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North Korea can qualify for Olympics this week

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North Korea’s first bona fide chance to qualify athletes for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics is this week.

Pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik compete at Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying event for the sport.

Ryom and Kim must finish in the top five among pairs from nations not already qualified for the Olympics. Based on scores from the last year, they are favored to do so.

Their choreographer, Canadian Julie Marcotte, agrees.

“That’s all that matters to them right now is to qualify for the Olympics,” she said. “That’s all they want.”

Last season, the North Koreans asked Marcotte’s brother, Bruno, who coaches pairs, if they could train under him in Montreal in the summer. And if Julie could choreograph one of their programs.

There was no hesitation in accepting them. The North Koreans had previously trained in Toronto.

Ryom, 18, and Kim, 25, were expected in Quebec in June but due to a travel delay arrived in July. They shared the ice with the likes of two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford.

“They were already very good, but they improved at the speed of light,” Marcotte said. “They were very receptive, very hard-working, and not the attitude people would expect, actually. It was mind-blowing. The story is actually that they were extremely joyful, extremely generous with their thankfulness, with their appreciation.”

The North Koreans speak no English, so most of the communication with Marcotte was non-verbal. They came with two North Korean coaches, one of whom spoke some English.

“[Ryom and Kim] are the sweetest people you’ve ever met,” said Marcotte, whose time spent with all of her skaters is wholly at practices. “It was so uplifting to have the chance to get to know them and work with them. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a great surprise.”

Ryom and Kim competed at the Quebec Summer Championships in August and scored 12 points higher than their personal best.

“They were out-of-this-world fabulous,” Marcotte said. “They’ve really come a long way. … I know they were crying, they were so excited. I think with their skating this summer it gave them hope they could qualify for the Olympics.”

This week’s event also includes pairs from Canada, Germany, Russia and the U.S., but they already clinched Olympic spots last season.

The North Koreans’ competition for Olympic spots on Thursday and Friday comes from the Czech Republic, Austria, Israel, Japan and Australia.

Ryom and Kim placed 15th at last season’s world championships, where they spoke briefly to The Associated Press through a translator.

They’re seeded second in the field of pairs eyeing Olympic qualification, granted these point totals won’t help them this week:

  1. Duskova/Bidar (CZE) — 189.09
  2. Ryom/Kim (PRK) — 169.65
  3. Ziegler/Kiefer (AUT) — 165.63
  4. Conners/Krasnopolski (ISR) — 165.38
  5. Suto/Boudreau-Audet (JPN) — 164.96
  6. Alexandrovskaya/Windsor (AUS) — 164.10

They’re performing to The Beatles in the short program for a second straight season. Their free skate is new, performed to Montreal singer Ginette Reno.

Despite winning at least four medals at every Summer Games since boycotting Seoul 1988, North Korea didn’t have any athletes at the Sochi Olympics and just two at Vancouver 2010.

North and South Korea have shown solidarity at recent Games.

The nations marched together under one flag at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Sydney and Athens. In Rio, North and South Korean gymnasts posed for a selfie together. And North Korea did compete in the two Asian Games hosted by South Korea in the last 30 years, in 2002 and 2014.

Four years ago, a different North Korean pair missed qualifying a Sochi Olympic quota spot by .99 of a point at Nebelhorn Trophy.

If Ryom and Kim do not finish in the top five, North Korea could still qualify Alpine or cross-country skiers closer to the Winter Games.

There have also been reports that North Korean athletes could be granted special invitations without having to qualify.

Ryom and Kim have finished their Montreal training and will spend the lead-up to PyeongChang back in North Korea. Marcotte doesn’t expect to see them again before the Olympics. She has no plans to be in PyeongChang, either.

“They deserve to do well this week,” she said. “I wish it for them just for the people that they are.”

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*Addition: France announced it is giving up one of its two Olympic pairs sports, meaning five spots are available at Nebelhorn instead of four.

Pole vaulter, 84, sets her sights on more records

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BURLINGTON, Vt. — An 84-year-old pole vaulter isn’t putting her pole down anytime soon.

Flo Filion Meiler left Thursday for the World Masters Athletics Championship Indoor in Poland, where she’ll compete in events including the long jump, 60-meter hurdles, 800-meter run, pentathlon and pole vault, for which she’s the shoo-in.

The petite, energetic woman from Shelburne, Vermont, said she feels more like 70 than nearly 85.

“But you know, I do train five days a week. And when I found out I was going to compete at the worlds, I’ve been training six days a week because I knew I would really get my body in shape,” she said last week, after track and field training at the University of Vermont.

