Kara Eaker
Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Laurie Hernandez, Maggie Haney react to coach’s suspension

Russia track and field athlete clearance frozen due to unpaid fine

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MONACO (AP) — The program allowing Russian track athletes to compete internationally will be frozen because the country’s federation failed to pay a fine on time, World Athletics said Thursday.

The Russian track federation, known as RusAF, owes a $5 million fine and another $1.31 million in costs for various doping-related work and legal wrangles. World Athletics said RusAF missed Wednesday’s deadline to pay.

World Athletics said it would freeze the work of the Doping Review Board, which vets Russian athletes who want the “authorized neutral athlete” status that allows them to compete internationally, and its taskforce monitoring RusAF’s anti-doping reforms.

World Athletics said both bodies will be “put on hold” until its council meets to discuss the situation at the end of July.

“RusAF is letting its athletes down badly,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said in a statement. “We have done as much as we can to expedite our ANA process and support RusAF with its reinstatement plan, but seemingly to no avail.”

RusAF president Yevgeny Yurchenko earlier told the Tass state news agency that his federation’s finances were damaged by the coronavirus pandemic and that it had asked for more time to pay.

World Athletics’ statement didn’t directly address that issue, but said Russia hadn’t indicated when it would pay.

Russia was fined $10 million by World Athletics in March, with $5 million suspended for two years, after the federation admitted to breaking anti-doping rules and obstructing an investigation.

The Athletics Integrity Unit said fake documents were used under the previous management to give an athlete an alibi for missing a doping test.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Swimmer cites mom’s blood for doping ban

Jason Brown remains optimistic facing uncertain skating season

Jason Brown
AP
Leave a comment

For Jason Brown, the last figure skating season began and ended with some unexpected challenges.

On Aug. 22, 2019, the day he arrived for U.S. Figure Skating’s pre-season Champs Camp in Irvine, Calif., Brown was a backseat passenger in a vehicle involved in an accident. He sustained a concussion that compromised his training for several weeks and forced him to withdraw from what was to have been his season debut competition.

On March 16, 2020, the day Brown was to fly from his training base in Toronto to the World Championships in Montreal, he went the other direction, driving home to his family’s home in the Chicago suburbs because the world meet had been cancelled five days earlier over Covid-19 health concerns. His most successful competitive season, with silver medals at nationals, the Four Continents Championships and Skate America, left him feeling both fulfilled and unfinished.

Now Brown, 25, is back in Toronto (finally getting there June 23 brought another unexpected challenge). He is undergoing a Canadian government-mandated 14-day self-quarantine before a planned July 8 return to the ice at the Cricket Club to prepare for a season that may not take place.

None of the other foreign stars who train at the Cricket Club, including 2-time reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and reigning Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia, is expected back before the end of July, according to Brown’s primary coach, Tracy Wilson. (Brown also works with Brian Orser, primary coach to Hanyu and Medvedeva.)

We caught up with Brown, the 2014 Olympic team event bronze medalist, by phone at the end of last week for a wide-ranging conversation:

You had an unexpectedly extended family reunion, with your older sister, Jordan, 27, (and her boyfriend), younger brother, Dylan, 22, and your parents, Marla and Steven, all together longer than a week for the first time in nine years. What was that like?

Brown: It was really awesome, even if the circumstances that led to it obviously weren’t ideal. I got to know my siblings on an entirely different level, as adults. We didn’t miss a single family dinner in three months.

Jason Brown
Jason Brown makes pizza (Courtesy Jason Brown).

Who cooked for that crowd every night?

Brown: I did! Jordan (in her first year as Major League Sports Dietician for the Chicago Cubs) had a million Zoom meetings, and Dylan was finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois and studying for the CPA exam. My dad was still working, and my mom never has liked to cook.

What were your go-to dishes?

Brown: We all eat everything, thank goodness, and we all like Asian cooking. The favorites were a shrimp stir-fry with quinoa and a shrimp salad with cold noodles.

When did you learn to cook?

Brown: Over the past two seasons living in Toronto. But doing it for six instead of one is like anything when you get into a position where it’s sink or swim. I was in charge, and sometimes my sister would ask me to try things she was thinking of recommending to the players. And I used some of my unexpected free time to take some online cooking classes.

What other things did you try with the extra time?

Brown: I never had consistently done dance classes, and I took three (virtual) dance classes a week, working on different choreography and styles: hip-hop, contemporary, modern, Latin. I could feel progress in finding my own way of moving.

You are a relentlessly optimistic person. Was there any time when the uncertainty really got you down?

Brown: The only time was when my (paternal) grandmother died on Mother’s Day. She was 89, and it wasn’t related to Covid, but it was hard on our family not to see her at the end, even if it brought us all together even more.

Did you ever hit a low about when and whether skating was going to be able to come out of this?

