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Marit Bjoergen eyes Winter Olympic medal record

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Marit Bjoergen is heading to PyeongChang looking for a three-peat of her three-peat.

Bjoergen, the most successful female cross-country skier in history, won three gold medals in each of the past two Winter Games and will be looking to make it three in a row when the Olympics open Feb. 9.

Bjoergen owns 10 medals overall, tied with Raisa Smetanina and Stefania Belmondo as the most decorated female Winter Olympian ever.

She is three medals shy of the overall Winter Olympic medal record held by countryman and biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen.

Behind Bjoergen, Norway won 11 cross-country medals in Sochi — including five gold — to tie the country’s record.

The Norwegian team once again looks like the team to beat despite losing one of its top athletes to a doping ban.

“They are the traditional powerhouse in our sport,” said Jeff Ellis with the International Ski Federation (FIS). “They know how to get ready on time for the Olympics, which is a big deal. They are one of those nations.”

Things to know about the sport entering the PyeongChang Olympics:

WHAT IS IT: Cross-country skiing is a competition where skiers rely on their own locomotion to move themselves across snow-covered terrain — some flat, some hilly — wearing skinny skies and with the aid of poles. Cross-country skiing has been an event at the Winter Olympic Games since their inception in 1924 in Chamonix, France.

WHAT THEY’RE COMPETING FOR: There are six men’s and six women’s cross-country events at this year’s Winter Games. The men compete in the 15km classic, 30km skiathlon, sprint free, team sprint, 50km free mass start and 4x10km relay. The women compete in the 10km classic, 15km skiathlon, sprint free, team sprint, 30km mass start and 4x5km relay.

MEDAL FAVORITES: Dario Cologna from Switzerland won gold medals in the 15km classic and the 30kr skiathlon in Sochi four years ago. The 31-year-old Cologna, known as “Super Dario,” passed Sweden’s Marcus Hellner on the final climb and went on to win a tightly contested 30-kilometer skiathlon. Cologna remains at the top of his game, winning his fourth Tour de Ski overall title to start the new year. On the women’s side, Bjoergen could be challenged for gold by teammates Heidi Weng and Ingvild Flugstad and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla in the 15km skiathlon.

BEST MATCHUPS: Expect some fireworks in the women’s relay following an edge-of-your-seat finish in 2014 in which Charlotte Kalla fought back from 25 seconds down on the final leg to win it for Sweden. Surely, Finnish and German skiers haven’t forgotten their epic meltdown on the final leg and will be looking for a bit of revenge. Kalla has spent most of her career in Bjoergen’s shadow but could be ready for a breakout Olympics.

RISING STARS: Norway’s Johannes Klaebo, 21, won seven of nine World Cup races before Christmas. For the women, Kalla was atop the World Cup leaderboard before Christmas before taking time off — as many of the top Olympians do — to begin focusing on South Korea. Also, keep a close eye on Weng, who recently won her second straight Tour de Ski.

AMERICAN HOPEFUL: The Americans don’t have a great history with cross-country skiing — they have only won one Olympic medal in the sport’s history — but Jessie Diggins might be the country’s best hope. The fun-loving Diggins is the most decorated U.S. cross-country skier, male or female, in world championships history. She ranks third in this season’s World Cup standings.

FALLEN STAR: Two-time World Cup overall champion Therese Johaug is barred from racing until mid-April following a doping ban. The 29-year-old Norwegian tested positive for an anabolic agent listed in the contents of a treatment for sunburn, and a Court of Arbitration for Sport panel announced in August an 18-month ban was “appropriate.”

POTENTIAL RECORD-SETTERS: Norway’s Ola Vigen Hattestadand won the Sochi sprint freestyle and is capable of bettering his time in Pyeongchang, where the sprint will be skied in the classic technique. For the women, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk, who won the 10km classic in Sochi, could be a factor. Former Tour de Ski champion Sergey Ustiugov from Russia is expected to medal, too.

OLYMPIAN EFFORT: Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless, oiled-up flag-bearing taekwondo competitor from Tonga who turned heads at the Summer Games in Rio two years ago, is now trying his hand at being a cross-country skier. He is one race from qualifying for PyeongChang. Although it’s hard to imagine him shirtless and oiled up in sub-freezing temperatures at the Winter Games.

WHERE IT HAPPENS: The cross-country events will be held at the Alpensia Cross-Country Centre, which is located in the PyeongChang Mountain Cluster.

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MORE: Jessie Diggins, Kikkan Randall make history

Watch Colin Kaepernick introduce Tommie Smith, John Carlos at USATF Night of Legends

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Twenty-four members of the 1968 U.S. Olympic track and field team appeared at the USATF Night of Legends. Two in particular received a standing ovation before an award presentation.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who earned 200m gold and bronze medals and then raised their black-gloved fists on the medal stand, were introduced via video by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a fellow athlete fighting for social justice.

“Fifty years ago, these two men shook the world,” Kaepernick said in the video. “Their selfless and courageous act had an impact on the heart and mind of millions and have been a huge inspiration to me, personally. They laid the foundation not only for what the conscience of an athlete should look like, but also the world.”

