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U.S. Championships reporters’ notebook: Ladies’ free skate on Day 2

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Our figure skating team is on the ground in Detroit to cover the U.S. Championships. This is our behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the second day.

Wessenberg just gets better with age

Don’t tell Megan Wessenberg what to do.

She will cover half the rink with a few strokes and glide into her jumps at breakneck speed, if she wants to. At age 20, she can admit there is more to her life than skating, including coaching and studying biology at Northeastern University.

If it takes her a few extra seasons to get her triple Lutz, so be it. She will still make the 2018-19 season her best ever, with a solid Grand Prix debut at Skate America and a career-high sixth-place finish at the U.S. Championships here in Detroit.

“I’ve always been a late bloomer,” Wessenberg said. “If you love what you do, age doesn’t matter.”

That’s practically heresy in the youth-obsessed ranks of elite singles’ skaters, where it sometimes seems you need to make it by the time you’re 18, or move on. Newly-crowned U.S. champion Alysa Liu is just 13, some seven years Wessenberg’s junior.

But Wessenberg moves to her own beat. For the past two seasons, she’s used Breanna Whitaker’s version of the late Leslie Gore’s pop hit “You Don’t Own Me,” a 1962 ode to female independence and strength that some cultural historians think helped spark the early feminist movement. Its lyrics – “You don’t own me, don’t try to change me in any way… You don’t own me, don’t tie me down ’cause I’d never stay” – still resonate with young women today.

“My coach [Mark Mitchell] was the one who found it,” Wessenberg said. “I have very powerful skating, that’s probably my biggest attribute. I needed a piece that would stand up to my skating.”

“When I looked at Megan, I thought, ‘What is she really good at?” Mitchell, who trains his skaters with longtime partner Peter Johansson, said. “She’s really strong. She’s powerful. She’s tough.”

Wessenberg’s icon, Sasha Cohen, was fiery and charismatic, but known more for her balletic positions and flexibility than the height of her jumps. The Boston-based skater is cut from different cloth.

“I’m definitely more of an athletic skater,” she said. “My skating is exciting, because I move very fast and I have big jumps and flow. That’s the look I’m going for, and I like to play to my strengths.”

She counts her balanced lifestyle as another plus. Every morning, she skates; afternoons, she either attends Northeastern or assists Mitchell and Johansson with some of their younger students.

“She tried online school for a while, and it didn’t work,” Mitchell said. “She doesn’t like having all of her eggs in one basket.”

“It’s good to bring outside experience into your skating, because then it’s more real, and that comes across to the audience,” Wessenberg said. “I definitely think independence is a great quality to have, and I want to express that through my skating.”

Her determination is an inspiration to her fellow skaters.

“She worked on double Axel for years,” Mitchell said. “She worked, worked and worked, until she got it. And shortly after that, she got the triple Salchow. And the next year, she got triple toe, and then triple loop. She kept plugging away until she got them all. We’ve used that example a lot with kids.”

“I don’t think, necessarily, you have to get all of your triples in one year, or you won’t get them,” Wessenberg said. “People progress at different rates. It took me years and years to get all of my jumps. And now I have them.”

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Ice sweepers do the ‘Cupid Shuffle’

This season NFL players have staged end zone celebrations ranging from simulated MMA fights to the “Fusion Dance” from Dragon Ball Z. But running backs and receivers ain’t got nothing on the flower sweepers here in Detroit.

All week, some 54 young skaters aged 8 to 12 from nearby skating clubs are doing the important work of clearing the ice of the wrapped flowers and stuffed animals that hit the ice between performances. On Thursday, the evening shift of “sweepers” just itched to make it on to the big-screen arena monitor.

“I told them, I bet if you stood up and started to dance to the music, you would get to be on the camera,” Rachel Bauld-Lee, a Detroit Skating Club (DSC) resident coach and director of DSC’s Learn to Skate program, said.

Gabe Woodruff, another DSC resident coach, sprang into action when the arena deejay played the “Cupid Shuffle,” doing the timeless line dance so favored at your favorite cousins’ weddings.

“And then the girls did it for a few runs, and then suddenly they were on the camera,” Bauld-Lee said. “And once they saw that, they just continued to do it.”

It wasn’t hard for the sweepers to follow Woodruff, because not only is the dance pretty easy, the song is often played during rink warmups.

“I didn’t expect (sweeping) to be this much fun, but I had a great time, especially when we did the shuffle dance and I saw myself dancing on the big screen,” Sierra San Agustin, a 10-year-old from Onyx Skating Academy, said.

It wasn’t all fun and games.

“Seeing all the skaters tonight inspired me to be a better skater,” San Augustin said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I am so proud to be a part of it.”

Many area youngsters from DSC and other clubs are taking part in this U.S. Championships. Some 80 higher-level skaters are performing a salute to Detroit’s sports teams in the opening ceremony, and 92 children from Learn-to-Skate programs are featured in the closing.

Stories compiled by Lynn Rutherford.

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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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USOPC proposes more athletes on board as part of overhaul

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DENVER (AP) — The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is proposing an increase in athlete representation on its board and a recasting of its mission statement to include the job of promoting athletes’ well-being.

These changes are part of a proposal, released Monday, to rewrite the USOPC bylaws.

