Madison Hughes
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Madison Hughes: Nate Ebner has ‘decent chance’ at Olympics

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U.S. rugby sevens captain Madison Hughes believes New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner has “a decent chance” of making the Olympic team of 12 from a player pool about three times that size.

Hughes praised Ebner’s development since Ebner announced his return to rugby March 15, seven years removed from his junior national team days before he focused on football at Ohio State.

“He’s developed a lot,” Hughes said last week, after U.S. coach Mike Friday reportedly said in April that Ebner had “a 50-50 chance.” “I think he had quite a lot of rugby experience from when he was younger, and I think that’s allowed him to step into this stage, because I think if he didn’t have that rugby experience, coming in now he’d be completely lost and wouldn’t be able to handle it at all. So I think he’s been doing well. I think he’s been a good addition so far. Competition’s going to be hot for those spots for Rio. I know he really, really wants it. I think he’s got as good of a shot as a lot of people. I think he’s got a decent chance of being there.”

Ebner reached the top level of international rugby sevens when he was named to the 12-man roster for World Series stops in Hong Kong, Singapore and Paris in April and May.

However, Ebner was not named to the team for the last World Series stop in London, instead being put on a development-level tournament squad that weekend.

Still, Hughes likes what he has seen. An NFL player joining an experienced national rugby team four months before the Olympics had the potential to create animosity.

“The kind of attitude Nate came in with when he joined us, it’s a credit to him,” Hughes said. “I think that’s kind of helped allay some of those concerns. If he had come in and been like, OK guys, I’m here, don’t worry, I think there definitely would have been some disquiet on the team. But he kind of came in, just said I’m going to put my head down, I’m going to work as hard as I can, anything I can do to help the team, then I’m going to do that. I think, because of that attitude, the guys were quite accepting and welcoming.”

USA Rugby is expected to cut its Olympic player pool to 30 or fewer on June 24 and select the Olympic team of 12 on July 17.

Players received a short break after the World Series finale in London ended May 22 before gathering in Chula Vista, Calif., this month.

“There’s a bit of nervous energy, but I think as long as we keep that in a positive direction can be good,” Hughes said. “I think everyone knows that the people who are going to get picked put the team first. If you’re focusing just on what you’re doing, you’re only hindering your chances of making the team.”

Hughes was more confident in Ebner’s Rio chances than those of former San Francisco 49ers running back Jarryd Hayne, who announced May 15 he was joining Fiji’s player pool.

“He’s joined at a very, very late stage,” Hughes said. “He’s months behind Nate, who joined at a pretty late stage. And joining the No. 1 ranked team in the world [in Fiji]. That’s a very tough thing to do. Fair play to him, he’s an incredible athlete. He was an incredible rugby player in the [National Rugby League in Australasia]. But having no experience rugby union, no experience of sevens, I think he’s going to have a hard time making that team.”

Hughes also said that he expected Carlin Isles‘ high-ankle sprain suffered in March, which kept him out of the last five World Series stops, to not affect the speedster going forward.

As for Rio medal predictions, Hughes called two-time reigning World Series champion Fiji the clear favorite.

“For the last two years, they’ve been the best team consistently,” Hughes said. “You can never count New Zealand out. They’ve been there, or thereabouts, for the whole time sevens has been played internationally. South Africa are obviously very good. I think those are the top three, but then we are firmly in the pack chasing those guys.”

MORE: Record number of NFL players could compete at Rio Olympics

Richard Callaghan, figure skating coach, banned for life

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Richard Callaghan, a figure skating coach best known for helping Tara Lipinski earn 1998 Olympic gold, was ruled permanently ineligible for violations including sexual misconduct involving a minor.

Callaghan can still appeal the sexual misconduct violation, according to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a watchdog for U.S. Olympic sports organizations that updated Callaghan’s status Wednesday.

He was first suspended in March 2018 pending an investigation into allegations first made against him more than 20 years ago.

Earlier this month, another former skater, Adam Schmidt, said in a lawsuit that he was sexually molested as a teenager by Callaghan starting in 1999.

Callaghan was previously accused of sexual misconduct in April 1999 by Craig Maurizi, one of his former students and later an assistant to him in San Diego and Detroit.

Maurizi told The New York Times that Callaghan had engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with him beginning when he was 15 years old. The alleged misconduct had begun nearly 20 years earlier. Callaghan denied the allegations.

In March 2018, Callaghan told ABC News: “That’s 19 or 20 years ago. I have nothing to say.”

Maurizi’s previous grievance against Callaghan with the U.S. Figure Skating Association, the precursor to U.S. Figure Skating, was dismissed on procedural grounds.

He was Callaghan’s assistant at the Detroit Skating Club until they split after Lipinski turned pro, left Callaghan and decided to train with Maurizi.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Pita Taufatofua, Tonga flag bearer, finishes last in kayak debut

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Pita Taufatofua, the Tonga Olympic flag bearer who went viral in Rio and PyeongChang, began his quest to make a third straight Olympics in a third different sport with a last-place finish in his opening-round heat at the world sprint kayak championships in Hungary on Wednesday.

The start of the heat appeared delayed as Taufatofua struggled to get his kayak into position in the water. He was left at the start as the other six kayakers raced out and finished between 33 and 40 seconds. Taufatofua took 58.19 seconds, the slowest of 53 finishers among seven total heats.

“Well that was slightly better than the first time I competed in Taekwondo or skiing,” was tweeted from Taufatofua’s account. “Would have liked to start facing the right way but that’s life.”

Taufatofua, 35, was the oldest athlete in the heat by nearly a decade. He is also entered in doubles races with Tonga canoe federation president Malakai Ahokava with heats Thursday and Friday.

Taufatofua hopes to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in taekwondo, where he competed in Rio, and in sprint kayak.

But he hasn’t competed in taekwondo in three years and just started training kayak this spring. At worlds, Taufatofua told the BBC he is still having trouble staying afloat in the water.

Taufatofua said in announcing the new sport in April that it would be “largely impossible” to qualify for Tokyo. He could be the first athlete to compete in a different sport in three straight Olympics (Summer and Winter) since the Winter Games began in 1924, according to the OlyMADMen.

“It’s certainly going to be the greatest challenge that I’ve ever had to embark on,” he said then.

Taufatofua’s results at worlds this week has little bearing on his Olympic qualifying prospects. Rather, he just needed to compete in Hungary to stay eligible for the Olympics.

The key will be an Oceania qualifying event early next year, where one Olympic bid is available. He will likely have to beat the best kayakers from Australia and New Zealand to grab it. Australian Stephen Bird placed eighth at the Rio Olympics and 11th at the 2018 World Championships.

If Taufatofua fails, he could receive a special tripartite invitation sometimes offered to smaller nations like Tonga.

Taufatofua became a social-media celebrity by marching into the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony shirtless and oiled up. He then lost in the first round via mercy rule in his taekwondo tournament.

He made a quixotic bid for the PyeongChang Winter Games in cross-country skiing — and accomplished the feat, barely, in a sport that has lenient qualifying requirements for nations with a lack of Winter Games depth.

Taufatofua finished 114th out of 116 in his 15km Olympic cross-country skiing race, nearly 23 minutes behind the winner.

If Taufatofua is able to carry the Tongan flag at a third Opening Ceremony, he will definitely be shirtless again, in a similar outfit to what he wore in Rio and PyeongChang, he said last year.

MORE: Five-time Olympic kayak medalist banned four years

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