From bodybuilding to the Olympics – a bobsledder’s story

ISAAC HINDS/LIFT STUDIOS
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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.”

Gaon Choi breaks Chloe Kim record, youngest X Games snowboard halfpipe champion

Gaon Choi
Jamie Schwaberow/X Games
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South Korean Gaon Choi broke Chloe Kim‘s record as the youngest X Games snowboard halfpipe champion, winning at age 14 on Saturday in Aspen, Colorado.

Choi, the world junior champion, landed three different 900s in her third of four runs to overtake two-time U.S. Olympian Maddie Mastro. She then landed a frontside 1080 in her fourth run.

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression of their best run over the course of a jam session rather than scoring individual runs.

Choi became the first Winter X Games medalist for South Korea, a nation with a best Olympic halfpipe finish of 14th. She is six months younger than Kim was when Kim won the first of her five X Games Aspen halfpipe titles in 2015.

“I began snowboarding because of Chloe Kim and now almost being near her level when she was 14, it feels weird that I can see a possibility that I would go beyond her some day,” Choi said through a translator, according to organizers. “I’m already starting to look forward to the next Olympics.”

Kim, the daughter of South Korean immigrants, posted that she has known Choi for almost a decade.

“I feel like a proud Mom,” she posted. “The future of snowboarding’s in good hands.”

Kim, the only woman to land back-to-back 1080s in a contest, is taking this season off after repeating as Olympic champion but plans to return ahead of the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games.

Mastro, who was 12th and 13th at the last two Olympics, landed her patented double crippler (two back flips) on two of her runs, but it wasn’t enough. She was the last woman to beat Kim at the 2019 U.S. Open.

Earlier, American Colby Stevenson earned his second X Games ski slopestyle title, one year after taking silver in ski big air’s Olympic debut. Stevenson, who was one millimeter from brain damage in a 2016 car crash, capped his first two of four runs with 1620s, according to commentators, taking the lead for good after the latter.

American Alex Hall, the Olympic slopestyle champion, was seventh.

Later, Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi won women’s snowboard big air, highlighted by a triple underflip. The field lacked 2021 X Games champion Jamie Anderson (pregnant) and 2018 and 2022 Olympic champion Anna Gasser of Austria. Iwabuchi was fourth at the last two Olympics.

Gasser withdrew moments before the competition after placing seventh in Friday’s slopestyle, according to commentators.

Zoe Atkin became the first British female skier to win an X Games title, taking the halfpipe in the absence of Olympic champion Eileen Gu of China. Atkin had two 720s in her fourth and final run to overtake Olympic bronze medalist Rachael Karker of Canada.

Atkin, the 20-year-old and Stanford student and younger sister of 2018 Olympic slopestyle bronze medalist Izzy Atkin, was ninth at the Olympics and never previously won an X Games medal.

Gu withdrew on Friday with a knee injury from a training crash.

ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin on grief, loss, finding motivation

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Madison Chock, Evan Bates win historic U.S. ice dance title for figure skaters in their 30s

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Madison Chock and Evan Bates won their fourth national ice dance title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and made all sorts of longevity history.

Chock and Bates, fourth at the Olympics and third at last March’s world championships, totaled 229.75 points between the rhythm dance and free dance. They prevailed by 22.29 over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest margin of victory in a U.S. ice dance since it was shortened from three programs to two in 2011.

“This is probably the best we’ve ever skated in our careers,” Bates said on NBC. “I think that’s the statement that we wanted to make.”

Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko took bronze but are likely to be left off the three-couple team for March’s world championships in favor of Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, last year’s U.S. bronze medalists who planned to petition for a worlds spot after withdrawing before nationals citing mental health.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the top U.S. couple at the 2022 Olympics (bronze) and 2022 Worlds (silver), retired after last season.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, who are engaged, became the first dance couple in their 30s to win a U.S. title in the modern era (at least the last 50 years).

Chock and Bates made the nationals podium for an 11th consecutive year, one shy of the record for any discipline.

Bates, who last year became the oldest U.S. champion in any discipline in decades, has made 13 career senior nationals podiums with Chock and former partner Emily Samuelson. It is believed that breaks the U.S. record for a single discipline that he shared with Michelle KwanNathaniel Niles and Theresa Weld Blanchard.

Those records matter less to Chock and Bates than what they’re hoping is a career first in March: a world championships gold medal.

They earned silver or bronze a total of three times. All of the teams that beat them at last year’s Olympics and worlds aren’t competing this season, but Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier defeated Chock and Bates at December’s Grand Prix Final, which is a sort-of dress rehearsal for worlds.

“If we don’t win gold at worlds, we’ll be disappointed,” Bates, whose first senior nationals in 2008 came when new U.S. women’s singles champion Isabeau Levito was 10 months old, said earlier this month. “We’ve set the goal for ourselves in he past and haven’t met it yet.”

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