Mao Asada details retirement in tearful press conference

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One of Japan’s most popular athletes should have known she couldn’t leave quietly: Mao Asada‘s press conference Wednesday to officially announce her retirement from figure skating attracted some 350 media and was telecast live across Japan.

Asada led her country’s figure skating scene since her teens with her trademark triple axel. She started skating at the age of 5 and won world championships in 2008, 2010 and 2014 in an illustrious career that included a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

The 26-year-old Asada decided to take a break from competitive skating in 2014 and made a comeback the following year.

While she had some positive results, including a bronze at the 2015 NHK Trophy, a career-low 12th-place finish at the national championships last December convinced her it was time to call it a career. Asada had dealt with a reported knee injury in her final season.

“I saw my score in the kiss and cry, and thought, ‘Maybe I don’t have to do this anymore,” Asada said, according to the Japan Times, adding that she made up her mind in February. “I’ve competed at the national championships since I was 12, and I ended with the most disappointing result that I ever had. It factored into making the decision as one of the biggest reasons.”

Asada, who announced her retirement from her 21-year career on her blog two days ago, occupied a special place in the Japanese sports landscape. Her popularity far exceeded that of other figure skaters, even those who won gold medals.

The youngest of two daughters, Asada had a personality that endured her to her legion of fans. Soft-spoken and exceedingly polite, many regarded her as their own “younger sister” and her photogenic looks added to the aura.

“I still have photos of myself as a 5-year-old skating in a crash helmet and knee-pads,” Asada said, according to Agence-France Presse. “It’s amazing I’ve been able to compete for such a long time.”

Throughout her early career, Asada’s mother, Kyoko, was a constant companion, attending all of her competitions and monitoring her progress up the ranks.

Asada qualified for the 2011-12 Grand Prix Final in Quebec City, but had to return home when her mother became seriously ill. Her mother died of liver cirrhosis while Asada was flying back from Canada.

She was in her early 20s at the time and her loss struck an emotional chord with her fans.

“Over my long career, I encountered a lot of mountains,” Asada said. “I was able to get over those mountains thanks to the support of many people and I’m full of gratitude.”

At Wednesday’s press conference, Asada called her performance in the free skate at the 2014 Sochi Olympics her most memorable.

“It’s difficult to pick just one,” Asada said. “But the free skate in Sochi is definitely one that stands out.”

She placed 16th in the short program in Sochi after falling on her triple axel, under-rotating a triple flip, and doubling a triple loop.

But in a stirring free skate, Asada rebounded, earning a personal best score of 142.71 making her the third women to score above the 140 mark after Yuna Kim‘s 2010 Olympics score and Yulia Lipnitskaya‘s 2014 Olympics team event score.

That placed Asada third in the free skating and sixth overall. Even though she didn’t win a medal, it was a performance that many will never forget.

She will long be remembered for her rivalry with Kim.

“We competed with each other since we were about 16 years old,” Asada said, according to the Japan Times. “We really inspired each other, and I think we shook up figure skating together.”

Asada had said at the 2016 World Championships that she planned to compete through the 2018 Olympics.

“I was conflicted because I announced my goal publicly and didn’t carry it out,” Asada said, according to the Japan Times.

As for what’s next, Asada said she is ready to take a new step in her life and will continue appearing in figure skating shows.

“I have no unease about the future,” Asada said. “I want to try new things and keep moving forward in a positive way.”

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt
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One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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IOC recommends how Russia, Belarus athletes can return as neutrals

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The IOC updated its recommendations to international sports federations regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes, advising that they can return to competitions outside of the Olympics as neutral athletes in individual events and only if they do not actively support the war in Ukraine. Now, it’s up to those federations to decide if and how they will reinstate the athletes as 2024 Olympic qualifying heats up.

The IOC has not made a decision on the participation of Russian or Belarusian athletes for the Paris Games and will do so “at the appropriate time,” IOC President Thomas Bach said Tuesday.

Most international sports federations for Olympic sports banned Russian and Belarusian athletes last year following IOC recommendations to do so after the invasion of Ukraine.

Bach was asked Tuesday what has changed in the last 13 months that led to the IOC updating its recommendations.

He reiterated previous comments that, after the invasion and before the initial February 2022 recommendations, some governments refused to issue visas for Russians and Belarusians to compete, and other governments threatened withdrawing funding from athletes who competed against Russians and Belarusians. He also said the safety of Russians and Belarusians at competitions was at risk at the time.

Bach said that Russians and Belarusians have been competing in sports including tennis, the NHL and soccer (while not representing their countries) and that “it’s already working.”

“The question, which has been discussed in many of these consultations, is why should what is possible in all these sports not be possible in swimming, table tennis, wrestling or any other sport?” Bach said.

Bach then read a section of remarks that a United Nations cultural rights appointee made last week.

“We have to start from agreeing that these states [Russia and Belarus] are going to be excluded,” Bach read, in part. “The issue is what happens with individuals. … The blanket prohibition of Russian and Belarusian athletes and artists cannot continue. It is a flagrant violation of human rights. The idea is not that we are going to recognize human rights to people who are like us and with whom we agree on their actions and on their behavior. The idea is that anyone has the right not to be discriminated on the basis of their passport.”

The IOC’s Tuesday recommendations included not allowing “teams of athletes” from Russia and Belarus to return.

If Russia continues to be excluded from team sports and team events, it could further impact 2024 Olympic qualification.

The international basketball federation (FIBA) recently set an April 28 deadline to decide whether to allow Russia to compete in an Olympic men’s qualifying tournament. For women’s basketball, the draw for a European Olympic qualifying tournament has already been made without Russia.

In gymnastics, the ban has already extended long enough that, under current rules, Russian gymnasts cannot qualify for men’s and women’s team events at the Paris Games, but can still qualify for individual events if the ban is lifted.

Gymnasts from Russia swept the men’s and women’s team titles in Tokyo, where Russians in all sports competed for the Russian Olympic Committee rather than for Russia due to punishment for the nation’s doping violations. There were no Russian flags or anthems, conditions that the IOC also recommends for any return from the current ban for the war in Ukraine.

Seb Coe, the president of World Athletics, said last week that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned from track and field for the “foreseeable future.”

World Aquatics, the international governing body for swimming, diving and water polo, said after the IOC’s updated recommendations that it will continue to “consider developments impacting the situation” of Russian and Belarusian athletes and that “further updates will be provided when appropriate.”

The IOC’s sanctions against Russia and Belarus and their governments remain in place, including disallowing international competitions to be held in those countries.

On Monday, Ukraine’s sports minister said in a statement that Ukraine “strongly urges” that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned.

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