Scotty James
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Scotty James not huge fan of recent halfpipe judging

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The snowboarder who wears boxing gloves in the halfpipe hit back at the judges on Thursday.

“I feel like there have been times I was a bit shafted,” James said in reference to the judging this season at a press conference in PyeongChang.

The 23-year-old from Australia has consistently finished as the runner-up this season to several different riders. The results from his last three contests: second to Jake Pates at Breckenridge, second to Shaun White at Snowmass, second to Ayumu Hirano at X Games.

While his main rivals, White and Hirano, have been focusing on back-to-back double cork 1440s, James has breaking new ground with his switch backside double cork 1260.

Despite the fact that it has less rotation than White and Hirano’s 1440s, the switch backside 1260 is arguably the most technical trick being done by any halfpipe rider because of how the rider is spinning when they start the trick. Switch backside spins are so difficult that many riders do not even include a single one in their halfpipe runs.

The only rider who has landed the switch backside 1260 is James, and he doesn’t think that trick, or his runs in general, are getting enough respect.

NBCOlympics.com: Scotty James now a top threat for halfpipe gold

“I think the biggest thing that frustrated me is that I have been working my whole life and then some silly people behind a desk dictate some scores,” James said.

Halfpipe runs are not just judged on one trick, of course. Judges are considering the entire package — factoring in things like amplitude, variety and execution — when they input their scores.

But James’ main grievance isn’t necessarily about his own scoring. He admits that he’s had words with the judges about the way they scored another rider. In particular, the perfect 100 that the U.S. Grand Prix judges gave to White at Snowmass in January.

“Not because of getting second place — I am not a sore loser,” James said. “I was just curious as to [why they gave Shaun the perfect 100 score]. Personally, and I have spoken to a lot of other snowboarders, it’s pretty tough to get a perfect score. I didn’t agree with that at all.” (Watch his run)

James’ comments are indicative of a schism between how judges and riders perceive the scoring system.

To the judges, the scoring system is entirely fluid and changes from competition to competition.

Here is how Tom Zikas, head snowboard judge for X Games and other major contests, explained this philosophy:

“The numbers of the actual scores are more about a ranking. The numbers are a vehicle to place these riders how they should have ranked that particular day. So basically from event to event, you can’t say, ‘Well he got a 100, there’s no better run that can be done,’ because snowboarding progresses every day. So we have to adjust our range of scores to every single contest because snowboarding improves. So what is a 90 at an event one day — by the end of the season, a 90 is going to be a much better run.”

According to Zikas, the decision to award a “perfect 100” to a rider is likely the result of the judges believing it to be the best run in snowboarding history — up to that point anyway.

At the next contest, the scale is going to adjust, and that same exact run is likely to get a lower score. At least, that’s theoretically how it works.

From James’ point of view, the notion of “perfection” is not just based on that one day. In a sport where constant progression is ingrained into the culture, he seems to be suggesting that the athletes should always have something more to strive for and that “perfect scores” take away from that.

“I have openly said [to the judges] this is not what you do,” James said. “These perfect scores are great and all, but it’s not really encouraging for us when we go out there and compete. Where do you go from there?

“Shaun, if he looked at that run, he would tell you that wasn’t a perfect 100.”

In competition, just two riders have received a perfect 100: Shaun White (twice) and Chloe Kim. Part of the reason for that is because perfect scores can only be awarded on the final run of the contest. But it could also be argued that Ayumu Hirano’s 99 at X Games last month was a perfect score as well, since judges could not have given him anything higher with one rider still to go.

Despite the criticism, James also made clear that he had a lot of respect for both the judges and for White, even if he disagrees with the way the judges decided to score White at that particular event.

“He achieved a lot of amazing things in snowboarding,” James said of the two-time Olympic champion. “He has been a pioneer in the sport for a long time.”

James, White and Hirano will be the top favorites when the men’s halfpipe competition kicks off Monday night (Tuesday morning in Korea) with the qualifying round.

Amy Cragg to withdraw from U.S. Olympic marathon trials

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Defending champion Amy Cragg will miss the Feb. 29 U.S. Olympic marathon trials with an illness, according to her social media.

“The Trials are the reason I have shown up every day for the last four years, so this has been an extremely difficult decision,” was posted on her social media. Cragg later said she had Epstein-Barr virus, according to multiple reports.

Cragg, 36, was among the favorites to grab three Olympic spots at trials in Atlanta, despite not having competed over 26.2 miles since the February 2018 Tokyo Marathon.

She withdrew from the 2018 Chicago Marathon with a hamstring injury and also scratched a month before the 2019 Chicago Marathon, citing signs pointing to needing more time after the previous year’s injury.

Cragg, fourth at the 2012 Olympic trials, relegated Des Linden and Shalane Flanagan to second and third at the 2016 trials. Linden and Flanagan went on to win the Boston and New York City Marathons, respectively, ending long U.S. women’s victory droughts.

Cragg went on to finish ninth in Rio and earn a 2017 World bronze medal, the first world championships marathon podium finish for an American woman since the first worlds in 1983.

Cragg could still make the Tokyo Olympic team in the 10,000m if she races at track trials in June. She won the 2012 Olympic trials 10,000m but hasn’t raced the distance on the track since May 2017.

