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Gus Kenworthy not fazed by condensed schedule for first X Games gold

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Gus Kenworthy may be the world’s best freestyle skier, yet he still lacks X Games gold. Kenworthy will get two chances for a maiden title in Aspen this weekend, but they will come in a tight 15-hour stretch.

An X Games crown “would be everything, everything he’s been shooting for ever since he started this sport,” his agent said Thursday.

Kenworthy, the Olympic ski slopestyle silver medalist, is entered in both ski halfpipe and ski slopestyle at X Games for a fifth straight year. (Kenworthy has also competed in ski big air in the past, but that is not an Olympic event, and he is not doing it this year)

Last year, Kenworthy became the first man to earn Aspen X Games medals in both halfpipe and slopestyle (silvers) since Swede Jon Olsson in 2005. They were his first career medals in Aspen.

The halfpipe was Thursday. The slopestyle was Sunday. Those events have been condensed on this weekend’s schedule.

The ski halfpipe final is at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday. The ski slopestyle final is at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday.

“It’s actually not that bad, because they’re back to back,” Kenworthy’s agent said Thursday. “Because he went straight into the final for slope [bypassing Thursday qualifying], he gets to focus straight on pipe for tomorrow night. We’ve had all week to train, and the training’s gone pretty well except for some issues with snow.”

Kenworthy also hopes to double at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, where he should have days off between events.

“It’s really important to get to the Olympics in both disciplines,” Kenworthy, known in 2014 for adopting puppies in Sochi and in 2015 for coming out as gay, said in the fall. “If I only made it for one, I actually would rather go for pipe because I already got the experience of going for slope.”

In 2014, Kenworthy was part of a U.S. slopestyle sweep in Sochi with gold medalist Joss Christensen and bronze medalist Nick Goepper.

Some may forget that Kenworthy also nearly made the Olympic ski halfpipe team, finishing fourth in qualifying standings. The top three automatically made the Sochi team, while U.S. Ski and Snowboard had a discretionary selection for the last pick.

Kenworthy was passed over for Torin Yater-Wallace, who had won the 2013 World and X Games silver medals but missed all of Olympic qualifying after suffering a collapsed lung and two broken ribs.

Kenworthy called the decision “one of the most heartbreaking things.”

“I was really gutted, it made me feel like the coaches didn’t believe in me, so that really hurt,” said Kenworthy, who at that time had zero world or X Games halfpipe medals. “I felt like I kinda had risked my health for doing the qualifying events for both [slopestyle and halfpipe]. I achieved what I wanted to do — and the person they gave the spot to fell both of his runs [in the Olympics], so it was really upsetting.”

Yater-Wallace said he wasn’t fully recovered in time for Sochi. He and another American, Lyman Currier, finished 26th and 28th out of 28 in the first Olympic ski halfpipe won by American David Wise.

Yater-Wallace praises Kenworthy.

“The most impressive thing about Gus is the way he balances different disciplines,” Yater-Wallace said last week. “There’s few people in this day and age. In the history of freeskiing, everybody used to do it. Now that the levels are so intense in each discipline, and the tricks have such a high level, trying to compete in the halfpipe, big air and slopestyle really is a skill set that only a few can have. And to also maintain a physical and mental level of strength to do that. With such a little amount of people doing all three disciplines, event organizers never set up the practices and events to favor those people. If you’re going into Aspen X Games and you’re Gus Kenworthy, you’ve got to strategically pick which practices you’re going to skip because the other event might overlap that.”

Kenworthy puts the majority of his time into slopestyle because the fields are deeper and the courses more challenging than pipe.

“I train whenever there’s pipe training at an event, I’ll be there that whole time, and maybe in the summer I’ll ski pipe once or twice, learn a new trick to add into my run,” he said. “All my focus goes into slopestyle.”

Which makes Kenworthy’s improvement in halfpipe the last few years all the more impressive. Starting in 2012, his X Games halfpipe results have been 14th, 16th, seventh, fifth and then second last year.

“Gus always had all the tricks, but never went very, very big [in amplitude],” Wise, a three-time Aspen X Games ski halfpipe champion, said last fall. “Then, one year, he just decided that wasn’t OK anymore, and he started going big.”

