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Tonga flag bearer guarantees medal if he makes 2020 Olympics in new sport

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UNITED NATIONS — Pita Taufatofua is not ready to reveal which new sport he has taken up for a 2020 Olympic run — “very soon,” he said — but the oiled-up, shirtless Tongan flag bearer made it clear.

“I can guarantee you … whatever that next sport is, if I qualify for the Olympics in that sport, I will medal in that sport,” he said while visiting the UN last Wednesday for the Youth Dialogue event.

Taufatofua, who became a viral hit at the Rio Opening Ceremony and then competed in taekwondo and cross-country skiing in back-to-back Olympics, has known his new sport for at least two months. He traveled extensively since the Winter Games ended three months ago but found the time to tailor training for it.

“What I’m going to present is a sport that’s much more aligned with being a Tongan and being a Pacific Islander,” Taufatofua said two months ago. “It’s aligned with the water, the sea. So, wait and see.”

Yet Taufatofua refused to rule out competing in taekwondo again.

“Once taekwondo’s in the blood it never leaves,” he said Wednesday. “I’m always going to be a taekwondo fighter. Who knows? Who knows what the next step is.

“It’s always about stepping things up. How do you make it even better? Maybe I’ll do two sports. Who knows? … Whatever the most complex thing that I can think of is, that’ll be what’s next.”

Taufatofua also refused to rule out a team sport like water polo, despite Tonga having no Olympic history in the event and a minute chance to field a team to attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

He also declined a suggestion that the new sport would be, like cross-country skiing, one with an easier route to qualify for the Olympics. Taufatofua finished 114th in his PyeongChang cross-country skiing race and lost by mercy rule in his Rio first-round taekwondo match.

“This is about the impossible,” Taufatofua said. “I’m not looking for an easy sport. I’m looking for a sport that’s aligned with me.”

Taufatofua confirmed he’s coming out with a book titled, “That Single Step,” based off the Lao Tzu quote, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

“It’s going to change people’s lives when it comes to creating new habits, getting to exercise, becoming a sportsman,” he said.

When will Taufatofua compete again? He said he doesn’t know. But he has put all of the weight back on that he shed for cross-country skiing.

And if he’s able to carry the Tongan flag at a third Opening Ceremony, he will definitely be shirtless again, in a similar outfit to what he wore in Rio and PyeongChang.

“When I went to Rio, I was told by some of our own people [dignitaries], don’t wear this, don’t wear that,” Taufatofua said. “We want you to wear a suit and a tie. I said no. I said, you were taught to wear that suit and that tie 50 years ago. I said, my ancestors go back 1,000 years. I want to wear what they wore because I’m representing them when I carry that flag. They said no, so we carried it in our bags and hid it under our uniforms when we walked in the backstages of Rio and pulled it out when they had no chance to kick us off the team. Then, afterwards, they [other people] said, whose idea was it? They [the Tongan officials] said it was ours. It was all of ours.”

The PyeongChang uniform is headed for the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. The Rio one is stuck on his wall at home, hung with extra significance.

“It’s where things changed for me,” he said.

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Loena Hendrickx on the rise, making Grand Prix debut at Skate America

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Belgian teenager Loena Hendrickx made her Winter Olympic debut in PyeongChang, and began her short program with the aim of becoming the first from her country to qualify for a ladies’ singles free skate since Katrien Pauwels in 1988.

Fresh off a 14th place finish in the men’s event, brother Jorik sat in the stands. He looked away as the music – a cool arrangement of Madonna’s “Frozen” – began, and covered his eyes as the 18-year-old set up for a planned triple lutz, triple toe combination.

Eight years younger than her two-time Olympian elder brother, Hendrickx knew the feeling.

“I get nervous when he competes, too,” she explained after winning a bronze medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy, an ISU Challenger Series event. “I might be even more nervous watching him than when I have to skate myself, because I don’t know how he’s feeling on the ice, and I can’t control his skate.”

She ultimately landed the combination – albeit under-rotated – and bested Pauwels’ result from Calgary by one place, finishing 16th overall. Even stronger skates were to come at the world championships in Milan, where she beat reigning Olympic champion Alina Zagitova in the free skate to earn a Top 10 total score and qualify for her first-ever Grand Prix events in the upcoming season.

“I’m very excited because that’s something you wish for. The first one is immediately in Skate America, so it’s very exciting. I’ve never been to the States before!”

