Akwasi Frimpong, Simdele Adeagbo
Cocoa/Candice Ward photography

Ghana, Nigeria skeleton racers set for Olympic berths

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New Olympic bobsled and skeleton criteria that helped Nigeria qualify female bobsledders for Pyeongchang should also get skeleton racers from Ghana and Nigeria into the Winter Games, experts believe.

Ghana’s Akwasi Frimpong is ranked 104th in the world men’s skeleton rankings. The Olympic skeleton field will be 30 men.

But Frimpong is all but assured an Olympic berth when the field is announced in mid-January because he is the only ranked slider from Africa, bobsled and skeleton officials said.

Same for Nigerian Simidele Adeagbo, who triple jumped at the 2004 and 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, in the women’s skeleton field.

Provided Adeagbo completes one more qualifying race, which she is expected to do January in Lake Placid. She is ranked 81st in the world.

Olympic bobsled and skeleton qualifying now grants the top athlete per continent a near-guaranteed Olympic place per event. So long as they complete five races on three different tracks in the last two seasons (and three races on two tracks this season).

Under previous rules, Frimpong and Adeagbo needed to be ranked in the top 60 and top 45 in the world, respectively, to make the Olympics. Not anymore.

For the Olympics, the international rankings will be cleaned of all athletes representing a nation that has already reached its maximum amount of quota spots. Frimpong and Adeagbo would easily move into the top 60 and top 45 under that criteria.

They could become the second and third Africans to compete in Olympic skeleton (Tyler Botha, South Africa, 2006).

Frimpong, 31, finished 44th out of 44 sliders at last season’s world championship in Koenigssee, Germany, more than four seconds behind the top men on each of his three runs.

He has raced on the lower-level North American Cup this season, finishing at or near the bottom in Park City, Calgary and Whistler.

Frimpong rejects “Cool Runnings” comparisons to the Jamaican bobsled team.

“I’m not out there to make a Disney movie,” he said. “I’m not there to be mediocre. I’m there to compete, but I also know my boundaries and limits. My wife told me when you go to the Games, you’re going to be the least experienced athlete. You have to accept that part. My plan has always been 2022 to win a medal for Africa.”

Frimpong moved from Ghana to the Netherlands at age 8 and became a junior champion sprinter. He flew to the U.S. for college, sprinting for Utah Valley University in 2010 and 2011.

“Holy cow, 99 percent white people,” Frimpong said of moving to Utah, according to the Deseret News. “And of course I was invited right away to come to church. I went, because you know what, they had food.”

Then he got injured and switched to bobsled, joining the Dutch national team as a push athlete after missing the London Olympics on the track. Frimpong raced in one World Cup but did not make the 2014 Winter Olympic team.

Frimpong said he then became the top salesman in the U.S. for Kirby Vacuum Company.

“I sold 32 Kirbys in 28 days,” he said.

Frimpong took one more foray into sports in 2015, becoming a skeleton racer and this time competing for his native Ghana. He confirmed this story from the Herald in Scotland:

He was born in Ghana and was raised in his formative years by his grandma, Minka. She brought up 10 children, including Frimpong, in a room measuring only four metres squared. They were so poor that they only had a full egg or entire bottle of Coca Cola on Christmas day.

Frimpong can become the second Winter Olympian from Ghana, joining Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong (aka the “Snow Leopard”), who was 47th out of 48 finishers in the 2010 Olympic men’s slalom.

Adeagbo, 36, can join the bobsledders as Nigeria’s first Winter Olympians.

She was born in Toronto to Nigerian parents. Adeagbo said she moved back to Nigeria when she was 2 months old — her dad needed to go back for requirements to become a university professor — and lived there until she was 6.

Then they moved to Memphis. Then Newfoundland. Finally, to Kentucky — high school near Louisville and college at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where she triple jumped.

Adeagbo graduated in 2003 and has worked for Nike ever since.

Including while triple jumping in 2008, when she set a personal best by a foot in the U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying round and ranked third in the nation for the year. But she was eight inches shy of the Olympic qualifying standard. She retired.

