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Weaver, Poje take their chances with Thank You Canada tour

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The Thank You Canada figure skating tour kicks off in Abbotsford, British Columbia on Friday night, the first stop on a 27-city swing stretching across 11 Canadian provinces and more than 4,500 miles.

Most of the participants, including tour co-producers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir; Patrick Chan; Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford; and Kaetlyn Osmond, are members of Canada’s gold-medal winning team at the PyeongChang Olympics. They are joined by three-time world champion Elvis Stojko, winner of Olympic silver medals in 1994 and 1998, and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, two-time Canadian ice dance champions and reigning world bronze medalists.

“We’re so lucky as Canadian athletes to have received such support over the years,” Virtue, who also won two individual Olympic ice dance gold medals with Moir, said on CTV’s Your Morning. “This has been on our radar for a long time, to do a tour to sort of give back and say thank you in our own way.”

“The timing feels right, now that we are not doing any amateur skating this season,” Moir added.

The timing is also right for the long-retired Stojko. Chan, and Duhamel and Radford, formally announced their respective retirements from eligible competition soon after the PyeongChang Games. Osmond, the reigning world champion, is not competing this season.

That leaves Weaver and Poje. The couple is skipping the ISU Grand Prix Series this fall, but plan to return to competition at the 2019 Canadian Figure Skating Championships, held in Saint John, New Brunswick, from January 13-20. There, they will likely face a fierce battle for the Canadian title with Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who bested them at the event last season (though Virtue and Moir won).

Forgoing the chance to compete their programs in front of judges and technical specialists could be a dicey strategy, given the ever-shifting International Judging System (IJS), which had intricate changes to required ice dance elements issued during the off-season. Having just won their first world medal since 2015, Weaver and Poje risk losing some of the momentum they fought so hard to build.

“That’s a very good point and the absolute first thing we thought of,” Weaver, 29, said. “However, momentum is kind of a funny concept, because it’s not really a tangible thing. We were given this opportunity to tour Canada in 2018 with the Olympic gold medal-winning team. This opportunity now is priceless. We are going to show our competitive programs on the tour, we’ll be out there many times across the country, so we see this as a definite asset.”

The couple opened their season with a win at the Autumn Classic International in Canada last month. Their programs, including a tango rhythm dance and a free dance to “S.O.S. d’un terrien en détresse” from the rock opera Starmaniaa tribute to their late friend, Denis Ten – were well-received, but as is typical early in the season some of their element levels needed improvement.

“We really wanted to push ourselves to come to (Autumn Classic) and get what we needed for feedback, and now we have three months before our next competition to really develop the programs,” Poje, 31, said. “But going out on tour and performing (the programs) every night is really a great asset for us. Instead of performing them only three times maybe in a (fall) season, we perform them many times.”

Weaver and Poje won the Grand Prix Final in 2015 and 2016, and then went on to place fifth and third, respectively, at the world championships. Last season, they failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final after placing second and fourth at their Grand Prix events.

“We won the Grand Prix Final twice, we’ve not made it countless times, it really has no bearing on the rest of the season most times,” Weaver said. “You win some, you lose some. You still need to bring it when you need it.”

“We figured, if we have a great product, let’s get out early, let’s put our feet down and say, ‘We’re not going anywhere,’” she added. “We’re going to build our repertoire in a different way (on tour), as well as live in a different way and then come back to competition.”

Plenty of practice time, including regular consults with ice dance technical specialists, is part of the program.

“We will not be dilly-dallying, we are very, very organized,” Weaver said. “This presents a unique challenge for us, one we’ve never done before, I don’t know if anyone has ever done it before. We’ve scheduled our down time with (technical) callers, with our coaches. The producers of the show know we are competitors and that is our main goal, so it’s a give-and-take with the show. It’s a risk, but it’s one we are ready and excited for.”

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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USOPC proposes more athletes on board as part of overhaul

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DENVER (AP) — The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is proposing an increase in athlete representation on its board and a recasting of its mission statement to include the job of promoting athletes’ well-being.

These changes are part of a proposal, released Monday, to rewrite the USOPC bylaws.

The rewrite comes 20 days after federal lawmakers — looking for a shake-up in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that has tainted the U.S. Olympic movement — proposed their own drastic overhaul of the law governing the USOPC.

The USOPC portrayed its proposals as merely a first step, and, indeed, the measures lack many of Congress’ more aggressive proposals.

But they would heed athletes’ calls for more representation, by increasing their makeup on the board from 20% to 33%.

They would also change the mission statement to read: “empower Team USA athletes to achieve sustained competitive excellence and well-being,” where previously the well-being part was not mentioned.

