Brian Kiefer

Catching up with speed skating gold medalist Bonnie Blair

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NBC Sports spoke with Bonnie Blair while she attended a recent ASICS and Right To Play Fundraising Event. The five-time Olympic gold medalist shared thoughts on U.S. speed skating today, how fast her daughter is advancing in the sport and where the time has gone since Lillehammer, nearly 25 years ago.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s the state of American speed skating right now?

Sometimes after an Olympic year, it tends to be a little bit of a challenge because of retirements and things like that. But Brittany Bowe just won the 1000m at a World Cup in Poland. It’s her first time she’s been on the top podium for the 1000m in almost three years. That’s definitely very encouraging for her because she had such a couple of challenging years.

Along with that, she’s kind of bringing some of our girls that maybe didn’t quite make World Cups last year, but are starting to make World Cups this year, and they’re making some big jumps. All training together has been very good for those up and coming ones. On the flip side, for Brittany, she’s off to a great start this season. I just think of a lot of great things to come for her.

[Editor’s note: Bowe grabbed the 20th win of her career on Sunday.]

Joey Mantia was fourth in the 1000m. I think probably he is stronger in the 1500m just because he has a little bit more of a challenge to get up to speed in that first 200 meters. But that was one of his best races so far this season.

I’m hoping, as on the girls’ side, Brittany’s gonna bring some of those girls that are knocking on the door to be going to World Cups and bring them along. Kinda hoping Joey can do the same thing.

How is your daughter’s progress in the sport going?

Blair had made the junior world team last year in the 500m. That’s the hope, that she’ll be able to make that team again. Hopefully this year, maybe she’ll even skate the 1000m. She’s been training for the 1000m.

She’s made some great gains. My husband [three-time Olympian Dave Cruikshank] and I have to remind ourselves she’s only “5 years old” in speed skating years – although she’s 18. Our daughter really didn’t grow up too much on skates. Really, five years ago, she couldn’t do a crossover.

It was all on her own when she had to give up gymnastics, due to chronic wrist issues. She’s like, “OK, I need to do something else, maybe I should speed skate.”

I’m like, “Now you’re gonna do this!?” But whatever: better late than never! We’re all for it and excited for what the future holds for her.

Have you had to reel back your own urges to coach her?

My husband is more the coach; I try to take a step back. I do say things. Or I’ll go to Dave and say what about this and this and this, what do you think? Just so she doesn’t have too many things coming in from too many different angles. I know what that’s like as an athlete when you’ve got too many coaches in there. It can get confusing.

She’s also very good at listening to mom and dad. I think she’s pretty good at keeping things separate as we are and when we’re at home it’s not 24/7 skating. You don’t want it 24/7 because you don’t want to burn the kid out, either.

She goes onto the website all on her own and she starts watching the races. She knows what’s going on. I’d say she’s a good student of the sport. And like I said, it’s been a lot of fun for us as well.

You were in PyeongChang for the Olympics. What were your highlights?

U.S. Speedskating brought me over there as an ambassador and to go to some events with some groups. I feel very lucky that I was able to go over there and I haven’t missed an Olympics yet, so I knock on wood on that one.

Watching our girls win that [team pursuit] bronze medal was one of the highlights. That was so exciting. I was also in the stands when [short track skater] John-Henry Krueger won his [silver] medal. That was exciting, too.

I felt like if Brittany Bowe would’ve had one more month before the Olympics, she could’ve been on the podium three or four times. It was frustrating in some parts, but definitely when the girls pulled out that bronze, that was pretty exciting.

While we’re talking Olympic Games – the 25th anniversary of Lillehammer is coming up.

25 years – wow! Where did the time go? When you got a 20-year-old and an 18-year-old, I guess that’s where a lot of the time has gone!

