Brittany Bowe
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Post-concussion, Brittany Bowe back at her best

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At an Oval in Obihiro, Japan, Brittany Bowe crossed the line to win the season-opening 1500-meter World Cup race in November.

It was Bowe’s first World Cup victory in two seasons, and the time that flashed on the board marked a track record. Among the skaters who finished behind her: Ireen Wuest and Miho Takagi, the reigning Olympic gold and silver medalists in the event.

This was one more to add to the list of 17 World Cup victories Bowe already had. But winning has not lost its novelty, not after two challenging seasons that left her wondering if she could return to the level that made her one of the best.

Bowe was back, and she knew it.

“[That race] really proved to myself that I still do have what it takes to be the best in the world,” she said in a telephone interview last month.

For the past six years, Bowe, 30, has been among the sport’s top sprinting talent: she’s a world champion in both the 1000m and 1500m, a two-time sprint world champion, and an Olympic bronze medalist in team pursuit. Among the peaks of her career was the 2015-16 season, when Bowe won more individual medals at the World Single Distance Championships than any other athlete.

But in the summer of 2016, a collision during training left her with a concussion. Bowe was cleared to train a few weeks later, but her symptoms continued to linger. She had fainting spells and blood pressure issues and struggled with balance, so essential in a speed-based sport spent on ice. Though she reached the World Cup podium in December 2016, Bowe decided to end her season early, which she later called “one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life.”

Bowe returned home to Florida in early 2017, but found she felt worse without training. She then relocated to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, hoping a daily structure would put her back on track.

Teammates admired her strength and positivity in the face of the injury. Joey Mantia, one of Bowe’s Olympic teammates, called her “mentally stronger than anyone I’ve ever met in my life…I’ve never once heard her be negative about the situation.”

But concussions, as Bowe knows all too well, can be particularly cruel. She said in April 2017, “At times I feel really opposite of optimistic. I feel like sometimes…my willpower has been taken from me, my patience has been taken from me.”

A doctor in Colorado Springs suggested Bowe print out images of herself – ones that summoned her strength and power – as reminders of all she’d accomplished already. Bowe chose a few race pictures and podium shots and hung them up in her living room as she trained for the Olympics.

The injury also came at a particularly challenging time, just before a crucial pre-Olympic season. Bowe knew first-hand that even perfect training does not always yield Olympic success: she’d been pegged as a medal favorite in the 1000m and 1500m prior to the Sochi Games, but came up short of the podium in each of her races, calling those Olympics “one of the biggest disappointments of my career.”

The concussion meant Bowe had limited training ability in the summer and fall before the Olympics, and said she felt at 75 to 80 percent of her normal capacity by the time she stepped on the ice in South Korea. But instead of worrying about a less-than-perfect lead-up to the Games, Bowe said she was simply “grateful to have the opportunity to skate again.”

Bowe finished in the top five in each of her individual races in PyeongChang, calling those performances “some of the best races of my life considering the training I was able to do leading into that competition.” The U.S. had not originally qualified in the women’s team pursuit, but was given a place after quotas were re-allocated (once it was determined that Olympic Athletes from Russia would not compete in the event). Bowe and her teammate Heather Bergsma, also a multi-world champion, were so focused on their individual events that they debated whether to skate the team pursuit. Ultimately, they agreed to go for it. After the qualification round, Bowe said, “we were like, ‘we have a real shot to do something special here.’”

Bowe, Bergsma, Mia Manganello and Carlijn Schoutens (who skated in the semi-final) won bronze in team pursuit, claiming the first medal for U.S. women in speed skating since 2002. For Bowe, winning her first Olympic medal in a team event – after all the support she’d received to get back on the ice – seemed fitting. “When I sit back and think of it, it’s kind of how it should’ve been. It took a team to get me there,” she said.

Following the Olympics, Bowe won a silver medal at the World Sprint Championships in March before taking a few months off. She got back into the yoga studio, and went on a retreat in Costa Rica, spending her days meditating, surfing and hiking.

After a strong start to the 2018-19 season, Bowe has high expectations for herself at this year’s World Single Distance Championships, which begin Thursday. She’s currently leading the World Cup standings in both the 1000m and 1500m, with three wins this season in the 1000m and two in the 1500m.

She plans to keep skating through the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, an Olympic gold medal still atop her list of career goals.

“I’m forever grateful for my team and support for bringing me that medal in the team pursuit,” she said. “But I’m still out for more.”

Bowe no longer has podium pictures of herself in the living room – she’s since moved back to Salt Lake City. But she hasn’t ruled out using them as an inspirational tool again. Or, she said, “hopefully I am my strongest and most confident going into my next winter Olympics, where I can just have that image of what I want to see in my mind.”

She could leave Worlds with another image of herself on the podium. One more to hang up on her wall, should she ever need it.

2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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