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Why a 62-year-old played at the world badminton championships

Mathew Fogarty
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Mathew Fogarty said badminton’s European elite made fun of him for playing professionally at age 59. That was three years ago. Fogarty still competes at the sport’s highest level, taking part in the world championships that began Monday in Basel, Switzerland.

Fogarty, who turns 63 on Oct. 30, is older than any U.S. Olympian in any sport since the St. Louis 1904 Games, according to the OlyMADMen.

“I play because I can, and I’m a doctor, and I think sports is a really important part of people’s health and fitness,” said Fogarty, who has played competitively since age 7, whose full-time job is a psychoanalyst and who is based in the Los Angeles area. “I’ll stop badminton when I can no longer qualify. There’s still opportunity, and I love the sport. I’m going to continue to do the best I can.”

He lost in the first round of mixed doubles at worlds on Monday. Fogarty and partner Isabel Zhong, a 27-year-old with an IMBD profile, saw their world championships end in 23 minutes, a 21-9, 21-10 loss to a Ukrainian pair.

That was more competitive than Fogarty’s last two worlds appearances — a 21-6, 21-4 loss with Zhong in 2018 and a 21-2, 21-4 loss with another partner in 2017. Fogarty’s only international match wins in the last two years came via walkover or the one time his singles opponent retired after three points, according to his World Badminton Federation profile. He won an international tournament as recently as 2011 and said his career-high mixed doubles world ranking was 32.

He and Zhong paired because they were part of the same Manhattan Beach Badminton Club, and she wanted to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games, Fogarty said. Zhong did not respond to an interview request.

“I told her I didn’t know if we could do it, but we could try,” Fogarty said. “It’s extremely remote [chances] … slim to nil.”

The top mixed doubles team from the North and South American region is in line to qualify for the Olympics. The leaders in qualifying so far are Canadians ranked 19th in the world. Fogarty and Zhong, though they are the only U.S. mixed doubles team at worlds, are 67th in the world in Olympic qualifying and third among Americans.

The U.S. has never earned an Olympic medal in badminton, which debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Mixed doubles was added starting at Atlanta 1996, but the U.S. has put just one mixed team into an Olympics, getting swept out of pool play in Rio.

Fogarty, who has never played at the Olympics, is able to play at worlds for a few reasons: he can fund his way to international events to accumulate ranking points; the U.S. is historically weak and has a lack of players with professional ambitions; mixed doubles is the least common of the Olympic disciplines.

“Matt takes it seriously,” said Dean Schoppe, a fellow 62-year-old who has known and played with Fogarty for nearly a half-century. Schoppe recently retired from pro badminton himself. “Matt still approaches the matches with the actual idea of winning,”

Schoppe called Fogarty the best American junior player of his generation in the late 1970s.

“Most badminton players retire at about 26 or 27 with their first catastrophic injury, which is usually a torn Achilles,” he said. “There are people who are born [to play], you see it in every sport. Magic Johnson, they have the peripheral vision. They have the balance. They have all the intangibles that other people have to try to learn and can’t.

“He has the gift. He can look at you peripherally and see that you’re leaning. … Fogarty can hold the serve and turn his shoulders and do crap that makes you fall over, and that infuriates.”

Mathew Fogarty
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Fogarty took breaks from the sport for medical school in the 1980s and ’90s. He returned in the late 1990s and kept playing deep into his 40s, 50s and now 60s in part, he said, to challenge corruption within the sport.

Fogarty had legal battles with USA Badminton. He said that past officials broke up his Olympic hopeful partnership with a teenager in men’s doubles to push others toward the 2000 Sydney Games.

“The last thing they wanted was a 42-year-old with an 18-year-old trying to make the Olympics,” Schoppe said.

USA Badminton recently had mass resignations among its board and top officials amid reports of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee threatening decertification.

USA Badminton’s new interim CEO, 1992 and 1996 Olympian Linda French, declined comment on Fogarty’s past issues with the organization because she was not formally involved at the time.

“We’re hopeful to move forward in a positive manner and wish all our athletes continued success,” French said.

Fogarty does not know how much longer he will travel the world, or even the U.S., to play competitively. A 43-year-old told him at a recent event that Fogarty was his inspiration to keep playing.

“The nature of sports is you can’t predict what it’s going to be,” Fogarty said.

Schoppe dismissed a question of whether it’s easier to play badminton at such a ripe age than other physically demanding sports.

“Imagine pulling out James Worthy and say, OK, James you are now starting for Golden State and you’re playing the Lakers tomorrow,” Schoppe said. “You cannot be old in badminton and do well in badminton. It’s nothing like baseball.

“We were the anomaly of anomalies to have success in our 40s. Nobody does.”

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