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Shaun White sees parallels between himself and Michael Phelps

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Shaun White equated some of his tough times, when he felt burned out as a snowboarder leading into the Sochi Games, with the most decorated Olympian of all time.

White was asked at a press conference Thursday how his fourth-place halfpipe finish in Sochi motivated him to come back for a fourth Olympic run. He goes for his third halfpipe gold medal on Tuesday night (ET).

NBCOlympics.com: How to watch every single Olympic snowboarding competition live

“I watched a Michael Phelps documentary, videos on him and him just going to the pool every single day, like that life I can imagine can get tough,” White said. “Same for me [before Sochi]. The same things that got me excited and motivated weren’t really working anymore.”

Phelps, the 28-time Olympic medalist, spoke openly in 2015 and 2016 about a lack of passion for swimming leading into London 2012, where he still won six medals, including four golds, but lost two individual races after going eight for eight in 2008.

White was there in London to watch Phelps break gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record for career Olympic medals. White, an NBC Olympics correspondent in 2012, sat in the Olympic Aquatics Stadium stands with Phelps’ family and model Bar Refaeli that night.

In 2013, Phelps returned the favor by congratulating White on his last X Games win on Twitter.

Similar to Phelps in that era, White was unbeatable in 2006 and 2010, winning both Olympic contests with an early run that allowed him to take a victory lap with his finale.

After 2010, White went for more. He joined a band. He wanted two more Olympic gold medals, qualifying in the new event of slopestyle before dropping it on the eve of the Games.

Then he finished fourth in the halfpipe final. Many thought he would retire.

“At the time I was burning out. It’s hard to admit,” White said Thursday. “At the time my heart wasn’t in it. After that Olympics, the easy fix is if you weren’t strong enough, if you didn’t have the right tricks. But getting the mindset better is really hard. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like if you’ve ever been in a relationship and someone is like, they love you. I wish I could flip a switch and love you back … love snowboarding like I did when I was 7.”

White, now 31, found some of the passion again after largely taking off the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

He and longtime coach/friend Bud Keene parted ways. The band broke up.

NBCOlympics.com: 20 top moments since Olympic snowboarding’s debut 20 years ago

White is now traveling with 2002 Olympic bronze medalist J.J. Thomas, 17-year-old rider Toby Miller and Esther Lee, a physical therapist who used to work with Venus and Serena Williams. All new to his entourage since Sochi.

He notched statement wins at last season’s U.S. Open and an Olympic qualifier last month where he scored a perfect 100 (only the last run in a contest can score a 100).

But Japan’s Ayumu Hirano won X Games two weeks ago – an event that White skipped – with back-to-back double cork 1440s. His run scored a 99, unofficially the equivalent of a perfect score because there was still one rider left to take a run.

White has yet to pull off the back-to-back 1440s in a contest, but he hopes to do it here. He may need to.

Win or lose, White is not expected to exit the Olympic stage like Phelps did in Rio. White has spoken about trying for the 2020 Games in skateboarding and even another Winter Games in Beijing in 2022.

Then maybe he’ll kick back like the swimmer.

“I saw him in Brazil,” at the Rio Olympics, White remembered. “He was like upstairs smoking a cigar somewhere. I’m probably not supposed to say that. But I think it was after the event, obviously.”

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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