Jorik was initially scheduled to skate alongside his sister at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Wash., but opted to withdraw and spend the start of the season working with other athletes, including Loena.

“He is working with me sometimes. I really can learn a lot from him because he has the knowledge and experience. I think he can teach me a lot.”

While the siblings work primarily with coach Carine Herrygers, Jorik assisted Loena in selecting her “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” short program music, another ’90s hit by Céline Dion.

“I really liked my program [“The Prayer” by Dion and Josh Groban] from two years ago, and so I think I chose the same style. I researched more of her music, and it was my brother who found this song. I didn’t like it at the beginning because I had another song I liked more.

“In the end, Jorik convinced me to take this one because it’s more powerful and I can skate better to powerful music.”

Hendrickx debuted the program in Oberstdorf, earning personal best scores to make the podium alongside Zagitova and Mai Mihara. More importantly, she achieved her pre-season goal of landing the lutz-toe combination – with positive Grades of Execution – in both phases of the competition.

While most of her competitors made waves as juniors, the Belgian struggled with multiple injuries – a 2016 stress fracture in her back, later a bone bruise on her landing knee – that kept her from eliciting the buzz many top skaters get on the Junior Grand Prix.

“After I healed, I was very happy to begin building back up again. For a long time, I worked on my fitness to make my back and body stronger. That made my jumps stronger and helped me perform better, more consistently.”

In a field that includes two-time world medalist Satoko Miyahara and U.S. national champion Bradie Tennell, Hendrickx heads to Skate America armed with a competitive technical arsenal, and a dose of inspiration imparted by her brother on the ice.

“In Belgium, there are fewer opportunities to be successful when you’re younger because it’s very difficult to combine skating with school. Jorik taught me that you never have to give up on your dreams. If you work hard, you’ll see where you can go.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Chris Mazdzer adds doubles luge after Olympic medal

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Olympic luge silver medalist Chris Mazdzer is doubling up this winter.

Mazdzer has decided to compete in both singles and doubles in World Cup events, in large part because USA Luge didn’t have another option to partner with Olympic doubles veteran Jayson Terdiman.

If the Americans didn’t have a senior doubles team ready for the World Cup, they wouldn’t have been able to compete in team relays this winter — and Terdiman effectively would have been forced into retirement.

“It’s a lot of motivation,” Mazdzer said Monday from Lake Placid, New York, where he and Terdiman took five training runs together at Mount Van Hoevenberg on the season’s opening day for sliding at USA Luge’s home track. “I like when people are like, ‘Chris, you won’t be able to do that.’ This hasn’t been done successfully in two-plus decades. But why not now?”

The move also brings Mazdzer back to his roots. He and Terdiman were successful as a junior team, medaling twice at world championships and winning USA Luge’s team-of-the-year honors for the 2007-08 season.

“It could be something,” Terdiman said. “We’re hoping we’re able to find that magic. It’s asking a lot, but we have a lot of confidence in our own abilities.”

Mazdzer became the first American men’s singles luge athlete to win an Olympic medal, grabbing the silver at the PyeongChang Games earlier this year. Terdiman is a two-time Olympian in doubles, going in 2014 with Christian Niccum and this year with Matt Mortensen. Niccum retired after the 2014 Olympics, and Mortensen retired after PyeongChang.

So Terdiman spent the summer without a partner, and a couple of hours before former USA Luge teammate Megan Sweeney’s wedding, he and Mazdzer got together for coffee.

“I thought about retirement a lot this summer,” Terdiman said. “It was going to be forced if I didn’t have anybody to slide with, and that was a very real thing until Chris and I sat down a couple hours before Megan’s wedding. We talked about him doing both. The confidence he has in himself is very large. He’s going to give it a shot and we’ll see what happens.”

Mazdzer understands that this means he will have a most unusual winter.

There are nine World Cup races this season, and six of those call for the men’s race and the doubles race to be contested on the same day — so Mazdzer will be logging very long hours at the track. There also were International Luge Federation rules to consider about training runs; sliders typically get five or six runs at a track before a World Cup, and Mazdzer will be permitted to get the full allotment of training in both disciplines.

“I’m really pumped about this,” Mazdzer said. “Having the team relay is a huge part of being on the U.S. team. I want to see the U.S. win team relays. I think we’re capable. We have a fantastic team and if doubles works out, we’ve got a shot.”

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