Andringa
Courtesy of Casey Andringa

Casey Andringa took a wild path to PyeongChang

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Every morning, the skier who was told he might not leave the hospital alive wakes up and finds the newspaper clipping.

“After a winding path of injury and illness, moguls skier Casey Andringa earns Olympic berth,” the Park Record headline reads.

“I have to look at that to remind myself that it’s real, that I didn’t dream this,” Andringa said.

The 22-year-old from Boulder, Colo., is one of four U.S. male moguls skiers who will compete here, starting with qualifying Thursday night. He is the unlikeliest Olympian of them all, among the biggest surprises on the entire 241-member U.S. Olympic team.

Andringa was 2 years old when Jonny Moseley won the 1998 Olympic moguls with his 360-degree mute grab and 6 when Moseley performed the Dinner Roll in Salt Lake City and hosted Saturday Night Live.

“I watched him at the Olympics and told my parents, ‘I want to do that!'” Andringa said.

He has competed at the senior level for nearly seven years but never placed in the top five at a national championships. That winding path of injury and illness has something to do with that (more below).

On May 9, U.S. Ski & Snowboard named the 2017-18 national team in three tiers: The A team had two male moguls skiers. The B team had two more male moguls skiers. The last tier had seven men.

Andringa didn’t make any of them, essentially putting him behind 11 men vying for four Olympic berths to be handed out in January.

He considered quitting. His dad said he would regret it for the rest of his life. So Andringa rededicated himself while spending the summer living on tuna sandwiches in a ’90s pop-up camper parked in the woods, wifi-less, with younger brother Jesse, also a moguls skier. Their dad bought it on Craigslist for $2,000. They called it the Viking.

Andringa had one more shot to prove his worth to Olympic team selectors at two lower-level events in Winter Park, Colo., one week before Christmas. Andringa knew that if he performed well, he would be given his first start on the sport’s highest level – the annual World Cup tour – in Deer Valley, Utah, three weeks later.

Not only did Andringa win, he dominated a field that included a few skiers on the 11-man national team. Andringa was given a start in Deer Valley and also in Calgary four days before that.

He finished seventh and fifth against the world’s best mogulists. He was second-best of five Americans in Calgary and second-best of 10 Americans in Deer Valley.

Andringa was named to the Olympic team two weeks later.

“He could be the guy who shows up to the Games, and he doesn’t know what he’s not supposed to do, and he could turn around and be standing on the podium,” said U.S. coach Matt Gnoza, who told Andringa in a phone call that he made the team.

“Wow,” Andringa replied to Gnoza on that call.

Andringa then phoned his dad.

“He had to pull the car over so he wouldn’t crash because he started crying,” Andringa said. “Then I started crying, and it was just a whole mess.”

When Andringa was 14, he fractured his skull in a longboarding accident in his neighborhood.

“I don’t think he ever went into a coma, but he was basically in a coma, and they didn’t know if he was going to walk again,” brother Jesse said.

When he was 18, he tore his left meniscus skiing. He tore his right one two years later. Both times, he was on the verge of making the national team.

In between, Andringa spent about eight nights combined in a hospital and clinic in Switzerland as flummoxed German-speaking doctors tried to treat him for a life-threatening head illness.

It all started at a training camp at the base of the Matterhorn in late September 2014. Andringa was with six or seven other skiers from his Vail club preparing for the season.

NBCOlympics.com: More on the U.S. freestyle team

Early in the trip, teammate Hunter Bailey noticed something.

“His face was f—— like a balloon,” Bailey said. “We were having everyone come to our room to make fun of him.”

Andringa thought it was just a really bad headache.

“I got sinus infections a lot growing up,” he said.

But the left side of his face started to droop, and his left eye was closing shut.

He was rushed to a doctor’s office. The rest of the skiers didn’t see him again for a week.

“These random things we were hearing like they might have to drill a hole in his skull,” Bailey said. “He has meningitis. His mom was coming over. It was f—— grim.”

Andringa arrived at the doctor’s office just before it closed. The doctor called an ambulance. Andringa was rushed 30 minutes north to a hospital.

“They did a bunch of CT scans and realized there was a little air bubble on the brain side of the skull,” Andringa said, which brought his seven-inch skull fracture from that longboarding accident four years earlier into the picture. If there was an infection, could it easily spread to his brain?

Andringa’s headaches persisted. So bad that he slept maybe two hours the next two or three nights. They wouldn’t give him anything other aspirin in fear that it would mask the symptoms too much to know if he was getting worse.

His phone was out of power with no charger. Andringa lay in bed and counted the dots on the ceiling.

“We just kind of sat back at home and prayed,” Jesse said. “I never even talked to Casey at the hospital.”

Finally able to sleep, he woke up on the third or fourth day with a 105-degree fever.

“The nurse who didn’t speak English started freaking out,” Andringa said. “I was shaking uncontrollably because of how hot I was.”

Another ambulance. Andringa was rushed two hours north to the capital of Bern.

That’s when it got really bad. Andringa remembered being in a bright room with German-speaking neurosurgeons prodding his face. He couldn’t understand everything they said, but he knew emergency brain surgery was discussed.

“Finally I had enough of it, and I asked them, am I going to die?” Andringa said. “One of the guys looked at me and said [in a deep accent], ‘We do not know.'”

The brain surgery was put off for two days in the hope Andringa would improve. He did. His mom arrived just as he was ready to leave the hospital on antibiotics and an IV.

Andringa learned he had orbital cellulitis, an infection next to the thin bones separating the eye from the brain.

NBCOlympics.com: Full schedule for freestyle skiing

“The doctors, if you ask somebody about it, it’s the kind of thing hospitals will see one or two times a year,” he said. “They were worried it was turning into meningitis because bacteria was getting towards the brain.”

Andringa was finally cleared to fly home. When he arrived at the airport, he saw his Vail teammates waiting for their scheduled flight back to the States from the training camp.

“They were like hey Casey what’s up,” he said. “To them, I had just gone to the hospital, and they didn’t really know what had happened. But to me, I had like almost died.”

Andringa’s plane ticket is somewhere in his room along with that newspaper clipping. He also saved something from his skull fracture, what was left of the skateboarding helmet that exploded but saved his life.

“With all that, I try to focus on the fact that I’m here now and not the fact that it was such an unfortunate time,” Andringa said.

Andringa’s skiing helmet has the phrase “Are you afraid?” stickered on it. He takes the helmet off on the chair lift before every run and looks at it.

Andringa said he won’t be allowe­d to have the sticker on there at the Olympics due to strict apparel rules. He will probably write the phrase on a piece of paper and keep it with him.

It doesn’t remind him of the health scares, but of this past summer, when he thought about quitting the sport at age 21.

“To me it was kind of like are you afraid of this chance that you have?” Andringa said. “Are you afraid to achieve this dream you’ve had your whole life? So it’s kind of fired me up a little bit.”

2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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