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Pairs vie for one Olympic spot at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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When Alexa Scimeca Knierim dropped below 90 pounds in 2016, debilitated by a life-threatening illness, it was hard to believe she and her husband would arrive at this point, days before the Olympic team is named.

Alexa and Chris — the Knierims — are the prohibitive favorites to claim the lone U.S. Olympic pairs figure skating spot.

The U.S. will send its smallest pairs contingent to the Games since the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest figure skating discipline. No Olympic medals since 1988.

A U.S. Figure Skating committee will announce the Olympic team after the pairs free skate at nationals on Saturday.

The Knierims could be that team even if they are beaten in San Jose and haven’t won the national title since 2015.

That’s because the Knierims have been the top-scoring U.S. pair in international competition each of the last four seasons.

And because the committee chooses the Olympic figure skating team based not only on nationals results, but also on performances from the last year.

“We are in a good place with the criteria set out,” Chris Knierim said.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier won the U.S. title last season but were 20th at worlds, the main reason why the U.S. failed to qualify multiple pairs for the Olympics.

The Knierims were absent from last January’s nationals due to Alexa’s illness and three abdominal surgeries but returned and were 10th at worlds.

Denney and Frazier know that a repeat national crown might not be enough to get to PyeongChang.

“Whether we agree or disagree, our federation has every right to make their decisions,” Frazier said. “It is completely out of our control.”

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Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Chris Knierim
2015 U.S. champions
Top U.S. pair at last three world championships
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 1st

The top-scoring U.S. pair in international competition every season in this Olympic cycle. The wed in June 2016, during a stretch where Alexa suffered from a mysterious illness that kept them from training for seven months. She underwent three abdominal surgeries, resulting in a several-inch scar running north-south on her belly.

The Knierims returned to competition in February and immediately posted the highest score by a U.S. pair for the season. Then they were 10th at worlds, again better than any other U.S. pair in this Olympic cycle.

“Physically, I didn’t believe I would be able to be in the position I am today,” Scimeca Knierim said. “Grateful to have the chance to skate again.”

This season, the Knierims competed three times in the fall and posted the three highest scores by U.S. couples across all competitions. They’re ranked 16th in the world, struggling with side-by-side jumps but intending to bring back their quad twist this week.

Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier
2017 U.S. champions
Two-time Skate America silver medalists
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 5th

Denney and Frazier are the defending national champs and the only U.S. pair to make a Grand Prix podium in either of the last two seasons. Yet they are decided underdogs this week.

A big reason why was their 20th-place at worlds, counting two falls in the short program and failing to advance to the free skate. The disaster meant the U.S. qualified one pair spot for the Olympics rather than the two they had at the previous five Winter Games.

The former roller skating pairs team was seventh in both Grand Prix starts this fall, their lowest finishes in four senior seasons together.

Ashley Cain/Tim LeDuc
2017 U.S. bronze medalists
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 4th

They topped the short program at last season’s nationals eight months after first teaming up. LeDuc had not competed in pairs since the 2014 U.S. Championships. Cain was nearly 4 1/2 years removed from her last pairs event.

Cain and LeDuc go into nationals ranked fourth among U.S. pairs this season, but unlike the Olympic contenders ahead of them have not competed domestically. They counted at least one fall at all three of their international events in Italy, Germany and China.

Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea
2016 U.S. champions
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 7th

The surprise U.S. champions two seasons ago withdrew from last season’s nationals due to Kayne’s concussion after hitting her head in a short program fall. Kayne then underwent unrelated February right knee surgery.

In their return at an early December event, they scored 20 points lower than their personal best.

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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.

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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.”

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