Adeagbo continued with Nike in Oregon — once performing as a Serena Williams body double for a press kit — until taking a new job with the company in 2013 in South Africa. She has been a marketing manager for Nike’s Africa division for the last four years.

About this time last year, Adeagbo learned of the Nigerian bobsled team seeking to become the first Olympians from Africa in the sport. All three women on the team are former NCAA track and field athletes like Adeagbo.

“I was immediately intrigued,” she said. “I had heard about track and field athletes making the move to bobsled [Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams in Sochi, most recently] and I thought, hmm, that would be interesting.”

Adeagbo was told the bobsled team was pretty set and an immediate opportunity to make it for the Olympics in a year would be difficult. She let it simmer for a few months. In July, she flew from Johannesburg to an open combine tryout for the team in Houston.

The Nigerian federation called her back for her first on-ice sliding camp in Canada in September. She tried both bobsled and skeleton.

“By the end of the week I started to kind of see the opportunity was really in skeleton,” she said. “In terms of bobsled, the timing wasn’t quite right to integrate into the team.”

Adeagbo raced for the first time on Nov. 12 — three months before she may slide in Pyeongchang. She called her introduction to zooming over 50 miles per hour head-first down an icy chute “violent and turbulent.”

In four North American Cup races this fall, Adeagbo finished in last place every time, an average of about six seconds per run behind the winner.

“My goal [at first] was to just not scream bloody murder as I’m going down,” she said. “Within a few runs, your brain somehow catches up with the speed at which you’re going, and it starts slowing down.

“It’s been a lot of learning in a short amount of time with a very lofty goal.”

Adeagbo said that from the beginning she was told it takes eight years to develop into a world-class skeleton athlete, if it happens at all. She was also told that the Pyeongchang Olympics were a possibility for her given the continental representation spot.

“I think the sport should be as global and universal as possible,” Adeagbo said. “That’s what sport is about.”

She said the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation has not communicated to her whether she is safely in the Olympic field. Quota spots will be announced in mid-January for all countries.

“Based on different conversations and just kind of what I’ve observed in the sport and looking at the [ranking] list, it’s highly probable that if I do what I need to do, which is get that minimum requirement [of one more race], that I should be in for sure,” Adeagbo said.

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MORE: 100 Olympic storylines 100 days out from Pyeongchang

Akwasi Frimpong can be followed on Twitter — @FrimpongAkwasi. Simidele Adeagbo can be followed on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @SimiSleighs.

Curling kerfuffle opens up debate on self-officiating

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Curling has long had an ethos of sportsmanship in which players call infractions on themselves and work out the resulting response — perhaps “burning” a rock by taking it out of play, perhaps restoring a rock to where it was or would have gone. 

“Curlers never knowingly break a rule of the game, nor disrespect any of its traditions,” reads the second paragraph of the World Curling Federation’s rule book. “Should they become aware that this has been done inadvertently, they will be the first to divulge the breach.”

Sunday at the European Curling Championship, a pivotal breach was divulged not by the players but by match officials, and a debate has erupted over social media in the usually uncontroversial curling community.

The rule itself is clear. When a substitute enters a game, a rare occurrence, that substitute must use the same brush head (for sweeping) as the player being replaced. The penalty is a forfeit. See page 33 of the rule book.

The Norwegian team, in which rival skips Thomas Ulsrud and Steffen Walstad have united to form a dream team, neglected to do that in a game the perennial powers were controlling against England, which was only promoted to the top division of the annual championship this year.

Norway left the ice thinking it had taken a routine win, only to be informed by officials that they would forfeit.

Walstad took to Facebook to complain about officials’ overreach.

“Even though all parties acted in good intent, thinking they were following the rules as best we could, a small misunderstanding that happened after the game in all regards was already decided was enough for the umpires to put on their star of authority and point to a subparagraph,” Walstad wrote.