But she literally won’t have any competition in the pole vault in the championships, which runs March 24-31 in Torun, Poland. She is the only one registered in her age group, 80-84, for the sport, for which she set a world record at age 80. In the men’s pole vault, nine men are listed as competing in that age group.

Meiler said she the events she likes the best are the hurdles and the pole vault – one of the more daring track and field events, in which competitors run while carrying a fiberglass or composite pole, brace it against the ground to launch themselves over a high bar, and land on a mat.

“You really have to work at that,” she said. “You have to have the upper core and you have to have timing, and I just love it because it’s challenging.”

Meiler is used to hard work. She grew up on a dairy farm, where she helped her father with the chores, feeding the cattle and raking hay. In school, she did well at basketball, took tap and ballroom dancing, and, living near Lake Champlain, she water skied.

Meiler, who worked for 30 years as a sales representative for Herbalife nutritional supplements, and her husband, Eugene, who was a military pilot and then became a financial analyst, together competed in water skiing.

“Many times when I did water ski competition I was the only gal in my age group,” she said.

She’s a relative newcomer to pole vaulting and track and field, overall. At age 60, she was competing in doubles tennis with her husband in a qualifying year at the Vermont Senior Games when a friend encouraged her to try the long jump because competitors were needed.

“That was the beginning of my track career,” she said, standing in a room of her home, surrounded by hundreds of hanging medals. She took up pole vaulting at 65.

Athletics has helped her though some hard times, she said. She and her husband adopted three children after losing two premature biological babies and a 3-year-old. Two years ago, their son died at age 51.

And she desperately misses her training partner, a woman who started having health problems about five years ago and can no longer train. It’s tough to train alone, she said, and she hopes to find a new partner.

“She’s incredibly serious about what she does,” said Meiler’s coach, Emmaline Berg. “She comes in early to make sure she’s warmed up enough. She goes home and stretches a lot. So she pretty much structures her entire life around being a fantastic athlete, which is remarkable at any age, let alone hers.”

And it has paid off, said Berg, an assistant track coach at Vermont.

Berg herself first started following Meiler 10 years ago while she was a student at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, watching her at the annual Dartmouth Relays.

“She was like a local celebrity,” she said.

Setting a record at age 80 with a 6-foot (1.8-meter) pole vault at the USA Track and Field Adirondack Championships in Albany, New York, while her husband watched, Meiler said, was one of her happiest days.

“I was screaming, I was so happy,” she said.

The overall world record for women’s pole vaulting is 16.6 feet (5.6 meters), according to the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Meiler turns 85 in June, when she’ll head to the National Senior Games in New Mexico.

That will put her in a new age group, in which she hopes to set even more records.

Meiler’s athletic achievements are remarkable and something to be celebrated, said Dr. Michael LaMantia, director of the University of Vermont Center on Aging.

Pole vaulting clearly isn’t for everyone of her age, but in general, activity should be, LaMantia said.

“She can serve as a role model for other seniors,” he said.

Amateur boxing president steps aside during IOC inquiry

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — With Olympic boxing under investigation by the IOC, the president of the sport’s governing body said on Friday he was stepping aside to let an interim leader take charge.

Gafur Rakhimov sai d he was not resigning as AIBA president, however, and did not call for new elections.

Rakhimov’s status on a U.S. Treasury Department sanctions list as an alleged heroin trafficker is part of an inquiry by an International Olympic Committee-appointed panel.

The panel will update the IOC executive board next week in Lausanne, Switzerland. AIBA could be derecognized by IOC members in June.

The IOC halted planning for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic boxing tournaments and blocked AIBA officials from contacting organizers in Japan.

“The allegations against me were fabricated and based on politically motivated lies,” Rakhimov said. “I trust that the truth will prevail. Nevertheless, I have always said that I would never put myself above boxing, and as president, I have a duty to do everything in my power to serve our sport and our athletes.”

Under AIBA statutes, an interim president is picked from among the five vice-presidents, who include several Rakhimov supporters. The executive committee is due to meet by telephone this weekend. The interim leader can serve only a maximum 365 days before fresh elections, however, meaning that arrangement can’t last through to the Tokyo Olympics.

When Rakhimov was elected last year, his supporters pushed for a plan to allow the president to step aside while still retaining key influence and being able to return at any time, but that was defeated.

It’s not clear if Rakhimov’s departure would be enough to calm the IOC, which has also criticized AIBA over how fights are judged, anti-doping measures, and its debts.

The IOC could try to host an Olympic boxing tournament without AIBA, and some national boxing officials have tried to form a group which could help the IOC stage the event.