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Ex-NFL Pro Bowl players try curling with 2022 Olympic goal

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Defensive lineman Jared Allen retired from the NFL in 2015 and wasn’t ready to give up on the competition he’d come to enjoy as a five-time All-Pro.

His solution: The Olympics.

The problem: He didn’t compete in any Olympic sports.

Less than a year later, Allen and three other former NFL stars — none with any prior experience — are attempting to qualify for the U.S. national curling championships against players who have been throwing stones for most of their lives.

It would be the first step toward competing in the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

“Every team in the NFL — whether you’re hot garbage or the defending Super Bowl champions — every coach come August says the same thing: ‘We’re trying to win the Super Bowl,’” Allen said. “We come from that mentality, where we set lofty goals.

“Our short term goals are continually to get better: Fundamentals, strategy, sweeping. We know if we master these little things, it will take us a long way.”

A 12-year NFL veteran who spent most of his career with the Chiefs and Vikings, Allen was lamenting the end of his playing days when a friend dared him to try an Olympic sport. Allen toyed with the idea of badminton but rejected it as too taxing.

“We thought about curling. It was chill, and the winners have to buy the losers beer,” he said. “We thought it was a win-win.”

He rounded up former Rams quarterback Marc Bulger and Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck and tackle Michael Roos to form a team; all were Pro Bowl selections during their NFL career, and living near Nashville, Tennessee.

Adopting the name All-Pro Curling Team, they started from scratch in March and kept their plans under wraps until they felt like they had made enough progress.

“We wanted the reaction when we got on the ice to be ’Oh, how long have you guys been doing this?” Allen said in a telephone interview after practicing on a converted hockey rink in Nashville. “We were serious. We didn’t want it to seem like it was just some media hype, or just trying to stay relevant.”

The first test was in November, when Allen and Bulger — with two “regular” curlers — competed in the Curl Mesabi Classic in Northern Minnesota. Their first opponent: The gold medal-winning team from Pyeongchang led by four-time Olympian John Shuster.

They lost 11-3, giving up five points in the sixth end.

“Honestly, they were a little better than I had expected,” said Matt Hamilton, the second on that team. “All in all, Jared was technically pretty sound. But at the end of the day, I’ve seen thousands of curling shots and situations and that is ultimately going to win us more games.”

Although curling matches are often conceded when they are out of reach, the Olympians kept playing through the eighth (of 10) ends, to help the football players gain the experience they’ll need if they are going to be more competitive. (If it’s any consolation for Allen’s crew, Shuster’s rink also scored a five-ender against Sweden in the gold-medal match.)

“We had one bad end, and we just kept playing with them. We just wanted to be a sponge,” Bulger said. “The key was they knew we were taking it seriously. It wasn’t just us saying ‘We’re going to take over curling,’ kind of as a gimmick.

“We hope to play them again,” he said, “when we’re better.”

The All-Pros are back at it at the USA Men’s Challenge Round this weekend in Blaine, Minnesota, where they are competing for one of four remaining spots in next month’s national championships. (Top teams like Shuster’s have already qualified.)

They got off to a rough start in their first match, falling 10-1 to Steve Birklid’s Seattle-based rink on Thursday night. But, by hopping into the sport early in the Olympic cycle, they have almost three more years before the team for the 2022 Games is chosen.

Hamilton confessed he was put off at first about newcomers thinking they could reach the Olympics in a sport he’d worked a lifetime to master. But he also realized the publicity will be good for curling, which has struggled to break out of its niche as an every-four-years curiosity.

“If I really think I’m that good, I should be like ‘Bring it on!’” Hamilton said in an email to The Associated Press from a competition in Japan. “How much they respected the game, though, is what made me realize they aren’t making a mockery. We just have some extremely athletic individuals who respect sport but have a need to compete in their blood. Can’t disrespect that!”

All four football players agreed the reception they’ve received from lifetime curlers is decidedly different from a curler trying to break into the hyper-competitive NFL.

“Oh, he’d get smashed,” Allen said. “We’d go out of our way to test his mettle, for sure.”

Instead, they found the tight-knit but friendly community of curlers was eager to accept them. In their match against the Olympians, there was trash-talking — or banter, depending on whom you ask — and Hamilton even gave them some of his old curling gear.

“I looked at their broom heads and I was disgusted. I was wondering why these former pro football players couldn’t afford new broom heads,” he said. “So I went into my curling bag and gave them some gently used ones before the game. That really surprised Jared, claiming nothing like that would ever fly in football.”

Like many of those who only experience curling every four years on TV, the football players saw the sweeping and the shouting and underestimated how hard it is. “We played football, but it’s a lot of muscles we didn’t use,” Bulger said.

Sliding on the ice was also an adjustment, but the biggest challenge has been the strategy.

When he first started watching, Bulger said, he would see curlers setting up protective stones called guards and thought they were missing their shots.

