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Sarah True, after post-Rio suicidal thoughts, tackles Ironman Kona

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Post-Olympic depression hit Sarah True hard after she tottered, right leg cramping, off the Rio triathlon course, pushing her bike to a street-side barrier while being lapped.

“This continued into 2017, and for a good part of that year I couldn’t experience any joy whatsoever,” True, who struggled with clinical depression since her early teens, wrote for Outside magazine. “I obsessively thought about taking my own life. I’d be out on long training rides and couldn’t stop thinking about swerving into oncoming traffic, every truck becoming an object that could end it all. Month after month passed, and I kept thinking it can’t get any worse, and yet it just kept on getting worse.”

True sought help. From a therapist. From connecting socially. From doing art and cooking. From knowing that the feelings would eventually pass.

“No matter how bleak and despairing it feels, it’s not real,” she said. “The people around you still love you. You’re not this burden to them. One of the most important things was I finally acknowledged the fact that I needed help. At that point I realized that I think it’s time to revisit this thing that I filed away in my brain. This Ironman thing.”

Last October, True had a “light-bulb, epiphany” moment, waking up with a new goal of doing an Ironman triathlon — a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile marathon run. It’s more than four times longer than the Olympic distance.

“I was in a pretty dark, scary place last year, and when I came out I was just so grateful for life that honestly the best celebration of being alive I could think of was doing an Ironman,” she said Wednesday.

True, 36, has been in Hawaii for the last month, preparing to race the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona on Saturday.

The biggest event in triathlon streams on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app with a 90-minute NBCSN broadcast at 12:30 p.m. ET. Live reports on NBCSN and NBC will air throughout the day, beginning at 2 p.m. NBCSN will air recap coverage Sunday at 12 a.m. and 1 p.m.

“I would be disappointed with anything outside the top 10, but I also recognize that extremely fit people with far more experience in Ironman have had disastrous races here because of the conditions,” True said.

Her first triathlon memories were watching Kona legend Paula Newby-Fraser racing in a fluorescent two-piece suit on NBC. Newby-Fraser won a record eight Kona crowns between 1986 and 1996.

True grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., playing pranks on MLB Hall of Fame visitors seeking directions. She swam and ran at Cooperstown High, then swam at Vermont’s Division III Middlebury College and made what she called a natural progression to triathlon.

By 2011, True had become the best U.S. female triathlete. She finished fourth at the London Olympics, missing bronze by 10 seconds, and briefly considered moving toward the Ironman distance.

After Rio, True tried to resume an Olympic-distance career. But after DNFing and finishing 34th in the first two World Series races in 2017, she gave it up. She remembered a coach four years earlier asking what motivated her to wake up every morning. It was Olympic-distance triathlon. Not anymore.

“I was still carrying the heartbreak from Rio,” True said on the IronWomen podcast. “My heart wasn’t in it.”

True made her half Ironman distance debut the following month and finished second in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“It was kind of a test for whether or not I would call it a very happy, successful career or version 2.0, long-course, non-draft athlete phase,” she told Ironman historian Bob Babbitt. “I loved it.”

True is now in Kona as an experienced racer, having placed fourth and 10th at the last two half Ironman 70.3 World Championships and second to three-time reigning Kona champ Daniela Ryf at the European Championships in July, her first full Ironman. (Granted, Ryf, who was 40th at the 2012 Olympics, won by 26 minutes.)

True has been remarkably strong amid many rookie moments. In her first 70.3, she took in just 350 calories over more than four hours of racing (and none on the 13.1-mile run), causing her dietitian to laugh, gobsmacked she didn’t blow up during the half marathon. She had massive blisters on her feet from not wearing socks. True did her first three 70.3 races in an exhausting span of six weeks.

The longest run of her life before the European Championships was 18 miles. True grabbed the wrong bag in the transition off the bike in Frankfurt, Germany. She had to go back after being dumbfounded by the unfamiliar shoes and running equipment she had pulled out.

She is asked what scares her about Saturday’s race, one of the toughest events in all of sport, that starts at 6:40 a.m. local time.

“Things can go very badly in the heat,” she said. “It’s not fear. It’s a healthy respect for what could potentially go wrong. It’s Ironman. When things go wrong in a nine-hour race, they go really wrong.”

The feeling is not comparable to the days leading up to an Olympics. Kona is every year. True is right now on a two-year plan, to spend next year training specifically for Kona.

This one is for gaining experience, handling the head- and cross-winds biking on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway. Surviving the Energy Lab on the run after more than 130 miles of racing. The forecast says it’ll reach 86 degrees by 9 a.m. with a coin-flip chance of rain.

“There’s no amateur component to the Olympics,” True said. “I’m here with 2,500 amateur athletes, and it’s a traveling circus. The vendors are here. All the media is here. This town has just been overrun by triathlon. The Olympics is a celebration of Olympic sport. Kona is a celebration of triathlon.”

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U.S. to play in snow volleyball tour, led by 4-time Olympian

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When USA Volleyball asked four-time Olympian Lloy Ball to put together a team for a snow volleyball tournament in Moscow this week, the 2008 gold medalist was eager to accept.

Never mind that he’s never played on the snow before.

Or that, at 46, he’s not a likely candidate for the U.S. Olympic team if the discipline is eventually added to the Winter Games.

“I’ve been playing volleyball my entire life. It would just be an amazing feeling to know that me and my friends would be able to help volleyball grow,” Ball said. “To help be one of the forefathers, to get another discipline of volleyball into the Olympics, it would be awesome.”

