Mariah Bell is sheltering in place in the family RV

Leave a comment

Downsizing has its advantages, even if you’re sheltering in place due to the coronavirus.

Take Mariah Bell’s family, for example.

Bell, older sister Morgan, parents Kendra and Andrew, and Bell’s rabbit Gizmo are all practicing social distancing in the family’s 45-foot recreational vehicle (RV).

“When you see an RV driving down the street, you may not think about what it looks like in the inside,” Bell said. “It really is like a house.”

A few years ago, Kendra and Andrew confronted an empty nest. Mariah was training in Southern California in Rafael Arutunian’s group; Morgan had joined Disney on Ice. With Andrew working for a chemical company in Switzerland, and Kendra splitting her time between Switzerland and her parents’ home in Dallas, they just didn’t need their house in Colorado. So, they sold it and purchased an RV in November 2018.

“My parents can move it anywhere they like,” Bell said. “Right now, we’re in Palm Springs (California). We’ve been staying here the past few weeks and will be here through the end of April.”

Far from complaining of cabin fever, the skater considers her family more fortunate than millions of others holed up at home.

“We haven’t been able to spend this much time together in several years, so it’s been nice,” she said. “Maybe that’s the silver lining for everyone. If they are lucky enough, they can spend this time with their family.”

Bell’s longtime boyfriend, French skater Romain Ponsart, is waiting out the pandemic in his home country.

Passing April in Palm Springs – where it’s sunny most of the time and temperatures top out in the 80s – helps to cushion the blow of missing the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships, which were cancelled last month.

“I had the best, by far, season of my career and I’m obviously disappointed I didn’t get to end it with a big bang,” said Bell, who won two Grand Prix medals last fall and a silver medal at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January.

“It just puts things in perspective. Figure skating is so small. What we are dealing with now is far more important. I’m very disappointed in my athlete’s brain that I didn’t get to do worlds, but I absolutely understand.”

After a show-stopping performance of her “Hallelujah” free skate at the U.S. Championships, Bell was poised to improve on her ninth-place finish at last season’s worlds. While she admits she doesn’t know how this long break will affect her jumps – “I guess we’ll see what happens when I get back on the ice” – she is positive about her 2020-21 campaign.

“I have this upcoming season and a season after that until the [2022] Olympic Games, and this might be the perfect break I need, and maybe didn’t even know I needed,” she said. “I’m excited to build on the momentum I gained this past season.”

The Bells spend much of the day outside, where paddleboard, swimming and other outdoor activities are available. Mariah stays fit with a regimen provided by the Olympic Training Center (OTC); sometimes, Morgan and Andrew join in. In the evening, she and mom Kendra go for walks.

“The distance of the whole motor coach country club we’re at is about two miles, so I can run that or walk that,” Bell said. “People have golf carts, so they kind of drive around. Everybody in this community is very nice, but if they do stop and talk, everybody is very cautious of their spatial surroundings.”

Thus far, none of the Bells has been tempted to overdose on Netflix.

“Sometimes, we watch, but it’s honestly hard to stay inside the RV,” Mariah said. “My dad bought a VR (virtual reality gaming system) and I really enjoy watching my sister try to box, that’s really amazing for me.”

The RV has a bedroom, big enough for a king-sized bed, as well as a full kitchen, spacious living area and two bathrooms. Morgan sleeps on a pull-out couch, while Mariah has a cot. The lower portion of the vehicle is devoted to storage, with a laundry area and large freezer.

Most important, the kitchen table has a leaf, making it comfortable for all four Bells to sit down to family dinner.

“It’s been great in that respect for both Kendra and I,” said Andrew, who awakes at 2 or 3 a.m. to work remotely. “Usually, we only see the girls a couple of times a year, so to be able to spend time with them, work out with Mariah and Morgan, go paddle boarding – we can get out and do things we haven’t been able to do together in a long time.”

“Just the idea of sitting down together to have dinner, because we haven’t been together in so long, even something like that is different,” Mariah said. “Those moments are very special.”

