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Nebelhorn marks fresh start for Mariah Bell

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When Mariah Bell takes the ice at Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany this afternoon, she’ll probably focus on the four-word opening line of “Radar,” one of two songs that comprise her short program: Confidence is a must.

“Right after (2019) nationals, Adam (Rippon) said, ‘You should skate to Britney Spears,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘Uh, okay,’ because it’s really not my thing.”

But Bell, 23, remembered listening to the pop star’s hits as a kid growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Suddenly, Rippon’s suggestion struck a chord.

“I loved her music, and so I thought, ‘I think I love that idea,’” the U.S. bronze medalist said. “Yeah, it’s different, but that’s my goal, to grow that (performance) aspect of my skating. So, I’m really excited about the challenge.”

This week marks Bell’s third trip to Nebelhorn, a prestigious early-season competition and part of the ISU Challenger Series; she finished fifth there in 2014 and fourth last season. With none of the top Russian or Japanese skaters competing, she has good chance to make the podium.

The entry list is here.

It’s also the first time Bell competes internationally since her ninth-place finish at the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, where she was the center of an international media firestorm after accusations surfaced that she intentionally tried to injure Eun-Soo Lim of Korea during a practice collision. A day after the incident, the ISU released a statement saying that it found no evidence that Bell intended any harm.

“I felt like (at) the event itself, I was sort of drowning in this false information, and I didn’t know where it was coming from,” Bell said. “The thing with social media is, there are people behind a screen, and you don’t even know if they are real. … Looking back, I do feel like I’ve become a stronger competitor and skater and  person.”

A continued Q&A with Bell below:

Last season at worlds, you had one of the most traumatic experiences possible, barring serious injury. You came through with a top-10 finish. Does that help your confidence?

Bell: Sure. The pressure that I felt was more than I would even feel, probably, at the Olympic Games. It was just like a nightmare. I don’t even know how to describe it. But the other thing is, yes it happened, and my character pulled through and spoke for itself. I didn’t feel like I had to do much defending, other than just skate the way I could.

Can you take away any positives from it?

Bell: I look at it now with a bird’s eye view and I have struggled with nerves before, and that (experience) was a thousand times more than anything. It was really just a matter of staying in the moment for each element and knowing that I can do it under those circumstances. I feel like for sure I’ve learned so much. Not that competing should be a piece of cake, but it’ll be nothing compared to that.

This will be your fourth season training in Rafael Arutunian’s group in Southern California, and you’ve added Adam Rippon to your coaching team.

Bell: I would say Rafael is my main coach, but when I need help on specific things I   don’t always go to him. (For) how many programs I should do (in practice), or how many sections or even the spins, I have Vera (Arutunian, Rafael’s wife) and Nadia Kanaeva there for that. I work a lot with Adam on my planning of the season. I see Rafael as my technical advisor.

What, specifically, has Adam brought to your training?

Bell: Obviously, since Adam is a student of Rafael, he truly understands what it’s like to work with Rafael – his techniques, his patterns. So, it’s a huge advantage for me to use him as a choreographer because he really understands how much speed or the pattern I need going into different elements. He’ll be like, ‘Mmm, I don’t know. You look like you don’t have enough speed,’ and then he’ll do it himself. I’ll watch and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I need more speed.’

Your free skate, choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne to k.d. lang’s “Hallelujah,” is the complete opposite of your short.

Bell: Shae-Lynn is amazing. I have to bring food on to the ice, because you work four hours straight and she doesn’t get tired. There’s always a reason or an emotion behind every movement, and I think that’s why her programs play so well.

My short program is a little bit different, and the free skate is totally me. I love it.

MORE: No burnout for ‘Rocket Man’ Nathan Chen

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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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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

April Ross, Alix Klineman
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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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