it to riding a bike. “It’s a mental game.”

Shehaj clinched a spot in Rio via a sudden-death Olympic Trials win in Fort Benning, Ga., in April. She is training and competing in Europe this month.

The qualification news has circulated at Olympia Dining. Bekurti proudly shows regular customers a local NBC affiliate’s video report on Shehaj making the Olympic team, which he has saved on his phone.

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“Everybody asks every day how she’s doing,” Bekurti said. “I get a tear in my eyes when I hear the interview and when she talks about it. She talks about me. She talks about the girls. The sacrifice, the work, the dedication.”

Two women have previously gone 20 or more years between Olympic appearances. That number will likely at least double in Rio, with Shehaj and Swiss tennis player Martina Hingis expected to return to the Games for the first time since 1996.

Shehaj’s goal is to perform at her best at an Olympics for the first time. She remembers succumbing to the increased pressure in Barcelona and Atlanta and not shooting precisely.

“Who doesn’t want to have a last shot in the Olympic Games?” Shehaj said. “I will try to do [my] best. If that happens, I’ll be the happiest person.”

Shehaj’s younger sister now resides in the U.S., too, but they both worry about their parents, who still live in Albania.

“My parents always wanted us to leave Albania,” Shehaj said. “They’re like, OK, at least if you are there, don’t worry about us. But now we worry, because they’re getting older.”

Shehaj last visited Albania two years ago and plans to go again in July, one month before the Rio Games. It’s much safer there now than 20 or 30 years ago.

“It’s a place that you were born, you grew up, and you have memories,” she said. “It’s still your hometown.”

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Rio Olympics

USA Boxing to skip world championships

USA Boxing
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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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Mikaela Shiffrin ties world Alpine skiing championships medals record

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Mikaela Shiffrin took silver behind Italian Marta Bassino in the super-G for her 12th world Alpine skiing championships medal, tying the modern individual record.

Bassino edged Shiffrin by 11 hundredths of a second in Meribel, France, for her second world title after sharing parallel gold in 2021.

“That was the best run I can do on this track,” Shiffrin told Austrian broadcaster ORF. “I had one turn … coming off the [final] pitch where I almost lost it all.

“I’m so happy with my run.”

Austrian Cornelia Huetter and Norwegian Kajsa Vickhoff Lie tied for bronze, 33 hundredths back in a discipline where five different women won this season’s five World Cup races.

Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami, the reigning Olympic and world champ, led at the last intermediate split but lost 44 hundredths to Bassino in the final 18 seconds of the course and ended up sixth.

ALPINE WORLDS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

With her 12th world medal, the 27-year-old Shiffrin tied Kjetil Andre Aamodt, a Norwegian star of the 1990s and 2000s, for the most in individual events since World War II. Aamodt earned his 12th and final medal in his 27th world championships race. Shiffrin matched him in her 15th worlds start.

Swede Anja Pärson holds the overall record of 13 modern medals. She won two in the team event.

Shiffrin has six gold medals, one shy of that modern record.

Shiffrin, the greatest slalom skier in history, is selective when it comes to the speed events of downhill and super-G. She has never raced the downhill at worlds and will not enter Saturday’s race.

In the super-G, she now has a world championships medal of every color and is one of two skiers in history to make the super-G podium at three consecutive worlds. The other is Austrian legend Hermann Maier.

“I’m emotional because I don’t really feel like I should be winning a medal in super-G right now,” said Shiffrin, who had a win and a seventh place in two World Cup super-G starts this season and was sixth in the super-G run of Monday’s combined. “There are so many women who are strong and fast.”

Shiffrin rebounded from Monday’s first race of worlds, where she was in line for combined gold before losing her balance with five gates left and straddling the third-to-last gate in her slalom run. That snapped her streak of a medal in 10 consecutive world championships races dating to 2015.

After Wednesday’s race, Shiffrin called the past 48 hours “stressful.” She shed tears in the live ORF interview soon after her run, then later clarified that she misunderstood what the interviewer said in German.

“The last two or four weeks, well, really the last year, but especially in the last few weeks, I must have answered 100 questions about this world championships and basically if I’m worried that it’s going to be the same as what the Olympics was last year, if I’m worried about the disappointment, if I’m afraid of it,” Shiffrin, whose best individual Olympic finish last year was ninth, with three DNFs, said in a later press conference when asked about the ORF interview. “I was like, ‘I survived the Olympics, so I’m not afraid that it’s going to kill me if I don’t win a medal this world championships.’ That’s what I’ve been saying, but for sure, you get asked the same thing again and again. It’s so hard to keep the balance in your mind to answer this question and still be positive and still think I can do this. I can ski my best. I can make it to the finish. And then after the combined, I was like, you have got to be kidding me. My DNF rate now in my entire career, over 50 percent of it is at Olympics or world championships. Like, c’mon. It’s almost funny. And it’s only funny because I was able to win a medal today. The pressure’s not off, but there’s for sure a little bit of relief.”

Worlds continue with the men’s super-G on Thursday. Shiffrin’s next race is expected to be the giant slalom on Feb. 16.

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