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Gwen Jorgensen leaves triathlon for marathon

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Gwen Jorgensen is leaving triathlon as the Olympic champion to pursue a gold medal in the marathon.

“It’s a huge risk to switch sports right now, when I’m arguably at the top and could make more money than I’ve ever made in triathlon,” the 31-year-old said. “However, I am motivated by a new challenge. Triathlon picked me, and now I’m picking marathon.”

Jorgensen, who announced the news on social media, accomplished everything she wanted in triathlon — Olympic and world titles and the longest winning streak since the sport was added to the Games in 2000.

Her new goal is to win a World Marathon Major like Boston, Chicago or New York City and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Her last race before her recent pregnancy was actually her marathon debut in New York City on Nov. 6, 2016. The former University of Wisconsin runner was 14th in 2 hours, 41 minutes, 1 second, more than 16 minutes behind the winner.

Jorgensen was disappointed.

She was also unprepared. Her buildup was triathlon training. Her longest run before toeing the line in Staten Island was 16 miles. The weekend before New York, she won a three-day triathlon stage race totaling 64 miles of swimming, biking and running in the Bahamas.

Jorgensen announced in January that she would take the entire 2017 triathlon season off to have a child. Stanley Lemieux was born Aug. 16. Jorgensen will figure out her 2018 race schedule once she is able to train at least 100 miles per week (she’s barely able to crack 30 miles two months after giving birth).

Few athletes leave at the top of their sport, in their prime, to pursue a different sport.

Michael Jordan is the notable exception, retiring from the NBA at age 30 in 1993 to try baseball after winning three straight NBA titles.

Jorgensen was just as dominant in triathlon. She won a record 13 straight top-level events — going undefeated for nearly two years — en route to becoming the first U.S. Olympic triathlon champion in Rio.

Her original goal was to defend that title in Tokyo, but the last year brought changes. The New York City Marathon. A move to Portland, Ore. The pregnancy and her first child.

“My time away from triathlon allowed me to reflect and set new goals,” Jorgensen said. “My biggest passion has always been running out of swim/bike/run, and I also feel this isn’t the first big challenge I’ve had before.”

That’s true. Jorgensen didn’t know the difference between 1500m and a mile when she started running her junior year at Wisconsin after walking onto the Badgers swim team as a freshman. She became an NCAA All-American the following year.

She had never ridden a triathlon bike when USA Triathlon recruited her to the sport eight years ago, away from an Ernst & Young accounting job. She qualified for her first Olympics two years later.

“I’ve had a few different athletic pursuits that started out not so great and ended OK,” she said.

Jorgensen will miss the relationships she built in triathlon. Her coach, Jamie Turner of New Zealand. Her training group in Australia, the Wollongong Wizards.

But she is no longer motivated to continue in Olympic-distance triathlons. Other Olympians moved to Ironman triathlons, but Jorgensen always swore that off.

“The major reason I’m trying to do marathon is because I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish in triathlon,” she said. “If I hadn’t gotten that gold [in Rio], it definitely would have been a failure. I remember going into the Olympics thinking if I get silver or bronze, it’s a failure.”

Jorgensen first mentioned to Turner that she had marathon ambitions about three years ago, but they were put aside until after Rio.

Now, after so many changes in the last year, come more. Jorgensen knows she must find a group training atmosphere to succeed, like what worked with Turner in Wollongong.

Other Olympic triathlon medalists have run marathons.

Swiss Nicola Spirig ran three between winning triathlon gold in 2012 (and giving birth to a boy in 2013) and silver in 2016. She clocked 2:37, 2:42 and 2:46.

Portugal’s Vanessa Fernandes shared triathlon’s longest top-level international winning streak before Jorgensen strung together 13 wins in a row. After an Olympic silver in 2008, Fernandes left triathlon for good in 2011 and clocked a 2:31 marathon in 2015.

Jorgensen knows that she must drop about 15 minutes from her 2016 New York City Marathon time to be competitive on the world level.

“Which seems ridiculous, but at the same time, I think I can do it,” she said. “It’s risky, and I think some people can look at it and probably think I’m being silly. Actually, I have some family members who think I should stay in the sport of triathlon. But, for me, I’m really motivated right now by trying something new and doing this running thing and seeing if I can do it.”

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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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