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Mariah Bell keeps getting better, but if you ask her, it’s just the start

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No one knew fifth place could feel this good. But Mariah Bell felt this good.

It’s early November in the Grand Prix Series and Bell, the 2017 U.S. bronze medalist, had just finished a dazzling free skate to the Lori Nichol-choreographed “The Experience” by Ludovico Einaudi.

Bell thrusts her arms overhead, jumping up and down with a beaming smile splashed across her face. The work she had put in with coach Rafael Arutunian was finally paying off. And she knew she could skate even better.

“NHK was such a great experience; it was a stacked field,” said Bell in a phone interview last week. “I think it was the hardest Grand Prix (this season). Going into it, I wanted to put out my best and see where it got me. I look back and I’m so proud of how I skated… It opened my eyes to my potential. I’m right where I want to be. I can hang with the best in the world.”

Bell was right: It was a stacked field. Rika Kihira had her senior breakthrough in a triple-Axel showdown with Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, while Satoko Miyahara and Mai Mihara also factored into the top five.

It was Bell who would bounce back from a botched triple-triple in the short program (“I was so bummed about it… But then I regrouped [in the free]”) and placed fourth in the free skate, but overall it was the kind of performance that has become familiar to her in the past four months: Consistent, passionate and strong. Yet still wanting.

“I look back and I’m really proud of what I’ve done so far. I have a lot of hopes for myself coming up,” she said in an interview with me featured on this week’s Ice Talk podcast. “I want to continue progressing. I feel like the work that I’ve put in with Rafael is really starting to show, so that’s exciting for me.”

Just over two years ago – in August of 2016 – Bell made the switch from working with Kori Ade in Colorado to signing on to “Team Raf” (which included Nathan Chen, Ashley Wagner and Adam Rippon at the time). Arutunian told Bell he needed two years to start to get the kind of skating out of her he wanted.

She wasn’t exactly thrilled about that timeline.

“I was like, ‘Two years is a long time from now!’” Bell remembered, laughing. “Raf is very blunt. It’s about trusting him. He says exactly what he thinks and what he feels. Sometimes that’s really hard to swallow. It’s about learning his language. A lot of it is you taking on responsibility yourself. He’s not going to hold your hand. You gain maturity from having to do things on your own.”

That’s where Bell believes she has improved – in addition to on the ice – over the last two years: a mature mentality. Something only experience can help you with.

“If anything, I think (my age) helps me from experience and the mental side of the sport,” said the 22-year-old.

Last year was a struggle. She came into the Olympic season feeling a kind of pressure that she never had before and it showed in her skating. She was sixth and ninth in her two Grand Prix assignments, respectively, and finished fifth at U.S. Championships a year after being third.

This fifth left a much different feeling than that NHK one 10 months later.

“I would have loved to be on that Olympic team… but to be honest, I didn’t do what I needed to during the season to have the Nationals that I needed,” she says. “I didn’t put out the best version of myself. This year, I feel like I have put out the best version of myself. I look back at Nationals and have nothing but pride for what I did. I was bummed to be fifth. Whatever happened, happened and it was the right choice. I have to continue to be honest with myself. I have felt re-focused and refreshed this season. I think I’ve grown a lot.”

It shows in her programs. For her short she went out on a whim – at the encouragement of Arutunian – and asked former training partner and good friend Rippon to choreograph it, while Nichol did her free.

Both are fan favorites, and Bell told reporters on a call two weeks ago that she listens to the Celine Dion “To Love You More” track (her music for the short) all the time. Even driving to and from practice.

This coming weekend expectations are high. Many inside the sport think it could be a showdown between reigning U.S. champ Bradie Tennell and Bell, with 2017 winner Karen Chen out with injury and neither Mirai Nagasu nor Wagner skating this season.

MORE: 3 questions with Bradie Tennell before U.S. Championships

Bell knows she has top billing with Bradie. That doesn’t intimidate her in the slightest.

“I want to win. I want to be national champion,” she says, channeling some Raf bluntness. “But I can only control what I can control, which is my skating. I need to skate the way that I train. And I truly think if I do that, the results will take care of themselves. Regardless of the outcome, I want to be proud of myself, and that’s the goal I ultimately have.”

Arutunian sees it similarly. Well, mostly…

“At minimum? She should be top three in the U.S.,” he tells me, then adds: “You should know then, what maximum is (for her)… ”

He continues: “I think she’s gotten better technically. There is more consistency, but there is still a lot of work to do. She can improve. I think it’s about her head. She has to believe what we’re doing. September has been two years (since) she’s working with us. She’s at a point where she can peak more now.”

The fall is proof of that, with a fourth at Nebelhorn Trophy, then the same at Skate Canada, that fifth at NHK and a bronze medal at Golden Spin, where Tennell was the winner. Bell is no longer suffering from the sort of inconsistencies that once plagued her.

That’s thanks to time, maturity, Arutunian and, well, a new outlook.

“This season has felt fresh because not only is it a new season, but it’s a start to the next four years,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to be on that Olympic team, but my goal continues to be just to improve each season. Last year I got hung up on the results of things. I got in my own way a little bit. This year I’ve just been focusing on myself and my skating.”

“My big picture is these next four years.”

While one could argue that this weekend in Detroit is ground zero for what’s to come, both Bell and Arutunian would disagree: That started back in August of 2016, the day Mariah first stepped on ice with Raf.

And if this is the skater she’s become two years later, the next three could hold very big things.

MORE: How to watch U.S. Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships 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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Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

MORE: Wyomia Tyus’ Olympic protest resonates 52 years later

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NBA participation in Tokyo Olympics could be limited, Adam Silver says

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Tokyo Olympics’ effect on the league’s schedule planning for 2021 is unclear, but that it’s possible that Olympic participation may be limited.

“There are a lot of great U.S. players, and we may be up against a scenario where the top 15 NBA players aren’t competing in the Olympics, but other great American players are competing,” Silver told Bob Costas on CNN on Tuesday. “Obviously, there are many NBA players who participate in the Olympics from other countries. That’s something we’re going to have to work through. I just say, lastly, these are highly unique and unusual circumstances. I think, just as it is for the Olympic movement, it is for us as well. We’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those two competing considerations.”

Silver said his best guess is that the next NBA season starts in January with a goal of a standard 82-game schedule and playoffs. A schedule has not been released.

In normal NBA seasons that start in late October, the regular season runs to mid-April and the NBA Finals into mid-June.

The Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony is July 23. If an NBA season is pushed back two or three months to a January start, and the schedule is not condensed, the Olympics would start while the NBA playoffs are happening.

The current NBA season is in the conference finals phase in an Orlando-area bubble after a four-month stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a factor in our planning,” Silver said of the Olympics. “It would be tough for us to make a decision in January based on the Olympics happening on schedule when that’s so unclear.”

The NBA has participated in every Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Monday was the 29th anniversary of the announcement of the first 10 members of the original Dream Team on an NBC selection show (hosted by Costas).

Before the NBA era, U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams consisted of college players.

MORE: When Michael Jordan lost in wheelchair basketball to Paralympian

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