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‘Worst skier alive’ makes it to cross-country worlds after deportation

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — For a Venezuelan cross-country skier who had only trained on wheels beneath a bright sun, the slopes of Finland proved a mighty challenge.

Adrian Solano wobbled nervously backward as he exited the starting gate at the world championships this week. He fumbled into the white powder after sliding down a small hill. And he tried awkwardly walking up an incline while others raced by him.

By Thursday, sports commentators circulating videos of his near-comedic cross-country performance online had dubbed him the worst skier alive.

Solano, however, teetered along, unfazed.

“From here to the Olympics!” he proclaimed in an interview with Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet.

Solano’s saga has hit a nerve among Venezuelans and angered the country’s highest officials, who are denouncing France for deporting the athlete in January while he was trying to get to Sweden to train on snow. Airport migration officials in Paris allegedly doubted his story, thinking his journey to the slopes was a ploy to leave his beleaguered country.

“We will issue a strong statement to the French government for their affront against a Venezuelan athlete,” Venezuela’s foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, wrote in a Tweet Wednesday.

Stuck back in Caracas, Solano’s supporters started a GoFundMe page that brought him to Finland just in time to compete.

The only problem: He hadn’t practiced skiing on snow, only on wheels in Venezuela’s scorching heat.

In the first race, a 10km qualifying round, Solano failed to finish. He completed the first 3.5 kilometers in 37 minutes and 39 seconds — the same amount of time it took other competitors to finish the entire course. In the 1.6km cross-country sprint he finished last in 156th place, taking nearly 14 minutes.

“Embarrassing!” wrote one critic on his Instagram page, who went on to accuse him of receiving sponsorship from the Venezuelan government while countless go hungry.

“My friend,” he wrote in response, “I swear I am not here because of the government. I arrived thanks to people who heard my story and supported me.”

Still, many others are rallying to support Solano and his dream of one day waving the Venezuelan flag in the winter Olympics.

“I achieved a dream,” he said in his interview with the Norwegian newspaper. “This pushes me to try more every day.”

MORE: Famous Tonga flag bearer debuts at cross-country worlds

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Rewind: Australia’s Steven Bradbury gains gold and lasting fame after pileup takes out Apolo Ohno

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Heading into the 2002 Winter Olympics, young American Apolo Ohno was a phenom with a legitimate shot at multiple medals in short-track speedskating.

The 1999 world junior champion and future “Dancing with the Stars” champion had finished first in the World Cup season standings in all three individual disciplines in the 2000-01 season. In the 2001 world championships, he took gold in the relay and the 3,000m (a non-Olympic event), silver in the 1,000m and fourth in the 1,500m.

Australia’s Steven Bradbury was at the other end of his career, enduring all sorts of misfortune in the years that followed — a 1995 accident in which he needed more than 100 stitches after a skate blade sliced his thigh, then a 2000 accident in which he broke two vertebra in his neck. 

The highlights of Bradbury’s career were relay world championships medals — gold in 1991, bronze in 1993, silver in 1994. He and his relay teammates also took Olympic bronze in 1994.

Bradbury barely advanced to one individual final, the 1,000m in 2002. He advanced from the quarterfinal when Canadian favorite Marc Gagnon was disqualified. He advanced from the semifinal when multiple skaters fell.

In the final, Bradbury was matched up against three outstanding skaters, including Ohno and Li Jiajun of China, who won this event and the overall title at the 2001 world championships. Ohno and Li had finished 1-2 in the 1,000m World Cup standings in 2001.

Bradbury couldn’t keep up. The other four skaters were in a pack, making dangerous passes among each other, while Bradbury fell further and further behind.

Those dangerous passes finally caught up to the rest of the field in the final turn. Li bumped into Ohno, which would lead to Li’s disqualification. After the lead pack jockeyed for position through the entire race, all four tumbled to the ice.

Bradbury, the last man standing, crossed the finish line first.

 

From the tangled pile-up, Ohno managed to fling himself, skate-first, across the finish line to take silver. Canada’s Mathieu Turcotte made it across for bronze.

Ohno wasn’t done in Salt Lake City. He won the 1,500m gold after the disqualification of Kim Dong-Sung, a controversial decision that made Ohno the object of South Korean derision.

Less controversially, Ohno won three more individual world championship events from 2005 to 2009, plus two relay golds, and the overall world title in 2008. In the Olympics, he took six more medals, including gold in the 500m in 2006 and silver in the 1,500m in 2010.

Bradbury missed the finals in the other two events in Salt Lake City, but his name lives on in the Urban Dictionary and elsewhere as a synonym for an improbable and even accidental victory. He embraced his unique place in history to carve out a career as a motivational speaker delivering more than 1,000 speeches in 19 countries, according to the International Skating Union and has even seen his win commemorated in Legos.

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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier form new figure skating pair

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A few weeks after her husband and skating partner, Chris Knierim, stepped away from competitive figure skating, Alexa Scimeca Knierim has a new partner.

Brandon Frazier, who was also looking for someone to form a new pair after longtime partner Haven Denney stepped away from competition, at least temporarily, will join Scimeca Knierim on the ice whenever they’re able to train and compete again.

Frazier is a longtime friend of Chris Knierem. Scimeca Knierim told U.S. Figure Skating’s FanZone that Frazier had played a pivotal role in kindling the Knierem’s off-ice romance.

Denney and Frazier won the U.S. championship in 2017 and finished 20th in the world championships that year. They finished third in their two Grand Prix assignments last fall — Skate America and the Internationaux de France. They were runners-up in the 2019 U.S. championships and fifth this year, when they revived their “Lion King” free skate.

The Denney-Frazier pair took an unusual path to figure skating, starting as roller skaters.

The Knierims won their third U.S. championship in January but handed their slot in the world championships to Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson when Chris Knierim, struggling with his form and depression, decided he was unable to continue beyond the Four Continents Championship. The world championships were later canceled due to the spread of the coronavirus.

READ: Resilient Knierims withdraw from world championships

The couple had earned attention for their romance and for their inspirational returns from illness and injury. Their U.S. championship win earlier this year was their third.

Skate America, the first event on the Grand Prix circuit, is scheduled to start Oct. 23 in Las Vegas.

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