I have such great memories from Lillehammer. Lillehammer was really that true Winter Olympics. In Calgary, they brought in white sand for the Closing Ceremony to make it look like it snowed because the chinook winds kept coming in and keeping things warm. Then Albertville was a very warm Olympics as well. When we got to Lillehammer, it was cold, there was snow. You really felt like it was a Winter Games. And the people there, the hospitality was great. My family had a great time. Like I said, I’ve got a lot of great memories from there.

That leads me into what I’m doing here, with Right To Play with Johann Olav Koss. What he started from the success that he had [winning three gold medals in Lillehammer] really did a lot of good things for a lot of people.

He’s really touched the world and touched many people. Probably changed who knows how many lives. I really feel he has made the world a better place.

Catch the race to the finish line with plenty of drama along the way! Don’t miss the world’s fastest skaters compete live and on-demand with the “Speed Skating Pass” on NBC Sports Gold.

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MORE: Brittany Bowe adds World Cup 1000m win to 1500m

 

Roger Federer saves 7 match points; next: Novak Djokovic in Australian Open semifinals

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Roger Federer was not going to go gently, of course, no matter how daunting the number of match points — his opponent accumulated seven! — no matter how achy his 38-year-old legs, no matter how slow his serves, no matter how off-target his groundstrokes.

Federer still plays for the love of these stages and circumstances. Still yearns for more trophies, too. Down to his very last gasp, time and again, against someone a decade younger, 100th-ranked Tennys Sandgren of the United States, Federer somehow pulled off a memorable comeback to reach the Australian Open semifinals for the 15th time.

Despite all sorts of signs he was not quite himself for much of the match, Federer beat the biceps-baring, hard-hitting, court-covering Sandgren 6-3, 2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-3 on Tuesday in a rollicking quarterfinal that appeared to be over long before it truly was.

“For the most time there, I thought that was it. Of course, there’s little sparkles where maybe not. Then you’re like, ‘No, it IS over,’” said Federer, who only once before had won after facing as many as seven match points, equaling his personal best from all the way back in 2003. “Only maybe when I won that fourth set did I really think that, maybe, this whole thing could turn around.”

He said afterward that it had been his groin muscle that was the problem and he couldn’t be certain whether he would be fully recovered for his next match. That will come against defending champion Novak Djokovic, who overwhelmed No. 32 Milos Raonic 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (1) to improve to 10-0 against the 2016 Wimbledon runner-up.

“He was just too good,” Raonic said.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

It’ll be the 50th meeting between No. 3 Federer, who has won 20 Grand Slam titles, and No. 2 Djokovic, who owns 16.

Djokovic leads their head-to-head series 26-23, including their past five matches at majors.

“Roger is Roger. You know that he’s always going to play on such a high level, regardless of the surface,” Djokovic said. “He loves to play these kind of matches, big rivalries, semis, finals of Grand Slams.”

About the only thing that slowed Djokovic’s progression to a 37th career Grand Slam semifinal — Federer earned his 46th — was the medical timeout the Serb asked for at 4-all in the third set so he could put in new contact lenses.

“It was just something I had to do,” Djokovic said, “because those few games, I really couldn’t see much.”

The last two men’s quarterfinals are Wednesday: Rafael Nadal vs. Dominic Thiem, and Alexander Zverev vs. Stan Wawrinka.

One women’s semifinal was set Tuesday: No. 1 Ash Barty, trying to become the first Australian Open singles champion from the host country since the 1970s, against No. 14 Sofia Kenin, a 21-year-old American never before this far at any major tournament.

Wednesday’s quarterfinals are Simona Halep vs. Anett Kontaveit, and Garbiñe Muguruza vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

There was a lot to live up to after the drama of Federer vs. Sandgren.

“You can’t give a good player — let alone maybe the best player ever — that many chances to come back,” said Sandgren, his voice low, his eyes looking down. “They’re going to find their game and start playing well. That seemed to me what happened.”

In truth, so much had happened.

Federer got into a dispute with a line judge and the chair umpire over cursing. He left the court for a medical timeout early in the third set, then was visited by a trainer later for a right leg massage.

