Racing toward the Olympics, in between plumbing gigs

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The day before Jonathan Cheever flew to Argentina to open the snowboard cross season, he labored at the U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah.

The job? Replacing six feet of rotted-out piping beneath a garbage disposal. The drain was clogged with a few days’ worth of coffee grounds.

The 32-year-old Cheever has been a snowboarder and a plumber for more than a decade.

Lately, he’s been pretty valuable to U.S. Ski & Snowboard in both and, after an out-of-nowhere finish Saturday, appears headed to his first Olympics in February.

“‘[Plumbing] is still my bread and butter,” Cheever said.

He used the organization’s money for fixing its pipes toward $7,500 in travel costs to Argentina for the first World Cup stop of the Olympic season last weekend.

Years removed from his career highlights, Cheever is no longer a national A team member. He must pay his own way to competitions.

In Argentina, Cheever picked an opportune time to make his first World Cup podium since Feb. 21, 2012, finishing in third place on Saturday. That one result may be enough to make his first Olympics.

“There’s not a switch that’s flipped,” said Cheever, whose previous top finish since December 2012 was eighth. “Everything last year was firing on all cylinders, but there was always just one little thing that would change a result from a top-10 to a top-40, whether it was somebody hitting me in a turn or getting unlucky with some wind or maybe even a bad decision on a roller.”

In U.S. snowboarding team selection, a top-three finish at one of four events — Saturday’s race in Argentina, plus three more in Europe in December — provisionally qualifies for the Olympic team.

Cheever can only be knocked off the Olympic team if three other Americans make a podium at the remaining three selection events. If more than three total U.S. men earn a podium, then the tie is broken by best finish.

It’s unlikely to reach a tiebreaker. The top U.S. men — who all outperformed Cheever last season — rarely land on the World Cup podium. Their stats since the start of the 2015-16 season:

Nick Baumgartner — three podiums in 16 starts (18.8 percent)
Alex Deibold 
— two podiums in 16 starts (12.5 percent)
Nate Holland — one podium in 13 starts (7.7 percent)
Hagen Kearney — one podium in 15 starts (6.7 percent)

Cheever also has a safety net. A potential fourth and final place on the Olympic team is a discretionary pick by a committee after the selection events.

“It’s not guaranteed that I’m on Team USA, but I definitely made things a lot easier on myself,” he said.

A 32-year-old snowboarder making his Olympic debut may sound strange, but snowboard cross is not necessarily a young rider’s event like the sport’s other disciplines.

Lindsey Jacobellis, her Olympic misses aside, continues to be the world’s best female racer at age 32. Seth Wescott won the first two Olympic men’s snowboard cross gold medals at 29 and 33, respectively.

Snowboarding pioneer Shaun Palmer made a World Cup podium at age 41 in 2010.

Today’s top international stars — Alex Pullin of Australia and Pierre Vaultier of France — will both be 30 years old in PyeongChang.

Riders help pay the bills by sticking sponsor logos on the bottom of their boards. On Cheever’s board reads, “Bradford White Water Heaters,” his biggest financial supporter for seven or eight years.

Now, Cheever must focus on his plumbing before the next races in December.

An eight-hour class is ahead to keep his license in his home state of Massachusetts, where his dad has been in the plumbing business for more than 30 years. However, Cheever plans to move to Austria this fall to live with his wife, two-time Olympic snowboarder Maria Ramberger.

“If money was the motivating factor, I would be installing toilets or water heaters,” he said. “I race snowboards because I love everything about it.

“Hopefully, I can line up enough sponsors where, you know, the plumbing is more of a side thing than a main source of income.”

Cheever, who took up snowboarding at age 12, graduated as class president from an all-boys Catholic school in 2003. He pursued a plumbing license while also enrolling at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in mechanical engineering.

He soon reasoned that plumbing would net more money. He left school after one year and moved to Utah as a snowboarder/plumber. Strong results soon followed.

Cheever made his first World Cup podium in February 2009 and ranked sixth in the world for the season (third among Americans). But the pressure of an Olympic season got to him, and he didn’t make the Vancouver team of four men.

