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Starr Andrews, 17, could be a figure skating star in the making

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As Starr Andrews struck the final pose of her free skate at the U.S. Championships this January, and the whole of the SAP Center in San Jose rose to its feet in approval, Tara Lipinski couldn’t help herself on the NBC broadcast. “This is our future!” she declared. “It’s so great to see a little junior come out as a senior skater and skate a program like that.”

“She’s blown the roof off this building,” Johnny Weir added.

Some nine months later Andrews, now 17, is making her senior Grand Prix debut at Skate America this coming weekend in Everett, Wash., and while she’s still little – she stands just 4 feet, 11 inches – she’s fully a senior competitor. And with senior expectations.

“I want to be in Beijing in 2022,” she told NBCSports.com in a recent phone interview. “Even though it’s far away, it’s in the back of my mind. But I’m focusing on what’s in front of me this season.”

That first means Skate America, but then also Skate Canada, which Andrews was extended an invitation to last minute. That means she’ll skate back-to-back weekends on the Grand Prix circuit, rare for any skater – especially one in her debut season.

“We know what we want to do down the road, but we take it one event at a time,” said her coach of five years, Derrick Delmore, a former world junior champion. “We debrief, re-evaluate and re-asses what has happened and where we’re going and then take it from there.”

That means the next two weeks are big ones for Andrews, who is based in the Los Angeles area and trains with Delmore at two separate rinks, one which includes standout American Mariah Bell and one of the best Japanese skaters in the world, Marin Honda.

Delmore doesn’t hesitate when he talks about goals for 2018-19 for his star pupil, however, saying that the U.S. Championships (where she was sixth this past season) is their target for now, then the world championships to follow.

Andrews would most likely have to finish in the top two in Detroit in late January to make that trip to Japan a reality.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, however, Andrews is already one of the most-watched skaters in the world thanks to a 2010 video of her – at age 9 – skating to “Whip My Hair”, dressed in fluorescent pink and (eventually) garnering some 54 million views on YouTube.

But eight years later Andrews is a much more mature presence on the ice, though she and Delmore – and her mom, Toshawa, who acts as a manager of sorts – have worked to keep her personality unique and different on the ice.

“She has this joyful, playful demeanor. She’s goofy,” offers Delmore. “She’s a breath of fresh air in that way, and we try and let that show in her skating.”

While Andrews wanted to skate to music from the movie “Black Panther” for her free skate this season, Delmore instead found a mix of music that includes “Africa Tribal Xotica” and has what Delmore describes as a “jungle theme” to it. It’s a program that does not include any lyrics, which excites Andrews, who last year sang vocals in her free skate to Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time.”

“It’s something completely different,” Andrews says. “I was super excited when I got it. It still tells a story. I want to show people what I’ve been working on through that choreography.”

Andrews is hardly the first black skater to compete at the international level, but figure skating is still a sport that has very few minority athletes outside of a strong Japanese contingent. In the U.S., Debi Thomas was a two-time national champion, world champ and 1988 Olympic bronze medalist, while Delmore – as mentioned – was a successful junior.

“For me, she’s just like every other young kid who wants to experience this sport,” says her mom, Toshawa. “While she’s African American, I don’t think it bothers her or makes her feel less than. She skates for herself.”

This past summer Andrews visited the famed New York non-profit, Figure Skating in Harlem, which services young girls of color, and Toshawa said her daughter’s presence sent ripples through the camp: The youngsters had not seen a skater of color with Andrews’ pedigree. Toshawa was moved to near tears at the connection between Starr and the program’s members.

“I want to bring more people like me to the sport,” Andrews says, pausing to reflect on what sort of impact she wants to have on the sport. “There’s not a lot of skaters of color. I want to bring a different look.

Separately, she adds: “I want to bring a beauty back into skating, too. It’s not just about the jumps.”

Speaking of jumps, however, Andrews is one of the few women in the world to attempt a triple Axel, an element she and Delmore will consider using this weekend and moving forward. While she is “so, so close” in practice, Delmore says, she works off ice on conditioning with a local trainer in Southern California, Tyler Poor, often in the swimming pool or on the elliptical. She takes ballet once a week.