Though Norway clearly broke a rule, many top-level curlers agree with Walstad. The Twitter account of U.S. curler Rich Ruohenen‘s team, which has advanced to the semifinals of the Red Deer Curling Classic over the weekend, called the decision “Ridiculous and embarrassing to the sport!” Canadian curlers Ben Hebert and Casey Scheidegger agreed, as did Scottish curling veteran Tom Brewster.

One counterpoint came from curling official and coach Keith Wendorf: “Don’t ask the officials to ignore rules, learn the rules.” Wendorf also sarcastically suggested curlers should ignore the red light on a stone indicating an illegal delivery and just write it off as unintentional.

The World Curling Federation issued a statement saying little other than restating the rule.

Self-officiating also came to the fore in an incident involving future Olympic gold medalist John Shuster at the 2016 world championships in a playoff against Japan. Yusuki Morozumi‘s last shot of the eighth end sent a U.S. stone in motion, and it made a Japanese stone go out of play. But before anyone could stop the Japanese stone, it rebounded off the side bumper and hit the moving U.S. stone, stopping its momentum. In that situation, the curlers are expected to figure out where the in-play stone would’ve stopped if it hadn’t hit the out-of-play stone. The Japanese team thought it would have continued moving and gone out of play. Shuster disagreed, saying it would have stayed in play and in the house, where it would count toward Shuster’s score. Shuster wound up keeping the rock in play and then delivered his last shot to score three for the U.S.

Shuster’s team went on to win the game 5-4. They lost the semifinal 9-3 and then faced Japan once more for the bronze medal, winning 8-6 to give Shuster his only world championship medal in eight appearances. (He also has a bronze medal from the 2019 mixed doubles championship and, of course, the 2018 Olympic gold.)

The video is a little easier to understand (the controversy starts at the 1:40 mark):

Shuster had every right to make the call according to curling rules: “If a moving stone is touched by a stone deflecting off the sheet dividers, the non-delivering team shall place the stone where it reasonably considers the stone would have come to rest had the moving stone not been touched.”

Shuster was clearly uncomfortable in that position, and columnist Don Landry wondered if he would have avoided controversy if an official had made the call instead: “Perhaps John Shuster might rather not even have to make that call. Because he’d be better off moaning about the officials and a determination he disagreed with instead of being the target of the torches and pitchforks set.”

In recreational curling, leaving decisions in the hands of the curlers can literally force them to make a choice between winning or losing on a technicality. Every now and then, curlers end up with a negotiated settlement of sorts.

In high-level competition, curlers have already handed over one decision whether the thrower has made a clean release before the “hog line,” the thick blue line that is one of the sport’s most important boundaries. A light on the stone turns red if the thrower didn’t let go of the rock in time or touched it again after releasing it The system seems straightforward but proved controversial in the 2018 Olympics on a costly infraction against British skip Eve Muirhead where TV replays didn’t seem to back up what the light reported.

The debate over self-officiating has also come up in Ultimate (formerly Ultimate frisbee), as the game has grown in stature from a college pastime to a semi-professional sport. Many competitions now use “observers,” whose job is somewhere between that of a referee and that of a mediator. The semi-professional American Ultimate Disc League has gone a step farther, using actual referees akin to those in almost any other sport. The league still allows players overturn a referee’s call in their favor (basically, a “no no, I actually fouled him” call), but the referee has more authority than has been common in the sport.

Norway’s curlers might not object to officials in general, but the rigid enforcement of the broom rule has left them in difficulty in the European championships. They’re currently tied for fifth place, one spot out of the playoff berths, with a 3-3 record. England is in last place at 1-5, though they’ve been close in a couple of games.

