Alexis Pinturault
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Alexis Pinturault will remember an Alpine skiing season, and offseason, unlike any other

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Two months before it began, Frenchman Alexis Pinturault knew this past Alpine skiing World Cup season would be like no other in his 10-year career.

Last August, he received a message from Austrian rival Marcel Hirscher‘s team. Hirscher, the record eight-time World Cup overall champion, among the greatest all-time ski racers, was going to announce his retirement.

They wanted Pinturault, who four times finished second or third behind Hirscher in the overall standings, to be one of the skiers to film a message for Hirscher’s live-streamed farewell announcement.

Pinturault was shocked that Hirscher, who at last earned elusive Olympic gold medals in 2018, was walking away at age 30.

Like many who follow the sport, Pinturault knew Hirscher teased retirement for years, saying at the end of seasons that he didn’t know if he would return the following autumn. But Hirscher, who carved snow while carrying the immense weight of Austria’s biggest star in its national sport, had always showed up again.

“That’s the reason why I didn’t really believe it at the beginning [of 2019], when he started to say, yeah, I’m not sure I will continue,” Pinturault said this week by phone from Courchevel. “I didn’t really want to accept it because, as I said, I never expect it. And also, I think, I really like my rivalry with Marcel because he was a really strong opponent, and he was bringing many good things for the sport. But also for me, because to push always the limit is something really valuable also.”

In Hirscher’s exit interview, he was asked to predict a successor as the new king of the sport. He noted Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway and Pinturault, the latter finishing runner-up to Hirscher the previous season.

Pinturault acknowledged the new expectations going into the World Cup opener in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. He won the Rettenbach glacier giant slalom by .54 of a second. Kristoffersen was 18th. The favorite for the biggest annual prize in Alpine skiing became clear.

“It’s not so easy for us that Marcel isn’t there anymore,” Pinturault said that day, according to The Associated Press. “We have a lot of pressure, more than before. Usually all the pressure was on Marcel. But this is a wonderful start for me.”

Pinturault won five more times that winter. He led the overall standings by a slim 26 points going into the last eight races of the season in March. Then the World Cup Finals in Italy were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving a downhill and super-G in Norway and a giant slalom and slalom in Slovenia.

Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde took second in the downhill, as part of an ascendant campaign, to overtake Pinturault by 54 points. Kilde, whose best previous overall finish was seventh, was the latest in his nation’s line of Attacking Vikings, known for prowess in the speed events of downhill and super-G.

Pinturault, better in giant slalom and slalom, remained confident. The last super-G was canceled due to poor weather. He could still outscore Kilde in the giant slalom and slalom in Slovenia to snatch the title.

“Everything was still possible,” said Pinturault, bidding to become the first French man or woman to claim the overall since Luc Alphand in 1997.

Then that Thursday, two days before the season-ending races in Slovenia, Pinturault returned from morning training. He received a text message from the International Ski Federation. The races in Slovenia were canceled due to coronavirus concerns. The season was over. Kilde was overall champion.

“It was, I would say, really big disappointment, but also something I was thinking about and expecting a little bit,” Pinturault said. Kilde texted the Frenchman, appreciating their tight title battle through the winter. Pinturault replied with his own well wishes.

“He was the most — how do you say — regular athlete the whole winter,” Pinturault said of Kilde, who had one victory all season but finished in the top 10 a total of 22 times (to Pinturault’s 17). “He didn’t get a lot of victories, but he was always there.”

Pinturault, whose Norwegian mother, Hege, taught him to ski (first on skis at age 2), retreated to France. He had grown up in the ski resort of Annecy, where his dad operated the luxury Hotel Annapurna.

The nation went on containment on March 17, a week after the Slovenian races were canceled.

Pinturault celebrated his 29th birthday with family on March 20. Around that time, older sister Sandra and their dad began feeling sick. Then Pinturault and his other sibling, younger brother Cedric, started to feel symptoms: headaches (“not that bad”) and a fever. Then the loss of taste and smell.

“This stays for 10 days at least,” Pinturault said. “Those 10 days were very special because you don’t really know when it will come back.”

Then Pinturault’s wife since 2017, Romaine, got sick. The Pinturaults’ cases were mild enough that none needed hospitalization. Alexis didn’t get checked out until after his symptoms faded. He took an antibody test.

“I was positive in everything,” he said. “It was not big deal. I was still able to live, so walking, cooking, walking outside, playing a little bit. Of course I was ill, and I felt not that great, but it was never that bad that I had to stay in bed and sleep and hoping that it was getting better. For me, at least, it was pretty OK.”

This week, Pinturault trained at the French Alps resort of Courchevel feeling, he estimated, 90 percent. Not quite fully recovered. But still confident he would travel to Val d’Isere for more ski training before a summer break.

Pinturault chose a ski career over soccer at age 15, then debuted on the World Cup at age 17. In his first 14 races over nearly two years, he failed to finish all of them, either skiing out or not qualifying for a second run.

Then in his 15th, Pinturault placed sixth from bib 62 (podium finishers are usually among the first 30 racers). His senior career took off. He would eventually become France’s all-time World Cup wins leader, earn three Olympic medals and a 2019 World title in the combined.

The 2019-20 season was characterized by learning, Pinturault said. Then the virus. In one way, it did not hit him too hard. “Like a big cold,” he said. In another way, its affect on the end of the World Cup season, it was more difficult to handle.

“That was, for me, the hardest,” he said. “It was more about the head. You are a little bit depressed.”

Pinturault continued, noting it was not a situation he could control. He is proud of how he raced during a season where, for the first time, he was the targeted star. He feels confident of stepping up again whenever racing resumes.

“Nobody wanted to live this situation,” he said. “All I could do, I made it really good.”

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Russia track and field athlete clearance frozen due to unpaid fine

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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.

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Jason Brown remains optimistic facing uncertain skating season

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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.

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