It’s a pivotal moment in the U.S. scene for the American ladies: Three-time American winner Ashley Wagner’s future is up in the air, while fellow former U.S. champ Gracie Gold is attempting a comeback from stepping away for personal reasons. Mirai Nagasu is not competing this season, and while Bradie Tennell is the reigning champ, there is no clear favorite moving into this season.

While Andrews has a ways to climb to be a title contender, her statement of intent for Beijing 2022 is heard loud and clear. She’ll still only be just 20 years old.

“I’m in for whatever she wants,” says Toshawa. “I am the one in the background encouraging her. I’m not pushing her to do any of this, but kids have to be guided. … I’ve taught her to never look at anything like you’re losing – you’re always just learning. You take something from every opportunity and experience and you grow from that. It’s never a loss. And you always compete only against yourself.”

This weekend Andrews will also compete against some of the best in the world, including Honda, Tennell, Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto.

Andrews names her personal heroes as her mom and Delmore, who she says have been with her to “lift her up when [she’s] not doing well.

And when she thinks back to that viral video some eight years ago, it’s outright incredible that she’s developed into the elite skater that she has – Willow Smith included or not.

“I think my younger self would be proud of me,” she says, smiling through the phone. “It makes me think of the movies when a character closes her eyes and sees herself in the future. It feels like that. When I was little, I would watch skating and now I’m at that level, it feels so cool to be where I am now.”

And where does she go next? That’s for all of us to watch and see this weekend – and beyond.

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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Weightlifting investigation finds doping cover-ups

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DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — An investigation into the International Weightlifting Federation has found doping cover-ups and millions of dollars in missing money, lead investigator Richard McLaren said Thursday.

McLaren said 40 positive doping tests were “hidden” in IWF records and that athletes whose cases were delayed or covered up went on to win medals at the world championships and other events. The cases will be referred to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We found systematic governance failures and corruption at the highest level of the IWF,” McLaren said.

The International Olympic Committee said it was studying the report “very carefully,” adding that “the content is deeply concerning.”

McLaren said former IWF president Tamas Ajan was “an autocratic leader” who kept the board in the dark about finances and left officials fearing reprisals if they spoke out. Ajan received cash payments on behalf of the IWF as doping fines from national federations or sponsors, the report said, but what happened to some of the money is unclear.

McLaren said $10.4 million was unaccounted for, based on his team’s analysis of cash going in and out of the IWF over several years. Ajan denies any wrongdoing.

The largest fine recorded in the report was $500,000 paid by Azerbaijan. It’s unclear how that payment was made. On one trip to Thailand for a competition and conference, Ajan collected more than $440,000 across 18 cash payments, according to the report.

“Everyone was kept in financial ignorance through the use of hidden bank accounts (and transfers),” McLaren said. “Some cash was accounted for, some was not.”

McLaren said that the investigation found information which law enforcement “might be interested in,” and that he would cooperate with any later investigations. That was echoed by Ajan’s successor at the IWF.

“The activities that have been revealed and the behavior that has occurred in the years past is absolutely unacceptable and possibly criminal,” IWF interim president Ursula Garza Papandrea said.

She added that the IWF will pass on information to law enforcement if it indicates there were “potential crimes.”

McLaren said Ajan “permitted the (federation) elections to be bought by vote brokers” as he kept the presidency and promoted favored officials. Large cash withdrawals were made ahead of federation congresses, McLaren said, adding that voters were bribed and had to take pictures of their ballots to show to brokers.

The 81-year-old Ajan stepped down in April, ending a 20-year reign as president and a total 44 years in federation posts. A month before that he also gave up his honorary membership of the International Olympic Committee.

In a statement to Hungarian state news agency MTI, Ajan said the IWF’s finances were managed in a “lawful” manner with oversight from the board.