Morgan’s career, too, was interrupted by coronavirus. For the past six years, she has portrayed the lead role of “Anna” in the Disney on Ice North American Frozen production. When the tour stopped in Ottawa, Ontario last month, cast members got word the remainder of the stops were cancelled.

“The show was scheduled to go to mid-May, so got sent home pretty early, but obviously we understood it was for the safety of everybody,” she said. “I was lucky enough to be able to come home and be able to spend time with my family and not be quarantined by myself.”

Morgan competed in three U.S. Championships before retiring from competition in 2013. She looks forward to resuming her Disney on Ice career as soon as possible after the coronavirus crisis ends.

“Skating is such a small thing, but at the same time it would be nice to get back to shows, because I feel shows offer a moment for families to step outside everything that is happening in the daily world, have fun and make a memory,” she said.

Amidst family time, staying fit and, perhaps, stargazing at Palm Springs’ famously beautiful night sky, Mariah is strategizing for the 2020-21 season. She’s sticking with the same choreographers: Adam Rippon for her short program, and Shae-Lynn Bourne for the free skate.

“We have in mind what I am going to use for my short, but we don’t have anything for the long yet,” she said. “With Adam, we figure it out further in advance. With Shae-Lynn, it’s (closer) to the time frame of doing the work, maybe a few days before. She is so great at understanding and relating to a skater and what they want.”

Great though it was, Bell is not tempted to use “Hallelujah” a free second season.

“The last time I performed that program at nationals is a great memory to have,” she said. “I could never foresee me doing any better than that.”

MORE: Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 figure skating season

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Weightlifting investigation finds doping cover-ups

Weightlifting
Getty Images
Leave a comment

DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — An investigation into the International Weightlifting Federation has found doping cover-ups and millions of dollars in missing money, lead investigator Richard McLaren said Thursday.

McLaren said 40 positive doping tests were “hidden” in IWF records and that athletes whose cases were delayed or covered up went on to win medals at the world championships and other events. The cases will be referred to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We found systematic governance failures and corruption at the highest level of the IWF,” McLaren said.

The International Olympic Committee said it was studying the report “very carefully,” adding that “the content is deeply concerning.”

McLaren said former IWF president Tamas Ajan was “an autocratic leader” who kept the board in the dark about finances and left officials fearing reprisals if they spoke out. Ajan received cash payments on behalf of the IWF as doping fines from national federations or sponsors, the report said, but what happened to some of the money is unclear.

McLaren said $10.4 million was unaccounted for, based on his team’s analysis of cash going in and out of the IWF over several years. Ajan denies any wrongdoing.

The largest fine recorded in the report was $500,000 paid by Azerbaijan. It’s unclear how that payment was made. On one trip to Thailand for a competition and conference, Ajan collected more than $440,000 across 18 cash payments, according to the report.

“Everyone was kept in financial ignorance through the use of hidden bank accounts (and transfers),” McLaren said. “Some cash was accounted for, some was not.”

McLaren said that the investigation found information which law enforcement “might be interested in,” and that he would cooperate with any later investigations. That was echoed by Ajan’s successor at the IWF.

“The activities that have been revealed and the behavior that has occurred in the years past is absolutely unacceptable and possibly criminal,” IWF interim president Ursula Garza Papandrea said.

She added that the IWF will pass on information to law enforcement if it indicates there were “potential crimes.”

McLaren said Ajan “permitted the (federation) elections to be bought by vote brokers” as he kept the presidency and promoted favored officials. Large cash withdrawals were made ahead of federation congresses, McLaren said, adding that voters were bribed and had to take pictures of their ballots to show to brokers.

The 81-year-old Ajan stepped down in April, ending a 20-year reign as president and a total 44 years in federation posts. A month before that he also gave up his honorary membership of the International Olympic Committee.

In a statement to Hungarian state news agency MTI, Ajan said the IWF’s finances were managed in a “lawful” manner with oversight from the board.

“All my life, I’ve abided by the laws, the written and unwritten rules and customs of the sport,” he said.