Smith and Carlos then walked on stage at the Night of Legends, which honored the top U.S. athletes and performances of 2018, along with Hall of Fame inductees. NBCSN will air the event on Saturday at 11 p.m. ET.

They presented the Jesse Owens Award, which goes annually to the top U.S. male athlete. Fellow 200m sprinter Noah Lyles earned the honor.

“If he would give you and I a two-day head start, I think we could beat him in the 200m,” Carlos joked to Smith. “We’ve got to lean,” Smith replied.

Lyles, 21, joined Usain Bolt as the only men to break 19.7 seconds in the 200m four times in one year. His best time — 19.65 — was the world’s fastest since Bolt’s last world title in 2015. Lyles also became the youngest U.S. men’s 100m champion in 34 years. He’s the second-youngest person to earn USATF Athlete of the Year after Allyson Felix.

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MORE: John Carlos, Tommie Smith remember 1968 Olympics on 50th anniversary

Surfer Stephanie Gilmore’s path to Olympics joined by Cathy Freeman

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Stephanie Gilmore, like many Australians of her generation, points to one iconic sports moment of her childhood — Cathy Freeman winning the 400m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“I remember just being so blown away by the pressure [that Freeman felt],” said Gilmore, who was 12 years old at the time, two years before signing her first sponsor deal with Rip Curl. Surfing wasn’t part of the Olympics then, but it got Gilmore thinking about her other sports, like field hockey, soccer and track and field.

“I could go to the Olympics and throw a javelin or a discus,” she thought.

Gilmore stuck to surfing. Wise move.

Seventeen years later, Gilmore met Freeman for the first time. With the sport added to the Olympics, Surfing Australia brought Freeman to speak to more than a dozen Tokyo 2020 hopefuls at a camp in New South Wales last January.

“I was basically in such awe of her,” Gilmore said while visiting New York City last week, fresh off her female record-tying seventh world title. “She was so genuine and just talking about how she would find her sacred place in that moment that every single [set of] eyes all over the world were on her.

“Now I’m an even bigger fan.”

It’s hard to imagine Gilmore’s 2019 or 2020 topping her 2018. She won her first world title in four years and saw the World Surf League announce equal prize money for men and women starting next season. That came after a difficult stretch.

“My motivation and inspiration had sort of waned,” Gilmore said of going two and a half years between WSL wins from 2014 to 2017, including missing most of the 2016 season with hairline fractures around her knee. “Traveling so much can get a little tiring. You lose confidence, too, as you’re going along.”

Gilmore says that in Australia, each little beach has its own surf club. That’s where she began competing against the boys while Freeman was fresh in the minds of the Australian public. By 17, Gilmore was entering top-level international events, even winning her home beach event in 2005, then earned her first of four straight world titles in 2007.

On Dec. 27, 2010, Gilmore was attacked outside her home by a man with a metal bar whom she didn’t know. He hit her in the head and wrist, drawing blood and tearing ligaments before fleeing and later being caught, according to reports at the time.

Gilmore competed in the season’s first contest two months later, won an event four months after that and finished third in the season standings.

Gilmore won the first and last events of the 10-stop season in 2017, placing second overall to countrywoman Tyler Wright and just ahead of another Aussie, Sally Fitzgibbons. It’s likely that no nation will qualify more than two Olympic surfing spots per gender. Gilmore is three years older than Fitzgibbons and six years older than Wright. Time may not be on her side. All three were invited to Surfing Australia’s January camp for Olympic hopefuls.

The 2019 World Surf League standings should determine the two Aussie women who go to Tokyo. Gilmore needs to set herself apart from the best in the world, since they’re also the best from her country.

She did just that in 2018. Gilmore won three of the season’s first six events and clinched the world title on the first day of the 10th and final contest in Maui two weeks ago. She was the lone Australian woman to win any event this year. Wright missed the second half of the season with the flu and chronic fatigue.

Gilmore said the sting of losing the season’s first event — a quarter-mile from her Coolangatta home — and the anticipation of leading the standings going into the last event were proof that the motivation was back.

She couldn’t sleep the night before the Maui contest, unusual for her.

“All the what-ifs and the fear of failure and all these sorts of things in my head,” Gilmore said. “Yeah, it was mine to lose.”

She chilled out upon tackling the first wave of round one. She clinched the title when American Lakey Peterson bowed out in an early round. Only good friend Kelly Slater has more titles than Gilmore’s seven. The 11-time world champion said he believes Gilmore can reach his tally.

The two FaceTimed shortly after Gilmore’s celebration, explaining the intricacies of how waves barrel to WSL owner Dirk Ziff. Gilmore and Slater also talk music. Both play the guitar.

“He’s always been there,” said Gilmore, who is on a Led Zeppelin kick and often buys a guitar while at contests and leaves it there when she departs.

Gilmore believes that over the last decade surfing has gained on swimming and rugby in popularity in a nation where a majority of the population lives within a short drive of the ocean.

“The Olympic swimmers have always been held in the highest regard,” she said. “Ian Thorpe is probably our greatest Olympian. The swimmers have always been the most recognized athletes in our country. We’re such a small population in our country, but I feel like everyone surfs.”

MORE: Will Kelly Slater go for Tokyo 2020?

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