NBC Olympics researcher Rachel Thompson contributed to this report.

MORE: Mark McMorris, after horrible injury, eyes 2 Olympic golds

Iran banned from judo for instructing athlete to withdraw rather than face Israel opponent

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Iran has been banned from international judo for instructing one of its athletes to withdraw from August’s world championships rather than face an Israeli judoka.

The International Judo Federation said Iran authorities instructing Saeid Mollaei to withdraw rather than face Israeli judoka Sagi Muki was “a serious breach and gross violation” of its code of ethics and the Olympic Charter.

IJF spokesman Vlad Marinescu said any ban won’t apply to the Tokyo Olympics. That’s because it’s the Iranian Olympic Committee, not the Iranian Judo Federation, which formally enters the Olympic team.

“We have been informed by IJF that they will launch a proper procedure giving all concerned parties the right to be heard,” an International Olympic Committee spokesperson said. “Should the issue become an Olympic issue we will take the result of this procedure into consideration.”

An IJF disciplinary commission said it “has a strong reason to believe that the Iran Judo Federation will continue or repeatedly engage in misconduct” given its history of similar actions with its athletes potentially facing Israelis.

Mollaei, a 2018 World champion, said he was afraid to return to Iran after disobeying those orders at worlds. He competed anyway but lost one round before a potential final with Muki.

“I want to compete wherever I can,” Mollaei said in a statement from the IJF. “I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.

“I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid.”

The IJF said it would help Mollaei prepare for next year’s Olympics, also in Tokyo. If Iran refuses to enter him, one option could be the International Olympic Committee-backed team of refugee athletes.

Iranian sports teams have for several decades had a policy of not competing against Israelis, which the country does not recognize. The IJF has said Iranians have thrown matches and used “questionable injuries” to avoid competing against Israelis.

Mollaei’s case came four months after judo officials hailed a breakthrough in relations with Iran, publishing a letter signed by Salehi Amiri pledging to “fully respect the Olympic charter and its non-discrimination principle.”

Back in August, Iranian Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar accused the IJF of trying to “create problems” with Mollaei, the IRNA news agency reported. He said Iran will send a protest letter to the IOC.

Iranian team manager Majid Zareian also criticized the IJF, saying “everything was set in advance to put Mollaei against a participant from (Israel).”

“They did not allow me to be present next to my athlete in exercise salon,” Zareian said. “After the competitions they changed hotel of Mollaei without my permission, against the regulations.”

He denied reports Iranian authorities had put pressure on Mollaei.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: Israel, judo federation hail letter from Iran; Tehran silent

Jacarra Winchester, after foe bites her, wins first wrestling world title

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Jacarra Winchester missed the Rio Olympic wrestling trials after tearing her knee playing soccer. She missed a medal at the 2018 World Championships after a semifinal-winning takedown was reversed.

There was no denying her on Wednesday.

Winchester, who picked up wrestling a decade ago as a high school junior, became the first American to earn a medal at the worlds in Kazakhstan this week. And it was gold.

She came back to beat Japanese Nanami Irie 5-3 in the final of the 55kg division, a weight class that is not on the Olympic program. Winchester must move to 53kg or 57kg next year.

But for now she can celebrate quite a journey. At 26, she’s one of the older wrestlers to become a first-time world champion. She believed she had what it took last year, when a reversed call kept her from the final and she subsequently lost a bronze-medal match.

Winchester, who has problems sleeping, said she replayed the end of that semifinal in her head ever since.

“There’s no reason why I should have gotten beat,” she said Wednesday. “Clearly I have what I need on the mat. I just need to change my mindset. … Just knowing you’re the best, pushing yourself and not letting anything get to me.”

That helped in Tuesday’s semifinals, where Winchester said her Turkish opponent bit her, pulled her hair and twisted her fingers. Winchester, who grew up in the Oakland, Calif., area, said that when she started wrestling she had no Olympic goals.

“I had a mindset of I’m not a quitter,” she said.

Earlier Wednesday, Adeline Gray reached Thursday’s 76kg final, where she will try to become the first American to earn five world titles.

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