The rewrite comes 20 days after federal lawmakers — looking for a shake-up in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that has tainted the U.S. Olympic movement — proposed their own drastic overhaul of the law governing the USOPC.

The USOPC portrayed its proposals as merely a first step, and, indeed, the measures lack many of Congress’ more aggressive proposals.

But they would heed athletes’ calls for more representation, by increasing their makeup on the board from 20% to 33%.

They would also change the mission statement to read: “empower Team USA athletes to achieve sustained competitive excellence and well-being,” where previously the well-being part was not mentioned.

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Why a 62-year-old played at the world badminton championships

Mathew Fogarty
Courtesy Mathew Fogarty
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Mathew Fogarty said badminton’s European elite made fun of him for playing professionally at age 59. That was three years ago. Fogarty still competes at the sport’s highest level, taking part in the world championships that began Monday in Basel, Switzerland.

Fogarty, who turns 63 on Oct. 30, is older than any U.S. Olympian in any sport since the St. Louis 1904 Games, according to the OlyMADMen.

“I play because I can, and I’m a doctor, and I think sports is a really important part of people’s health and fitness,” said Fogarty, who has played competitively since age 7, whose full-time job is a psychoanalyst and who is based in the Los Angeles area. “I’ll stop badminton when I can no longer qualify. There’s still opportunity, and I love the sport. I’m going to continue to do the best I can.”

He lost in the first round of mixed doubles at worlds on Monday. Fogarty and partner Isabel Zhong, a 27-year-old with an IMBD profile, saw their world championships end in 23 minutes, a 21-9, 21-10 loss to a Ukrainian pair.

That was more competitive than Fogarty’s last two worlds appearances — a 21-6, 21-4 loss with Zhong in 2018 and a 21-2, 21-4 loss with another partner in 2017. Fogarty’s only international match wins in the last two years came via walkover or the one time his singles opponent retired after three points, according to his World Badminton Federation profile. He won an international tournament as recently as 2011 and said his career-high mixed doubles world ranking was 32.

He and Zhong paired because they were part of the same Manhattan Beach Badminton Club, and she wanted to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games, Fogarty said. Zhong did not respond to an interview request.

“I told her I didn’t know if we could do it, but we could try,” Fogarty said. “It’s extremely remote [chances] … slim to nil.”

The top mixed doubles team from the North and South American region is in line to qualify for the Olympics. The leaders in qualifying so far are Canadians ranked 19th in the world. Fogarty and Zhong, though they are the only U.S. mixed doubles team at worlds, are 67th in the world in Olympic qualifying and third among Americans.

The U.S. has never earned an Olympic medal in badminton, which debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Mixed doubles was added starting at Atlanta 1996, but the U.S. has put just one mixed team into an Olympics, getting swept out of pool play in Rio.

Fogarty, who has never played at the Olympics, is able to play at worlds for a few reasons: he can fund his way to international events to accumulate ranking points; the U.S. is historically weak and has a lack of players with professional ambitions; mixed doubles is the least common of the Olympic disciplines.

“Matt takes it seriously,” said Dean Schoppe, a fellow 62-year-old who has known and played with Fogarty for nearly a half-century. Schoppe recently retired from pro badminton himself. “Matt still approaches the matches with the actual idea of winning,”

Schoppe called Fogarty the best American junior player of his generation in the late 1970s.

“Most badminton players retire at about 26 or 27 with their first catastrophic injury, which is usually a torn Achilles,” he said. “There are people who are born [to play], you see it in every sport. Magic Johnson, they have the peripheral vision. They have the balance. They have all the intangibles that other people have to try to learn and can’t.

“He has the gift. He can look at you peripherally and see that you’re leaning. … Fogarty can hold the serve and turn his shoulders and do crap that makes you fall over, and that infuriates.”

Mathew Fogarty
Badmintonphoto/BWF

Fogarty took breaks from the sport for medical school in the 1980s and ’90s. He returned in the late 1990s and kept playing deep into his 40s, 50s and now 60s in part, he said, to challenge corruption within the sport.

Fogarty had legal battles with USA Badminton. He said that past officials broke up his Olympic hopeful partnership with a teenager in men’s doubles to push others toward the 2000 Sydney Games.

“The last thing they wanted was a 42-year-old with an 18-year-old trying to make the Olympics,” Schoppe said.

USA Badminton recently had mass resignations among its board and top officials amid reports of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee threatening decertification.

USA Badminton’s new interim CEO, 1992 and 1996 Olympian Linda French, declined comment on Fogarty’s past issues with the organization because she was not formally involved at the time.

“We’re hopeful to move forward in a positive manner and wish all our athletes continued success,” French said.

Fogarty does not know how much longer he will travel the world, or even the U.S., to play competitively. A 43-year-old told him at a recent event that Fogarty was his inspiration to keep playing.

“The nature of sports is you can’t predict what it’s going to be,” Fogarty said.

Schoppe dismissed a question of whether it’s easier to play badminton at such a ripe age than other physically demanding sports.

“Imagine pulling out James Worthy and say, OK, James you are now starting for Golden State and you’re playing the Lakers tomorrow,” Schoppe said. “You cannot be old in badminton and do well in badminton. It’s nothing like baseball.

“We were the anomaly of anomalies to have success in our 40s. Nobody does.”

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