Sandgren was run into by a ballkid during a changeover in the tiebreaker; was distracted by a courtside broadcast commentator.

The 28-year-old from Tennessee has never been a major semifinalist and was trying to become the lowest-ranked man in the Australian Open’s final four since Patrick McEnroe — John’s younger brother — was No. 114 in 1991.

Imagine, then, the heartbreak for Sandgren, who toiled for years on lower-level tours and was so thrilled just to share the stage with Federer.

“Maybe,” Sandgren said, “I’ll get another look, another shot.”

After rolling through the second and third sets as Federer’s serve dropped from an average of 112 mph to 105 mph — “Wasn’t popping like it does normally,” Sandgren observed — and Federer’s unforced errors totaled 30, the underdog led 5-4 in the fourth set.

That’s when Sandgren earned his first trio of opportunities to complete a career-defining victory. But he missed a shot each time. There were four more match points in the tiebreaker at 6-3, 6-4, 6-5 and 7-6.

“Honestly, when they told me seven, I was like, ‘What?!’ I thought it was three,” Federer said. “It’s such a blur.”

Djokovic’s take on Federer’s comeback: “Amazing.”

Raonic’s: “Impressive.”

When Sandgren sent an overhead smash long to give Federer the fourth set. Federer quickly controlled the fifth and ended the victory with a service winner at 119 mph, a little more than an hour after first staring down defeat.

“Just seemed like his level picked up when his back was right up against the wall,” said Sandgren, who only got the chance to serve on one of those seven pivotal points. “He just wouldn’t give me anything.”

That’s how Djokovic makes foes feel.

The key moment for him Tuesday came rather early: Raonic went into the quarterfinals having won all 59 of his service games in the tournament. But that streak ended at 5-4 against Djokovic. On Djokovic’s ninth break point of the match, Raonic missed a forehand to cap a 19-shot exchange, handing over the opening set.

Djokovic yelled and threw an uppercut. Two Raonic service games later, he broke yet again, all he would need to own the second set, too. Soon enough, he was two wins from a record-extending eighth championship at the Australian Open.

Federer has won six titles at Melbourne Park and never lost there to anyone ranked worse than 54th. But Sandgren, whose career tour-level record is under .500, played superbly. He won more points, 161-160, and produced edges of 27-5 in aces, 73-44 in total winners.

“I mean, he never gives up,” Djokovic said about Federer. “When it matters the most, he’s focused and he plays his best tennis.”

Federer knows exactly the sort of pain Sandgren experienced.

Last July, Federer failed to convert a pair of championship points in the fifth set of the Wimbledon final before losing to Djokovic.

“These ones just sting, and they hurt,” Federer said. “But … I was incredibly lucky today.”

MORE: Top U.S. tennis player leaning toward skipping Olympics

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World champion wins doping case citing bodily fluids from boyfriend

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — A world champion canoeist won a doping case Monday after persuading a tribunal that her positive test was caused by bodily fluid contamination from her boyfriend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) ended its investigation into 11-time world champion Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who tested positive for a steroid-like substance in July. She faced a four-year ban and could have missed her event’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.

The Canadian canoe sprint racer and her lawyer detailed in a news program that laboratory analysis of hair from her then-boyfriend showed he was likely responsible for a tiny presence of ligandrol in her doping sample.

“The ICF has accepted Ms. Vincent Lapointe’s evidence which supports that she was the victim of third-party contamination,” the governing body said in a statement, clearing her to return to competition.

The legal debate is similar to tennis player Richard Gasquet’s 2009 acquittal in the “cocaine kiss” case. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet’s defense that kissing a woman who had taken cocaine in a Miami nightclub, after he had withdrawn injured from a tournament, caused his positive test.

The 27-year-old Vincent Lapointe was provisionally suspended for almost six months and missed the 2019 World Championships, which was a key qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics. American 17-year-old Nevin Harrison won the 200m world title in her absence.

She can still qualify for the Olympic debut of women’s canoe sprint events with victory at a World Cup event in May in Germany.

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