“Right now my only goal is to get healthy so that I can train at the level needed to be competitive,” Cragg said in an emailed message from her agent. “That being said, the reason I am still in this sport is because of the Olympic Trials and Olympics. It is what excites me more than anything, so it is something I would still love to do.”

With Cragg absent and Flanagan retired, Linden is the only woman in next week’s field with Olympic marathon experience.

Other favorites include Olympic 10,000m runner Molly Huddle, world championships 10,000m runner Emily Sisson and Jordan Hasay, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner in history.

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Galen Rupp, after tumult, finds familiarity before Olympic marathon trials

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As Galen Rupp bids for a fourth Olympics, and perhaps become the first man or woman to win the Olympic marathon trials twice outright, he found some rare familiarity these days on the roads Feb. 8.

“Feeling like my old self again,” Rupp said Wednesday of winning a low-key half marathon in Mesa, Ariz., his first completed race in 16 months and since parting from now-banned, career-long coach Alberto Salazar. “It’s obviously been a long year and a half.”

Rupp clocked 61 minutes, 19 seconds on a downhill course. It’s faster than any half marathon by an American recorded by World Athletics since the start of 2019. Granted the downhill, but Rupp also said he was instructed by new coach Mike Smith to make it a controlled effort.

“He didn’t want me to run all-out, didn’t want me to really push and put myself in a big hole,” Rupp said, noting he was still in heavy training. “You don’t want to break that [training] up and put yourself in a deficit by having a massive effort.”

Mesa answered questions about Rupp’s readiness for the Olympic trials in Atlanta on Feb. 29 (NBC, 12-3 p.m. ET). Even to the two-time Olympic medalist himself. Rupp said he started the half marathon with a little bit of doubt — given recent left ankle and calf injuries — but felt early on that everything would be fine.

“It really put my mind at ease,” he said. “I’m going to be good for the marathon.”

His last two marathons did not go well.

At the 2018 Chicago Marathon, Rupp dropped from the leaders around mile 19 and finished fifth in a title defense. An Achilles injury flared up near the end. He underwent surgery later that month for two tears. Doctors said the ankle had been “a ticking time bomb.”

“They said I was really lucky to have as good of health as I had and manage it as I did,” Rupp said.

He went a full year before racing again, at the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13, 12 days after Salazar’s ban was announced. Even that was a rushed comeback, Rupp said after dropping out around mile 23 with a calf injury.

“I’m not going to say it was a wake-up call,” Rupp said, “but I think I was a little bit stubborn before Chicago.”

Rupp said he ran through pain in training to get to the start line four months ago. He had trouble walking for several days after the abbreviated race and focused on physical therapy for about two months. He resumed normal, pain-free training in December.

By early January, Runner’s World reported that Oregon-based Rupp found a new Flagstaff-based coach in Smith, who leads a Northern Arizona University program that won the last three NCAA men’s cross-country titles.

“The biggest thing to me was Mike’s philosophy in coaching was very similar to the program that I was under for so many years,” said Rupp, who was for more than a decade part of the Nike Oregon Project, which was shut down last fall after Salazar’s ban for doping violations (which he appealed). Rupp wasn’t implicated by USADA and has a clean drug-testing record. “What I love most about it was Mike’s honesty and how forthright he was about everything. You could tell he wasn’t just saying what I wanted to hear or say, ‘We’re just going to do whatever you’ve been doing and try and replicate that.’ You’ve got to keep evolving and trying new things.”

Smith declined an interview request through NAU until after trials. He agreed to coach Rupp after about a month of communication and hard questions, according to Runner’s World.

“Because of its timing and the headlines I was reading like everyone else at the time, this was not a road I wanted to go down,” Smith said, according to the report. “To be honest, it was just easiest to turn it down. I’m actually — as crazy as this sounds — really proud I did not.

“What I found out by getting to know Galen was that there was much more going on than the picture portrayed of him, and I wish the world knew that. I have never seen someone more all-in in my life.”

Rupp, asked his toughest moment of the last two years, said he moves forward.

“Throughout any hardships and setbacks, I felt a lot of gratitude that I had as good of a run as I did with my health and everything going well for as long as I did,” he said. “It can be easy to get angry and get down, like why me, but I do believe that things always work out. There’s a reason behind all this stuff.”

Which brings Rupp to Atlanta next week for the first time in his life, aside from airport layovers. The race is unlike any other he has contested. The course is unusually hilly. The format — Americans only, top three make the Olympic team — makes for different tactics than the World Marathon Majors that Rupp is used to.

In 2016, Rupp entered as a favorite but without any marathon experience. He won convincingly, pulling away from now-retired Meb Keflezighi by 68 seconds.

The field is deeper this year. Seven Americans broke 2:11 in 2019. Only one did in 2015. But Rupp, at his best, is in his own class.

His personal best 2:06:07, from his last healthy marathon in 2018, is 1:49 faster than the second-fastest in the trials field in this Olympic cycle (Leonard Korir). The next-fastest, Scott Fauble, is more than three minutes behind by personal bests.

“I can confidently go in and say that I’ve put in the work for this, just like I know that I put in the work in 2016,” Rupp said. “Of course, you want to go in and have good races, feeling confident and being on a roll like I was several years ago. But I think that’s why that race in Mesa was so important to show, more to myself, that hey, you’re ready to go. You can still run well. You haven’t lost everything. Surgery didn’t wipe you out.”

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