“All my life, I’ve abided by the laws, the written and unwritten rules and customs of the sport,” he said.

Ajan accused McLaren’s team of not giving him enough information to respond to the allegations about his conduct.

Ajan was a full IOC member between 2000 and 2010, voting to select Olympic host cities. A previous complaint about IWF finances in 2010 was closed by the IOC.

McLaren’s investigation was sparked in January when German broadcaster ARD reported financial irregularities at the federation and apparent doping cover-ups.

The focus of the investigation was on the period from 2009 through 2019. McLaren said he heard allegations of misconduct dating back as far as the 1980s, but chose to prioritize more recent matters with stronger evidence.

The World Anti-Doping Agency said it welcomed McLaren’s findings.

“Once WADA has had the opportunity to review that evidence as well as the report in full, the Agency will consider the next appropriate steps to take,” it said in a statement.

Some allegations regarding doping misconduct around the 2019 world championships in Thailand and involving athletes from Moldova were passed to the International Testing Agency, which is still investigating.

McLaren, a Canadian law professor, was WADA’s lead investigator for Russian doping and has judged cases at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Weightlifting’s reputation under Ajan had already been hit by dozens of steroid doping cases revealed in retests of samples from the Olympics since 2008.

Since he left office in April, the IWF has begun moving its headquarters from Ajan’s home country of Hungary to the Swiss city of Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee is based.

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Gwendolyn Berry gets apology from USOPC CEO after reprimand for podium gesture

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Olympic hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland apologized to her Wednesday “for not understanding the severity of the impact her decisions had on me,” after Berry was put on probation last August for one year after raising her fist at the end of the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American Games.

“I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night,” Hirshland said in a statement. “I heard her. I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.”

Berry and fencer Race Imboden were sent August letters of reprimand by Hirshland, along with each receiving probation, after each made a podium gesture at Pan Ams in Peru.

This week, Berry tweeted that she wanted a public apology from Hirshland. That tweet came after Hirshland sent a letter to U.S. athletes on Monday night, condemning “systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans in the United States.”

Then on Wednesday night, Berry said she had a “really productive” 40-minute phone call with Hirshland, USATF CEO Max Siegel and other USATF officials.

“I didn’t necessarily ask for [an apology] from [Hirshland],” Berry said Thursday. Berry said she lost two-thirds of her income after Pan Ams, that sponsors dropped her in connection to the raised fist fallout.

“We came to some good conclusions,” Berry said of the group call. “The most important thing were figuring out ways to move forward. [Hirshland] was aware of things that she did and how she made me feel about the situation, and I was happy that I was able to express to her my grievances and she was able to express to me how she felt as well about the situation.”

Berry said her probation, which is believed to still be in effect, wasn’t discussed. She made a point to say that USATF has always been on her side.

“The conversation was more for awareness purposes, and we’ll probably have more conversations this week,” said Berry.

Berry also plans to participate in a U.S. athlete town hall Friday.

“First and foremost, we should and we will discuss how people are just feeling and how people are holding up because athletes in general, because of the pandemic and because of everything that’s been going on, I know a lot of people are in distress, they’re sad, they’re confused,” she said. “I think that’ll be the main point of the discussion. Just to make sure everybody’s OK. Just to see how everybody’s holding on.”

On Aug. 10, Berry raised her fist at the end of the national anthem after winning the Pan American Games title.

The next morning, Berry said the gesture, which drew memories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games, wasn’t meant to be a big message, but it quickly became a national story.

“Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” she said then. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”

Berry said then that the motivation behind her gesture included the challenges overcome of changing coaches and moving from Oxford, Miss., where her family resides, to Houston.

“Every individual person has their own views of things that are going on,” she said. “It’s in the Constitution, freedom of speech. I have a right to feel what I want to feel. It’s no disrespect at all to the country. I want to make that very clear. If anything, I’m doing it out of love and respect for people in the country.”

Berry also said that weekend, according to USA Today, that she was standing for “extreme injustice.”

“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry said, according to that report. “It’s too important to not say something. Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

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