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From bodybuilding to the Olympics – a bobsledder’s story

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker once converted to bobsled. So did Hockey Hall of Famer Chris Chelios. And Edwin Moses, who won two Olympic 400m hurdles titles among a streak of 122 straight victories.

Now, there’s Hakeem Abdul-Saboor. He isn’t as accomplished as any of those names but has his own unique story to tell.

Abdul-Saboor is the first U.S. Olympic bobsledder since at least 1998 (perhaps ever) to convert from another physically demanding exercise – bodybuilding.

OK, not exactly bodybuilding.

“I call it bodybuilding, but I do physique,” said Abdul-Saboor, a 30-year-old born in New Jersey. “It’s not like I’m up in a Speedo in there. It’s what you try to aspire to look like at the beach, so I’m wearing board shorts [in physique competitions].”

Abdul-Saboor said he did five shows and won three titles (one is usually eligible for multiple physique titles at one show).

That was before he was introduced to bobsled in 2015 and made the U.S. Olympic bobsled team this season.

Abdul-Saboor’s athletic story began as a basketball, football and all-around track and field athlete at Powhatan High School in Virginia, about 30 miles west of Richmond.

He went on to play running back at Division II University of Virginia at Wise. Abdul-Saboor said he ran a 4.30-second 40-yard dash.

But his football career ended four games into his senior season in 2009. Abdul-Saboor said he tore an ACL one week too late to receive a medical redshirt for the season.

NBCOlympics.com: More on Team USA

“Hakeem is probably the best all-around athlete I have ever coached,” UVA-Wise coach Dewey Lusk once said.

Abdul-Saboor stuck around campus for a while doing what he loved – hitting the gym. One of his friends was a bodybuilder and suggested Abdul-Saboor enter a contest.

He submitted photos and made the cut. Abdul-Saboor flew to Boise, Idaho, for the 2012 Bodybuilding.com FIT USA Event. He had to pay for everything except entry fee.

“Flight, hotel, spray tan,” he said. “I think they picked 16 or 20 of us from the nation. I ended up winning the people’s choice award. So that was everybody over the nation voting for which contestant they liked, their physique the best. That was before the show. I ended up placing fourth in the total competition.”

Abdul-Saboor said he performed well enough in shows to be invited to bigger competitions.

“But I never had the means of doing a national show because of the funding,” he said. “The pros get sponsors and everything, so they make pretty good money if you become a pro. At one point, I did think I would like to pursue that, but I would need to have found a job to help me start that, or a sponsor.”

Abdul-Saboor found a job in Knoxville, Tenn., as a speed, agility and quickness coach and personal trainer for Performance Training, Inc.

That’s about 100 miles west of East Tennessee State University, where a number of U.S. bobsledders, including the late Steven Holcomb, have spent offseasons training.

Word spread to ETSU of this physical specimen in Knoxville.

“An undergraduate student on campus brought my attention to a video of a young man (Hakeem) performing a vertical jump and touching his head to the [10-foot] ceiling of a Knoxville-based fitness center he was personal training out of,” Dr. Brad DeWeese, a former U.S. Olympic Committee head of physiology and current ETSU associate professor, wrote in an email. “Having coached a large portion of Olympians in the sport, it was obvious that Hakeem had the power and physical build to be successful in bobsled.”

DeWeese tracked down Abdul-Saboor through Facebook and invited him to Johnson City for a dryland bobsled combine.

“Needless to say Hakeem had a perfect score in each event, even after becoming ill from nerves halfway through the test,” DeWeese wrote. “Since then, I have had the honor of coaching Hakeem to 3 national team designations and finally to an Olympic team. In short, you never know who is watching.”

Abdul-Saboor started as a push athlete on the minor-league North American Cup in fall 2015, but by January 2016 competed in three World Cups.

 

NBCOlympics.com: Everything to know about bobsled

 

This season, he was in veteran Nick Cunningham’s sled for the last seven races since Dec. 1. That included a pair of North American Cup wins and a fifth-place finish in a two-man World Cup in Austria, the best result for any U.S. sled outside of an American track this season.

No surprise he’s in Cunningham’s sled for both two- and four-man events in PyeongChang.

Abdul-Saboor thought his sports career was over when he tore the ACL eight years ago. Now, he plans to continue bobsledding beyond the Olympics and maybe even return to physique, though he would have to drop 20 bobsled pounds.

He does not consider physique a sport, even though it’s sweat-inducing.

“You get pretty nervous, and before you go on stage, you’re back there getting a pump,” he said. “We’re like working out backstage to make your muscles look good.

“We don’t have to pose like bodybuilders, but we do have several poses like one hand on the hip. You have to kind of look like a model up there. That’s how they judge us.”

It’s the judging that sometimes confused Abdul-Saboor.

“There are bodybuilding teams that come to one of the show, and usually someone from the team is in one of the top places, which feels like the judges are biased towards them,” he said. “Several times, there are times that when I didn’t win a show, and I go out into the audience to talk to fans and people watching the show, they don’t understand why I did not win.”

