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

 

Sam Mikulak to retire from gymnastics after Tokyo Olympics

Sam Mikulak
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Sam Mikulak, the U.S.’ top male gymnast, said he will retire after the Tokyo Olympics, citing a wrist injury and emotional health revelations during a forced break from the sport due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It does sound like some pretty crazy news, but there’s a lot of factors that go into it,” Mikulak said in a YouTube video published Sunday night. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it during quarantine.”

The 27-year-old is a two-time Olympian, six-time U.S. all-around champion and the only active U.S. male gymnast with Olympic experience.

Mikulak said he noticed significant wrist inflammation last year that was temporarily healed by a November cortisone shot. But during quarantine, the wrist worsened even though he wasn’t doing gymnastics. He took a month off from working out, but the wrist didn’t heal.

He thought for a time that he might not return to gymnastics at all. A doctor told him he would need cortisone shots for the rest of his career.

“At that point, it was really made for me that this has to be my final year of gymnastics because I don’t want to ruin myself beyond this sport,” Mikulak said.

Mikulak also noted realizations from the forced time out of the gym. He learned that he’s much less stressed while not doing gymnastics, a sport he began at age 2. Mikulak’s parents were gymnasts at Cal.

“For so long, I’ve been sacrificing, and I’m sick of it,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to being able to be free from gymnastics and being able to do all these things that I’ve been putting off in my life for so long.”

Mikulak realized a career goal in 2018 when he earned his first individual world championships medal, a bronze on high bar. He wants to cap his career with a first Olympic medal in Tokyo, then, perhaps, become a coach or open his own gym.

Mikulak recently got engaged to Mia Atkins, and they got another puppy, Barney.

“Everything I’ve done in gymnastics is enough for me right now,” said Mikulak, who plans to document the next year on YouTube. “I was actually somewhat happy that I was able to come to that type of decision because for so long I felt like gymnastics really wasn’t going to be fulfilling until I’ve gotten my Olympic medal. And during quarantine, I had this whole revelation where, you know what, I am happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life, and I’m not doing gymnastics, so even if I don’t accomplish these goals, I am still going to be so damn happy.”

MORE: Simone Biles’ closest rival chases comeback

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April Ross, Alix Klineman complete perfect, abbreviated AVP season

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April Ross and Alix Klineman consolidated their position as the U.S.’ top beach volleyball team, completing a sweep of the three-tournament AVP Champions Cup on Sunday.

Ross, a two-time Olympic medalist, and Klineman won the finale, the Porsche Cup. They won all 12 matches over the last three weekends, including the last 14 sets in a row, capped with a 21-18, 21-17 win over Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil in Sunday’s final.

“It feels like we’re midseason in a normal year,” Ross said on Amazon Prime. “I can’t believe it’s over.”

The AVP Champions Cup marked the first three top-level beach volleyball tournaments since March, and a replacement for a typical AVP season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The setting: on the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center parking lot without fans and with many health and safety measures.

AVP is not part of Olympic qualifying. It’s unknown when those top-level international tournaments will resume, but Ross and Klineman, ranked No. 2 in the world, are just about assured of one of the two U.S. Olympic spots.

According to BVBinfo.com, they’re 10-0 combined against the other top U.S. teams — Claes and Sponcil and triple Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, who are likely battling for the last U.S. Olympic spot.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who do not play on the AVP tour, have a lead for the last spot more than halfway through qualifying, which runs into June.

Earlier in the men’s final, Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb kept 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena from sweeping the Champions Cup. Bourne and Crabb prevailed 21-17, 15-21, 15-12 for their first AVP title since teaming in 2018.

Bourne, who went nearly two years between tournaments from 2016-18 due to an autoimmune disease, and Crabb redeemed after straight-set losses to Dalhausser and Lucena the previous two weekends. Crabb guaranteed a title on Instagram days before the tournament.

“Those guys are the best in the world, and they make you look bad at times, but we’re relentless,” Bourne said on Amazon Prime. “You’re going to have to play the best volleyball in the world to beat us every time.”

Bourne and Crabb, Dalhausser and Lucena and Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb (Trevor’s younger brother) are battling for two available U.S. Olympic spots in Tokyo.

MORE: Team Slaes looks to end Kerri Walsh Jennings’ Olympic career

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