Cheever rebounded to nearly win the World Cup overall title in 2011, but before Saturday he had not made a World Cup podium since rupturing his Achilles in March 2012.

The difference this year is primarily mental. Cheever said he went into Saturday’s race — his 69th World Cup in 12 seasons — believing he was not only the fastest American, but also fastest in the world.

Now, the goal isn’t just to make it to PyeongChang. It’s to find the podium there, too.

“I don’t base my life around the Olympics, but it’s extremely important,” he said. “We sit down, we have a meeting, and we talk about what you have to do to make the U.S. Olympic team, and my heart rate jumps up.”

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MORE: PyeongChang Olympic schedule daily highlights

Who is Italy’s greatest Olympian?

Alberto Tomba
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Italy ranks sixth on the total Olympic medal list, thanks in large part to its fencers. Italian fencers have won a leading 125 medals, more than double the nation’s total in any other sport. The Italians are known for their personalities, from La Bomba to the Cannibal, with six of their best detailed here …

Deborah Compagnoni
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only Alpine skier to earn gold at three straight Olympics. Compagnoni overcame a broken knee as a junior racer and life-saving surgery to remove 27 inches of her intestine in 1990 to win the Albertville 1992 super-G by 1.8 seconds. It remains the largest margin of victory in the discipline for either gender since 1968. The following day, Compagnoni tore knee ligaments in the giant slalom. She returned to win the GS at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Compagnoni ended her Olympic career with the biggest rout in a GS at a Winter Games, prevailing by 1.41 seconds in Nagano.

Klaus Dibiasi
Diving
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only diver to win the same individual event three times. The Austrian-born Dibiasi took platform silver in 1964 at age 17, then three straight golds through 1976. Dibiasi was coached by his father, who was 10th on platform at the 1936 Berlin Games. In his final Olympics, Dibiasi held off a 16-year-old Greg Louganis, who would go on to challenge, if not overtake, Dibiasi as the greatest male diver in history.

Eugenio Monti
Bobsled
Six Olympic Medals

Regarded by many as the greatest bobsled driver in history. Monti captured two silver medals in 1956, missed the 1960 Winter Games that didn’t include bobsled, then two bronzes in 1964 and a pair of golds at age 40 in 1968. On top of that, the nine-time world champion is remembered for an act of sportsmanship in 1964. In between runs, Monti lent a bolt off his own two-man sled to a British team whose sled was damaged. The Brits took gold, ahead of both Italian sleds.

Alberto Tomba
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

“La Bomba” dazzled by sweeping the giant slalom and slalom at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, after dubbing himself the “Messiah of Skiing“ beforehand. Known for his man-about-town ways, Tomba offered one of his gold medals to East German figure skater Katarina Witt should she fall short in her event. After Witt repeated as gold medalist, the story goes that Tomba showed up with a bouquet of roses and an autographed picture of himself, made out out to “Katerina.” “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m.,” Tomba once said. “Now I live it up with five women until 3 a.m,”

Valentina Vezzali
Fencing
Six Olympic Gold Medals

An 18-year-old Vezzali was an alternate for the 1992 Olympics, forced to watch on TV as the Italian women took team foil gold. Vezzali made the next five Olympics, winning medals in all nine of her events, including three straight individual titles, the last as a mom. Vezzali finished her career with nine total Olympic medals, 25 world championships medals, a flag bearer honor at the 2012 Opening Ceremony and as a member of Italy’s parliament.

Armin Zoeggeler
Luge
Six Olympic Medals

“The Cannibal” retired in 2014 as the first athlete to earn a medal in the same individual event at six straight Olympics. Zoeggeler earned silver and bronze medals in 1994 and 1998, then overtook German legend Georg Hackl for gold in 2002, followed by winning at home in Torino in 2006. He held on for bronze medals in 2010 and 2014, behind the new German luge star, Felix Loch, who would be coached by Hackl. Growing up on top of a steep hill, Zoeggeler began sledding at age 7 to catch the school bus at the bottom.