The only judging in bobsled is done by coaches and officials determining who goes into the sled.

Most of the famous athletes who converted before Abdul-Saboor never made it to an Olympics – including Chelios, Moses, Renaldo Nehemiah and Willie Gault.

“Bobsled is definitely harder [than bodybuilding],” Abdul-Saboor said. “It’s just such a unique sport. You get athletes out here who you would think would be able to push fast and do well in bobsled. They might be fast but not strong. Or strong but not fast. Or even both but just don’t have the technique to push the bobsled. You have to have the total package in order to become a good bobsledder.”

Geraint Thomas attacks, takes Tour de France lead ahead of Chris Froome

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British Olympic track cycling champion Geraint Thomas grabbed the Tour de France lead, attacking with three and a half miles to win a summit finish on Stage 11 on Wednesday.

Thomas now leads a Team Sky one-two in the overall standings, 85 seconds ahead of four-time Tour winner Chris Froome, as the three-week Grand Tour passed the halfway mark.

Thomas continues to say he’s riding in support of Froome — who could tie the record of five Tour titles — rather than to win cycling’s biggest event himself.

“Froome is the [Team Sky] leader here, so there’s no pressure on me,” Thomas said Tuesday, according to Cyclingnews.com. “It’s a bonus for me to be up there, and hopefully I can be there for as long as possible.”

The Tour continues Thursday with stage 12 to Alpe d’Huez, live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold (full broadcast schedule here).

The 109-mile stage features three beyond-category climbs — Col de la Madeleine, Croix-de-Fer and the iconic Alpe d’Huez finish after 21 switchbacks to close out the Tour’s three days in the Alps. The overall standings are sure to change.

Greg Van Avermaet, the Rio Olympic road race champion, went into Wednesday with the yellow jersey and a 2:22 lead, which he had tripled on the first mountain day Tuesday.

But Van Avermaet, who predicted he would lose the yellow jersey before stages Tuesday and Wednesday, cracked on the second of three major climbs Wednesday. He finished in a group 22 minutes after Thomas.

Van Avermaet is a super one-day racer but not a strong climber.

Thomas showed his climbing prowess, finishing 20 seconds ahead of 2017 Giro d’Italia champion Tom Dumoulin and Froome.

“It’s unreal,” Thomas said. “I didn’t expect it at all.”

Thomas dons the yellow jersey for a second straight Tour. The 2008 and 2012 Olympic track cycling gold medalist won the opening time trial in 2017 and wore the maillot jaune four days before Froome took over en route to his fourth title in Paris.

There was talk before and during this year’s Tour that Thomas could challenge Froome as Sky’s team leader, even though Froome has won the last three Grand Tours.

But Thomas and Sky have played that down.

“Whatever happens now is bonus,” Thomas said. “Froomey’s won six Grand Tours. He knows how to race over three weeks. For me, it’s an unknown. … As long as one of us wins, that’s the main thing.”

Dumoulin moved into third overall, 1:44 behind Thomas and 19 seconds back of Froome.

The other top contenders — 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet — finished 59 seconds behind Thomas on Wednesday.

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Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics add 7 new events

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Seven new events were added to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic program:

Women’s monobobsled
Short track mixed team relay
Ski jumping mixed team event
Freestyle skiing big air (men and women)
Aerials mixed team event
Snowboard cross mixed team event

The additions bring the Winter Olympic total number of events to 109, an all-time high and nearly double the amount of events at the 1992 Winter Games.

The number of women’s hockey teams will increase from eight to 10 in 2022, but the overall number of athletes is expected to be fewer than the 2,933 in PyeongChang. The International Olympic Committee said athlete quotas will decrease in some sports, but no events have been contracted. Alpine skiing’s super combined events are still under review as to whether they will remain in the Olympic program.

The IOC said the Winter Olympics will have its highest-ever gender balance in 2022, rising from 41 percent female athletes to more than 45 percent.

The IOC had a “long discussion” about adding a women’s event in Nordic combined, the only sport without a women’s event in the Winter Games, IOC sports director Kit McConnell said.

“Nordic combined, and women’s in particular, still need to be developed further in terms of universality [the number of countries with Olympic-level athletes], in terms of the level of the athletes,” McConnell said.

The IOC also weighed whether to add a four-woman bobsled event rather than women’s monobobsled. The Games have two-man and two-woman events and a four-man event.

McConnell said the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation was “very supportive” of monobob, in part because it is already on the Youth Olympic program.

“Woman’s four-man bob costs three or four times of monobob,” McConnell said. “We felt there would be more universality in the women’s monobob. We really didn’t see more than a handful of countries really developing women’s four-man programs because of the costs involved.”

Beijing will mark the third straight Winter Olympics to add mixed-gender events. In 2014, mixed relays in biathlon and luge debuted, as well as the figure skating team event. In PyeongChang, a mixed Alpine skiing team event and mixed doubles curling debuted.

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