The son of a volleyball coach and a member of the U.S. indoor team that won gold in Beijing, Ball played professionally in Russia for six years and was a natural choice to be a part of first American team to play on the European snow volleyball tour. After what he is calling an exploratory mission, he hopes to report back to the national governing body on how it can help the sport grow.

The ultimate goal: helping snow volleyball earn a spot in the Olympics — perhaps by 2026.

“We want to climb this mountain step by step. We do not want to rush,” said Fabio Azevedo, the general director of the sport’s international governing body, adding that snow volleyball will join the Olympics “as soon as the discipline has an amazing relevance in the world.”

“We have our road map, we have our timeline,” he said. “We really believe it is premature now to mention anything about Winter Olympic Games. I cannot say to you 2026 is realistic or not.”

Still, they are plowing ahead.

After a demonstration at the PyeongChang Olympics, the European governing body held its first snow championships in March. With its 2018-19 tour starting this weekend in Moscow it has invited teams from the United States to compete. (Teams from Kazakhstan and Brazil were also offered wild-card entries.)

Knowing that he spent time in Russia and would make a good ambassador, USA Volleyball chief Jamie Davis called Ball, who remains active as a coach and a semi-pro grass and beach volleyball player. He pulled together a team with Will Robbins, Kevin Owens and Tomas Goldsmith.

Although they have been training outside in Indiana to get used to the cold, the first time they will play on a snow court will be in Moscow.

“I’m going to rely on my massive amount of repetition and skill training and experience,” Ball said with a laugh. “Hopefully we won’t embarrass ourselves too badly and hopefully we’ll know what to do better next time. I’m going to come back and sit down with Jamie, and maybe say ‘Hey, this is something that can take off.’”

The women’s team for the Moscow tournament, which USA Volleyball put together, consists of Allie Wheeler, Emily Hartong, Katie Spieler and Karissa Cook.

“It’s a milestone for us,” Davis said. “We’re starting at level zero and building this up from scratch.”

“My hope is that we’ll get more and more athletes that are concentrating on snow, in addition to beach and indoor,” he said. “What I would hope for snow volleyball is that we’re going to be able to have players — north, south, east or west — be able to go outdoors to play the sport they love to play.”

Although snow volleyball has kicked around Europe for a decade, its growth accelerated the last five years. The European volleyball federation officially recognized the sport in 2015, and a seven-stop European tour is planned for 2018-19, starting with this week’s event in Moscow.

Azevedo said the FIVB is hoping to add three more events of its own, including one in Argentina that will be the first outside of Europe. Davis said he hopes to host one in the United States next winter.

From there, the FIVB is planning for a snow volleyball competition at the Youth Olympics and World University Games in 2020 and the winter Military World Games in 2021, along with a possible world championship.

“We are really shaping this new discipline around the world,” Azevedo said, adding that it would have much lower barriers to entry than many winter sports, which require ice rinks or luge runs or mountains.

That could help open the Winter Olympics to countries with successful volleyball programs but no ice or snow.

“Possibly snow volleyball is the only winter sport you can just pass by and play,” Azevedo said. “You just need proper clothes, football cleats, and you can play.”

An earlier incarnation of the sport had two-person teams, like beach volleyball, but organizers tinkered with the rules and settled on three-on-three, with a fourth teammate as a substitute. While indoor sets go to 25 and the beach goes to 21, snow volleyball games are up to 15

“Thank God, because it is minus 20 in Russia — Celsius,” Ball said.

Although the court layout is similar to beach, the ball is heavier when it gets wet and players wear thermal clothing and soccer cleats for traction. Ball said the sport puts a premium on ball control and serving, because it’s harder to move quickly in the snow.

“As long as you control the serve receive and serve well, I think on any surface you can be successful,” he said.

Martin Kaswurm, who is credited with inventing the sport when he set up a court outside his restaurant in Austria, said having different rules helps distinguish the sport from “its older brother beach volleyball” and could make it more appealing to Olympic officials.

“This should help to position snow volleyball as a unique version of the game,” he said.

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Ester Ledecka must decide between ski, snowboard worlds

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SELVA DI VAL GARDENA, Italy (AP) — Skier-snowboarder Ester Ledecka will not be able to follow up her dual sport gold-medal performances at the PyeongChang Olympics with a similar haul of world titles this season.

That’s because the schedule won’t allow it, and she’s not happy about it.

The parallel giant slalom at the world freestyle skiing and snowboard championships in Utah is Feb. 4 — the same day downhill training opens at Alpine skiing worlds in Are, Sweden, and a day before the super-G.

“I was a little bit hoping they would reschedule the snowboard race — put it a week earlier so I could do it both — but they didn’t want to so I have to choose,” Ledecka said Tuesday after placing 29th in a World Cup downhill.

In PyeongChang, Ledecka followed her super-G title by winning the parallel GS in snowboarding — becoming the first athlete to win two golds at one Winter Games using two different types of equipment.

The 23-year-old Czech is the reigning world champion in parallel GS.

Ledecka said she brought up the issue with the International Ski Federation, which governs both sports.

“On one side I see their point. For one athlete why should they do that, right? But from the other side I think I made snowboarding a little more popular, and I think a lot of fans would be happy to see me compete in both,” Ledecka said. “It’s their decision, and I have to respect it.”

Ledecka has not decided which worlds she’ll compete in. She’s currently going back and forth between the snowboard and ski circuits.

Last week, she finished first and second in two parallel GS events in Italy and then switched to downhill skis this week. She was fastest in a downhill training run Monday before finishing 29th in Tuesday’s race.

“I think I can decide right before,” Ledecka said. “But it will probably be early, so I’m well prepared.”

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