GREATEST OLYMPIANS: Germany | Liechtenstein | Japan

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Kurt Angle recalls devastation, exultation of Olympic wrestling gold medal

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Kurt Angle doesn’t remember much from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but he won’t forget that moment of deep emotional pain.

In the 100kg final, Angle and Iranian Abbas Jadidi were tied 1-1 after regulation and an overtime period.. Eight total minutes of wrestling. They also had the same number of passivity calls, forcing a judges’ decision to determine the gold medalist.

After deliberation, the referee stood between each wrestler in the middle of the mat. He held each’s wrist, ready to reveal the champion to the Georgia World Congress Center crowd — and to the athletes. Angle, now 51, has rarely watched video of the match. But he distinctly remembers, in his peripheral vision, Jadidi’s left arm rising.

“I thought I lost,” Angle said by phone this week. “So right away, I was like, s—, four more years.”

Turns out, the Iranian was raising his own arm. An instant later, the referee suppressed Jadidi. He lifted Angle’s right arm. The wrestler sobbed.

“I had so much emotion because I was devastated and then I was told that I won,” Angle said. “It was a very odd experience. I didn’t know how to handle it. It felt like my father died all over again. That’s how much grief I had. Then, all of a sudden, you won.”

Angle thought of two people immediately after he won, falling to his knees in prayer. First, his father, David, who died in a construction accident when Angle was 16. Second, the 1984 Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz, his coach who was murdered by John du Pont six months before the Games.

Angle went on to become one of the most famous U.S. gold medalists of the Atlanta Games, due largely to a two-decade career as a professional wrestler, including as a world heavyweight champion with the WWE.

It would have been different if the referee kept Jadidi’s arm in the air. Angle went into the Olympics knowing it would be his last competition, but only if he took gold. Anything less, and he would continue on, perhaps into his 30s and the 2000 Sydney Games. Despite everything Angle went through just to get to Atlanta.

In the year leading up to the Olympics, Angle lost Schultz, broke his neck at the U.S. Open and, five minutes before each match at the Olympic Trials, received 12 shots of novocaine to numb the pain long enough to advance to the next round. Angle later developed a painkiller addiction.

Angle, a Pennsylvania native, was part of the Foxcatcher club when du Pont shot and killed Schultz. Angle said he wasn’t consulted for the 2014 film “Foxcatcher,” but he thought it was well done save a few instances of dramatic license.

“Unfortunately, I hate to admit this, but if it weren’t for Team Foxcatcher, I probably wouldn’t have won my gold medal,” Angle said. “I probably wouldn’t have known Dave Schultz, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did. It sucks because, to have to thank John du Pont for the ability of allowing me to pay me to wrestle full time and win a world championship [in 1995] and Olympic gold medal, that was huge, but he killed Dave Schultz. The club would have thrived to this day. It just sucks it turned out the way it did, because it made me the best wrestler in the world. Dave Schultz had a lot to do with that, but a lot of wrestlers that followed could have not had to worry about money and could have trained and competed.”

Angle shared his gold medal with, he estimated, thousands of people before housing it in a safe.

“The gold was wearing off,” Angle said. “One kid, I remember, I was at an elementary school, and he grabbed my medal by the ribbon and started twirling it around real fast. He let go of it, and it hit the wall. There’s a big dent in my gold medal. That was the last time I brought it to an elementary school.”

Angle announced in 2011, at age 42, that he was training to come back for the 2012 Olympic Trials. He never made it, calling it off with a knee injury.

“But I trained hard for it,” Angle said, noting he still kept up appearances with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. “I will tell you this, I wouldn’t have made the team. My goal was to place in the top three. I just missed the [thrill of] competition.”

It meant that Angle’s last match remained that Olympic final. His last moment as a freestyle wrestler having his arm raised.

“All I wanted to do was win a world championship and an Olympic gold medal, and I did them both,” Angle said, sobbing, just off the mat that night in Atlanta. “If I died tonight, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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