Ajan accused McLaren’s team of not giving him enough information to respond to the allegations about his conduct.

Ajan was a full IOC member between 2000 and 2010, voting to select Olympic host cities. A previous complaint about IWF finances in 2010 was closed by the IOC.

McLaren’s investigation was sparked in January when German broadcaster ARD reported financial irregularities at the federation and apparent doping cover-ups.

The focus of the investigation was on the period from 2009 through 2019. McLaren said he heard allegations of misconduct dating back as far as the 1980s, but chose to prioritize more recent matters with stronger evidence.

The World Anti-Doping Agency said it welcomed McLaren’s findings.

“Once WADA has had the opportunity to review that evidence as well as the report in full, the Agency will consider the next appropriate steps to take,” it said in a statement.

Some allegations regarding doping misconduct around the 2019 world championships in Thailand and involving athletes from Moldova were passed to the International Testing Agency, which is still investigating.

McLaren, a Canadian law professor, was WADA’s lead investigator for Russian doping and has judged cases at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Weightlifting’s reputation under Ajan had already been hit by dozens of steroid doping cases revealed in retests of samples from the Olympics since 2008.

Since he left office in April, the IWF has begun moving its headquarters from Ajan’s home country of Hungary to the Swiss city of Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee is based.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Coco Gauff delivers speech demanding change

Gwendolyn Berry gets apology from USOPC CEO after reprimand for podium gesture

Gwen Berry
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Olympic hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland apologized to her Wednesday “for not understanding the severity of the impact her decisions had on me,” after Berry was put on probation last August for one year after raising her fist at the end of the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American Games.

“I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night,” Hirshland said in a statement. “I heard her. I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.”

Berry and fencer Race Imboden were sent August letters of reprimand by Hirshland, along with each receiving probation, after each made a podium gesture at Pan Ams in Peru.

This week, Berry tweeted that she wanted a public apology from Hirshland. That tweet came after Hirshland sent a letter to U.S. athletes on Monday night, condemning “systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans in the United States.”

Then on Wednesday night, Berry said she had a “really productive” 40-minute phone call with Hirshland, USATF CEO Max Siegel and other USATF officials.

“I didn’t necessarily ask for [an apology] from [Hirshland],” Berry said Thursday. Berry said she lost two-thirds of her income after Pan Ams, that sponsors dropped her in connection to the raised fist fallout.

“We came to some good conclusions,” Berry said of the group call. “The most important thing were figuring out ways to move forward. [Hirshland] was aware of things that she did and how she made me feel about the situation, and I was happy that I was able to express to her my grievances and she was able to express to me how she felt as well about the situation.”

Berry said her probation, which is believed to still be in effect, wasn’t discussed. She made a point to say that USATF has always been on her side.

“The conversation was more for awareness purposes, and we’ll probably have more conversations this week,” said Berry.

Berry also plans to participate in a U.S. athlete town hall Friday.

“First and foremost, we should and we will discuss how people are just feeling and how people are holding up because athletes in general, because of the pandemic and because of everything that’s been going on, I know a lot of people are in distress, they’re sad, they’re confused,” she said. “I think that’ll be the main point of the discussion. Just to make sure everybody’s OK. Just to see how everybody’s holding on.”

On Aug. 10, Berry raised her fist at the end of the national anthem after winning the Pan American Games title.

The next morning, Berry said the gesture, which drew memories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games, wasn’t meant to be a big message, but it quickly became a national story.

“Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” she said then. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”

Berry said then that the motivation behind her gesture included the challenges overcome of changing coaches and moving from Oxford, Miss., where her family resides, to Houston.

“Every individual person has their own views of things that are going on,” she said. “It’s in the Constitution, freedom of speech. I have a right to feel what I want to feel. It’s no disrespect at all to the country. I want to make that very clear. If anything, I’m doing it out of love and respect for people in the country.”

Berry also said that weekend, according to USA Today, that she was standing for “extreme injustice.”

“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry said, according to that report. “It’s too important to not say something. Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Coco Gauff delivers speech demanding change