“We just assumed that you throw to the button every time, and we learned that is not the game,” he said. “It’s like a novice chess player going against” a grandmaster.

But their NFL experience did help in other ways, priming them with not just physical fitness but also good practice habits, making decisions on the fly and improving through film study and coaching.

“Like any other sport, you have to learn, try to figure out how to get better,” Bulluck said. “Playing football at a very high level, being one of the best at the position once upon a time, to get to that level in anything you do you have to be able to take coaching.”

And, of course, they’re competitive.

“The message is: We want to bring attention to it. We want to have fun with it,” Allen said. “But we’re dead serious about what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Larry Nassar judge, Olympians back USOC oversight push in Congress

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DENVER (AP) — The judge who sentenced former sports doctor Larry Nassar to prison and a group of Olympians are backing an effort to create a commission to look into the operations of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Michigan Judge Rosemarie Aquilina joined the athletes and Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette in Denver on Monday to announce the planned introduction of the bipartisan bill Tuesday in the House. It mirrors one introduced in January by Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in the Senate, a standard practice in Congress. It would set up a panel of 16 people, half of them Olympians or Paralympians, with subpoena power.

Aquilina urged people to ask their congressional representatives to support the legislation and add their names as co-sponsors. Aquilina said she became involved because this wasn’t a partisan issue, but a “human thing. This is justice for everybody. Isn’t that what judges are supposed to be — about equal justice?”

“It’s troubling for me to hear that money and medals are valued more than the safety of athletes. We have to flip that script,” added Aquilina, who sentenced Nassar to what equates to life in prison. “How is it that the Olympics do not protect their athletes? That’s their company. That’s their bread and butter.”

The latest legislation to establish the commission comes six months after a congressional report in the wake of the Nassar sex-abuse case that recommended a review of the law that governs the USOC and how the USOC can use its authority to more actively protect athletes.

USOC spokesman Mark Jones said in a statement they will “continue to work constructively with both the House and the Senate to create healthy and safe environments for the American athletes we serve.”

Among the panel’s duties would be to evaluate how responsive the national governing bodies of each Olympic sports are to the athletes, and whether the U.S. Center for SafeSport has proper funding to effectively respond to any future reports of harassment and sexual assault. In addition, the panel would review the diversity of the USOC’s board members, its finances and whether it’s achieving its stated goals.

Gardner said he’s talked to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about serving on the panel. “That’s likely the kind of caliber that we need,” Gardner said.

Olympic champions Nancy Hogshead-Makar, BJ Bedford and Norm Bellingham, along with Paralympic gold medalist Sarah Will were among those in attendance.

“No amount of gold medals are worth putting the health and safety of our athletes at risk,” DeGette said. “When the very body that Congress created to care for our athletes becomes more concerned about winning and protecting a brand than the athletes themselves — it’s time for change.”

Rob Koehler said he believes this will be a big step forward for athletes. He’s the director general of a group called Global Athlete, which is designed to help athletes gain a more represented voice.

“It’s time to make sure there is independent oversight, that the government takes a brave leadership role, not only for the United States but as an example for other countries, that it’s no longer acceptable for sport to self-govern itself,” Koehler said. “It’s all about the athletes. We lose focus of that. This movement is about celebrating athletes’ victories, and the growth potential is there.”

MORE: ‘This is not Burger King’: Nassar request denied by Aquilina

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Luca Urlando breaks Michael Phelps butterfly record

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Luca Urlando, the grandson of an Italian Olympic hammer thrower, appears to be the U.S. successor to Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly.

Urlando, 17, broke Phelps’ national 17-18 age group record in Phelps’ trademark event on Friday night, clocking 1:53.84 at a Tyr Pro Series meet in Clovis, Calif. Phelps’ mark (1:53.93) was set in 2003, when it doubled as the world record. Urlando previously broke high school age group records held by Phelps and Caeleb Dressel in 25-yard pools.

Urlando is now the third-fastest American in history in the 200m butterfly behind Phelps and Tyler Clary. He also ranks third in the world this year behind Hungarians Kristof Milak and Tamas Kenderesi.

But Urlando will not be at July’s world championships as that team was decided in 2018.

Last summer, Urlando was the highest-ranking U.S. swimmer not to make the Pan Pacific Championships team, though it was initially announced that he did make it.

Had Urlando made Pan Pacs and then swum .17 faster there than he did at nationals, he would have made the team for July’s world championships. Urlando went to Junior Pan Pacs instead last summer and did not swim faster than at nationals.

Should Urlando make the Tokyo Games, he is in line to be the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Phelps made his Olympic debut.

His grandfather, Giampaolo Urlando, threw the hammer for Italy at the 1976, 1980 and 1984 Olympics with a best finish of seventh. He originally was fourth at Los Angeles 1984 before being disqualified for testosterone.

Luca’s father, Alessandro Urlando, holds the University of Georgia school record in the discus. Luca, a rising Sacramento high school senior, is committed to Georgia.

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