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

 

Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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Mikaela Shiffrin runner-up in Lake Louise downhill

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LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — Here’s a scary thought for her competition: Mikaela Shiffrin is still getting comfortable with the intensity and the speed of the downhill.

That’s why podium finishes are still a little surprising even to her.

The American three-time overall World Cup champion finished runner-up to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria in a downhill race Saturday. Schmidhofer cruised through the course in 1 minute, 49.92 seconds to edge Shiffrin by 0.13 seconds. Francesca Marsaglia of Italy wound up third.

Schmidhofer has four career World Cup wins, with three of them arriving at Lake Louise.

Known as a tech specialist, Shiffrin is steadily getting up to speed in the speed events. This was Shiffrin’s fourth career World Cup podium finish in the downhill, which includes a Lake Louise win in 2017.

So, does Shiffrin anticipate this kind of downhill success?

“No, no, no,” the 24-year-old from Colorado said. “It’s certainly not normal (for a downhill podium). Even racing downhill doesn’t feel normal. But I feel every year like I have more experience and get more comfortable.”

Shiffrin currently sits at 62 World Cup wins, which ties her with Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second-most on the women’s side. Lindsey Vonn had 82 wins before her retirement.

“I’m certainly more comfortable with the long skis,” Shiffrin said of downhill racing. “Right now, it’s enjoying it, because speed is a little bit extra for me. My goal is to be able to succeed in speed as well. It’s making the transition and trying to have fun with it.”

Czech Republic skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka finished fourth Saturday. She was the surprise winner of Friday’s season-opening downhill, which was delayed and shortened by heavy snowfall on the mountain. The race Saturday was restored to its full length.

Next up, a super-G on Sunday.

“It’s always been a little bit tricky for me from downhill skis to super-G skis and to change the timing a little bit,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to have fun.”

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