Brown: As you said, I’m a very optimistic person. As of now, my goal – and I have always said this since moving to Canada – is the 2022 Winter Olympics. I want this season badly, but my focus is on 2022. I’m trying not to look at what this could possibly mean for the future, but if it snowballs toward 2022, I think we will have a different conversation.

Then it would probably be like what a lot of the 2020 (Summer) Olympians and hopefuls are feeling right now. I can’t let myself get down about it, and I can’t imagine what they are going through. I look at how they are adapting and moving forward. My eyes are set on the ’22 Olympic Games, and we’re not in a place where I’m thinking about those being cancelled.

It seems clear from what you just said the that the possibility of no 2021 season has crossed your mind, and you’re taking a mindset of, “I can deal with that.”

Brown: Yes. Absolutely.

How will it affect you personally and the sport in general if there is no 2020-21 season at all or no international events?

Brown: I know how important the pre-Olympic season is for development and experience. It’s a huge opportunity to learn and grow, to try new things and take on risks before the pressure of the Olympic year. And it’s important just to have the chance to compete against some of the people you will be going against for Olympic team spots.

But I’m looking at the positive. As of now, rinks are open, and we can train. We have the time to fine tune some things we don’t have time to focus on when we are getting ready for competitions.

How will you handle it if you can keep training but they cancel the Grand Prix Series and then maybe nationals and worlds?

Brown: That’s a great question. It is something I would have to re-discuss with my coaches. If we can keep training and the season is cancelled, that’s one thing: we’ll start right then working on programs for the Olympic year. If there is a season, depending what it looks like, we will be strategizing to maximize the competitive opportunities we get.

I’m prepared to move forward if there is no season, if there is a full season or if there is something in between.

Have you thought about what programs you might use if there are events this season, given the lost preparation time? Last year’s? New ones?

Brown: As of now, my coaches want me to keep expanding and work on new programs. Two weeks before the first time I went to cross the border, I was able to work on short programs with choreographer Rohene Ward at the Fox Valley Ice Arena (in Chicago’s west suburbs). We did a couple programs with very different styles – one easier and one more challenging that will take more time to find its rhythm. If I get to compete just once or twice or on short notice, the harder one might not work. (He chose not to provide any details until Orser and Tracy Wilson have seen the programs.)

As far as a free skate, (choreographer) David Wilson and I are still in the thinking stage. We’re waiting for more information about plans for this season.

Wait. You said, “the first time I went to cross the border…”

Brown: (He laughs.) I first tried to do it June 14 at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. (Canada’s current border crossing rules for U.S. citizens require an “essential” reason for entry, which can be a job.) I had some letters, including one from my billet family saying they would shop for me during my quarantine, but the day I arrived, the supervisor I needed to see was not working. They told me to get a hotel in Michigan and return the next day, when they deemed me non-essential. I drove back home, collected letters from U.S. Figure Skating, Skate Canada and Skate Ontario and decided to try June 23 at Buffalo, because (U.S. ice dancers) Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker (who train in Montreal) had successfully gone that way the day before. And I was approved. I totally respect how hard it was to get in.

So you are, in effect, so close and yet seemingly so far from competing again. Can you see a season taking place?

Brown: I think it’s really hard to see that, even trying to be as optimistic as possible. At the end of the day, it’s about safety, about the well-being of the athletes, the coaches, the officials, the judges. You want to make sure everyone feels comfortable, and that it’s in their best interests, health-wise. As much as I want to compete and get out there in front of the fans, I want to do it in a safe manner. There’s no reason to cut corners right now.

What kind of shape are you in now?

Brown: Decent shape, but I would need at least a month of training before I felt I could run a full-out free program, start to finish, without collapsing.

At the end of last season, after several up-and-down or simply disappointing seasons, your performances were a more mature version of the Jason Brown from 2014 and 2015, the skater who had made the 2014 Olympic team with an incandescent free skate, won the 2015 U.S. title and had his best finish (fourth) at Worlds. Where does that put you now?

Brown: It was an incredible end of the year or, as I look at, of the bloc of time I have been in Canada (since June 2018). Brian and Tracy always talk about this 18-month period, the time needed to adapt to new technique and be comfortable with the coaches. It really was a struggle, even in my second season with them. It finally came together after those 18 months.

The way those last two events (nationals and Four Continents) went was a proud moment for me and my coaches. At nationals, I cried in a kiss-and-cry for the first time ever, because it had been such an emotional journey. Then my going to Four Continents a week later and backing it up, so it wasn’t, “Oh, nationals was a one-time fluke.” The technique is in me now.

The one thing that nags me was popping the quad attempt (at Four Continents). But I had the mentality of “I’ll get it at worlds.” Not having the chance is my only regret.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: U.S. figure skating champion Alysa Liu changes coaches

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!