The Olympic Channel has coverage of the European championships for the rest of the week (all times ET):

  • Wednesday, 8 a.m.: Switzerland vs. Scotland (men)
  • Thursday, 3 a.m.: Scotland vs. Sweden (men)
  • Thursday, 8 a.m.: Sweden vs. Russia (women)
  • Thursday, 1 p.m.: Men’s semifinal
  • Friday, 8 a.m.: Women’s semifinal
  • Friday, 1 p.m.: Women’s bronze medal game
  • Saturday, 4 a.m.: Men’s bronze medal game
  • Saturday, 9 a.m.: Women’s gold medal game

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Grand Prix Final: Who’s in, who’s on the bubble, and how NHK Trophy impacts the standings

Yuzuru Hanyu, Nathan Chen
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Some figure skaters, like Nathan Chen and ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, have already clinched spots to the prestigious Grand Prix Final. But the December competition allows for an exclusive six-skater field, which will finalize this weekend after NHK Trophy in Japan (live, on-demand and commercial-free for NBC Sports Gold Pass subscribers).

Let’s examine what scenarios need to play out at NHK Trophy in order for skaters like Olympic champions Alina Zagitova and Yuzuru Hanyu to clinch spots at the event. The Final is Dec. 5-8 in Torino, Italy, site of the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

Ladies

Two skaters have clinched spots prior to NHK Trophy:

  • Alexandra Trusova (won Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup), 15, from Russia
  • Anna Shcherbakova (won Skate America and Cup of China), 15, from Russia

They train together in Moscow under coach Eteri Tutberidze and are both in their first season on the senior Grand Prix circuit. Along with Alena Kostornaia, this young trio are capable of some of the most difficult jumps being performed in women’s skating today. The ladies’ standings can be found here.

American Bradie Tennell currently sits third in the standings. She is as close to clinching a berth as one can get without technically doing so. Forcing Tennell out of the Grand Prix Final at this point would require a series of unlikely scenarios to take place this weekend at NHK Trophy.

Tennell would be the first American woman in a Grand Prix Final since Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold competed in the 2015 Grand Prix Final.

American Mariah Bell ended up with the same number of points in the standings as Tennell. However, Tennell wins over Bell on a tiebreak due to her second and fourth place Grand Prix series finishes, compared to Bell’s two bronze medals this season. The first tiebreak procedure is based on highest placement on the Grand Prix series.

Tennell also beats Satoko Miyahara of Japan on a tiebreak, because Tennell’s total combined score is higher than Miyahara’s. They both have a silver medal and a fourth place finish on the series, so the next criteria looks at total scores from both Grand Prix events. Miyahara had appeared in every Grand Prix Final since 2015 and this would’ve been her fifth straight appearance.

The remainder of the six-skater field should be decided at NHK Trophy, where reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova is skating, as is Japan’s Rika Kihira and Grand Prix France champion Kostornaia (16, and also in her first senior Grand Prix season).

Kostornaia will make the Grand Prix Final with a fifth-place finish or higher, while Zagitova and Kihira just need to land on the podium to earn a spot in Torino.

Another note: Four out of the six women’s skaters in the Grand Prix Final field are Russian. Last year, three Russians and three Japanese skaters made up the field. This year, there is likely a little more variety with as many as four Russians, a Japanese skater and an American.

READ MORE: Bradie Tennell’s personality shines through at Skate America

Men

Two skaters have clinched spots before NHK Trophy:

  • Nathan Chen (won Skate America and Grand Prix France) from the U.S.
  • Alexander Samarin (silver at Grand Prix France and won Rostelecom Cup) from Russia

Chen has appeared in the last three consecutive Finals, earning a silver in 2016 followed by winning back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018. The men’s standings can be found here.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu skates this weekend at home in Japan and needs to place inside the top four to clinch a spot in the Grand Prix Final. Hanyu won the Grand Prix Final four straight times in 2013, ’14, ’15 and ’16, but withdrew last year from the Final after qualifying due to injury. In 2017, he couldn’t qualify for the Final due to his withdrawal from NHK Trophy. This will be the first Hanyu-Chen head-to-head since the world championships in March, where Chen earned gold to Hanyu’s silver.

American Jason Brown needs to place second at NHK Trophy to clinch a Grand Prix Final berth, but is very likely qualified even if he places third.

France’s Kevin Aymoz and Russia’s Makar Ignatov would need to win NHK Trophy to clinch a Grand Prix Final berth, and if they earn silver medals they’ll end up in a tie-break scenario with Russian Dmitri Aliev (currently third in the standings; almost certainly guaranteed a Grand Prix Final spot at this point with a bronze at Skate America and a silver at Rostelecom Cup).

Other notes: France’s last men’s representative in a Grand Prix Final was Florent Amodio, who finished sixth in 2010.

This is the first time in Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno‘s senior career that he will miss the Grand Prix Final (eighth at Grand Prix France, fourth at Rostelecom Cup). Uno was on the Grand Prix Final podium four times in four previous appearances.

READ MORE: Will Nathan Chen return to six quad jumps in his free skate?

Pairs

Three pairs have so far clinched spots for the GPF:

  • Aleksandra Boikova/ Dmitry Kozlovskiy (won Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup) from Russia
  • Peng Cheng/ Jin Yang (won Skate America, silver at Cup of China) from China
  • Daria Pavliuchenko/ Denis Khodykin (silvers at Skate Canada and Grand Prix France), from Russia

Pairs’ standings can be found here.

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China compete at NHK Trophy this weekend and can clinch a berth to the Final with a podium finish. The two-time world champions own three previous Grand Prix Final medals, but none are gold.

Anastasia Mishina and Alexandr Galliamov from Russia also compete this weekend and need to finish on the podium to clinch a spot in Torino. They already won Grand Prix France earlier this season.

For Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro to make the Grand Prix Final, they need to earn gold or silver at NHK Trophy. If they finish with bronze medals, they’ll enter a tiebreak scenario with Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov of Russia. That tiebreak will be determined by total cumulative score from both teams’ two Grand Prix events this fall, with the higher score getting the spot at the Final.

Two-time U.S. national pair champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim skate in Japan this weekend, too, but they need help in the standings from other teams in order to earn a spot in the Final. They skated in the Grand Prix Final in 2015, finishing seventh (under a rare circumstance where the Final allowed for seven, instead of the usual six, slots). 2017 U.S. national champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier are fifth in the standings for the Final before NHK Trophy, but the three-year long streak of a Grand Prix Final without an American team is likely to continue.

Ice dance

Three teams have so far clinched spots for the Grand Prix Final:

  • Viktoria Sinitsina/ Nikita Katsalapov (won Cup of China and Rostelecom Cup), from Russia
  • Piper Gilles/ Paul Poirier (won Skate Canada, silver at Rostelecom Cup), from Canada
  • Madison Hubbell/ Zach Donohue (won Skate America, silver at Skate Canada), from U.S.

Hubbell and Donohue are last year’s Grand Prix Final champions. Ice dance standings can be found here.

Four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France skate at NHK Trophy and clinch a berth to the Grand Prix Final with a podium finish.

Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin also skate at NHK Trophy, and can only clinch a spot in the Final with a win. However, if they finish second to the French team, both will make the Final.

Currently fourth in the standings are U.S. duo Madison Chock and Evan Bates. They earned silver medals at both Grand Prix France and Cup of China, and are as close to certainly getting a spot at the Final as can be without technically clinching a spot. The most likely NHK Trophy scenario is that Papadakis and Cizeron win NHK Trophy, and Stepanova and Bukin finish second – and if that happens, Papadakis and Cizeron, Stepanova and Bukin and Chock and Bates all make the Final.

Other notes: Gilles’ and Poirier’s first and only trip to the Grand Prix Final came in the post-Sochi 2014 season, when they finished fifth.

Prior to Chock’s ankle injury, which kept the duo out of the Grand Prix series and Final last season, they appeared in four straight Finals from 2014-17, earning two silver medals.

The last appearance in the Grand Prix Final by Papadakis and Cizeron was in 2017 – prior to PyeongChang – when they beat eventual Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada. The French couple missed the Grand Prix Final last year because they withdrew from a regular-series event and could not qualify.

READ MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: 10 things we’ve learned halfway through the Grand Prix figure skating season