Without meets, Sandi Morris got creative with virtual garage sale

Sandi Morris
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By Caroline Kurdej
Special to NBCSports.com

Hammers. High dips and high bars. A handmade pole vault pit — and long jump runway extension. Virtual garage sales. Fauxlympics.

Together, they represent challenges and solutions for Olympic hopefuls dealing with the first postponed Games in modern history. Athletes have grown increasingly creative amid the restlessness of the pandemic in striving to qualify for Tokyo.

Take Sandi Morris, Olympic pole vault silver medalist and American indoor record holder. The last virtual garage sale she hosted was in 2016, to help raise money for her sister’s flight to Rio.

This time, she sold gear that she no longer uses to earn extra income.

It’s rewarding for Morris to send items to fans and make an extra bit of cash. Especially when many Olympic athletes aren’t able to compete and earn prize or appearance money. COVID-19 has impacted everyone.

Morris shared she’s making about one-third of what she normally would, “which is enough to get by.”

Her sale a few weeks ago was inspired by Olympic long jump champion Tianna Bartoletta, who went as far as parting with a Diamond League trophy.

“It was good for the soul to clean out all of my stuff and know people who are actually going to use it now have it,” Morris said with a laugh.

The toughest part was pricing the worn apparel – a fine balance between looking at it as memorabilia and repurposing athletic clothes for the next Sandi Morris.

She shipped 66 items ranging from running shoes, used spikes, bib numbers, Team USA gear and uniforms, “tons of stuff I’ll probably never wear again,” for a total of $5,500, spending about $500 on shipping. She packed them all up by hand.

There also came an unusual request for a signed pole (competition poles are taller than 10 feet). “I’m currently working that one out and plan to do it,” Morris recently texted with a laughing face emoji.

The Olympic gear was the most difficult for Morris to part with, namely since Rio has, so far, been her only Olympics. If she does qualify for Tokyo, she hopes to sell more gear to fellow athletes.

In an Instagram video, Morris’ golden blonde hair bounces back and forth, glimmering in the summer’s pounding sun. She stops to catch her breath as sweat droplets drip down her face. “If you build it, they will come,” a constant narrator whispers.

She bounds through the hillsides of Des Moines, Iowa. The backdrop contrasts her former Arkansas and current Greenville, South Carolina, training sites.

Little did she know a video shoot with World’s Greatest Team, a media startup, during her time as a University of Arkansas athlete would be used years down the line in preparation for the postponed Tokyo Games.

Morris, after winning a penny-blown-by-straw race in the Holderness family’s Fauxlympics, returned to sanctioned pole vault competition in July.

The Acadia Invitational was held in Greenville at the facility that Morris and her father, Harry, helped build in April as a training site during the pandemic.

“My poor dad worked so hard,” said Morris, who won with a clearance of 4.81 meters, a medal height at the Rio Olympics. “He hand spray-painted these big, 12-foot squares on an entire field so people could social distance.”

Masks were required for the duration of the event in 92-degree heat. Zenni Optical sponsored, making it possible for the top three to get paid. Morris looks ahead to a return to some level of normal.

“We can’t just take a year off and expect to be competitive,” she said.

She hasn’t had access to a hard track for sprint workouts. Typically, Morris sprints daily.

“It’s totally different training on a soccer field,” she said. “Which is still more than so many other athletes have at their disposal.”

Back in March, Morris’ facilities in Arkansas closed, and she moved back to her parents’ house in Greenville.

She made the road trip with one of her three snakes, Fang (a ball python named after Hagrid‘s dog in Harry Potter). Her Italian greyhounds, Rango and Nim, and birds, Indi and Juniper, joined for the pandemic adventure as well. “It’s a zoo in this house,” Morris said.

She still needed a place to jump.

For three weeks, Morris plied on her hands and knees, pounding 15 eight-foot-long wooden frames into an angled grass field to create an outdoor pole vault runway. Her team included her father, a few hometown hero volunteers and others from Greenville cheering them on. One day, a hammer flew haphazardly, nearly taking her out.

Morris received a donated pit from a sponsor. She spent $4,000 toward the wood, rubber runway and hardware to make her father’s long-existing dream into a reality.

The pit’s life will extend well beyond the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic. Morris plans to return for training camps and host summer camps and clinics for high school and college athletes in the future.

It will also serve as a unique opportunity to invite other elites to join her for training sessions. That could include pole vaulters from Clemson, where Morris’ 59-year-old dad is a volunteer pole vault coach.

The Olympic postponement also impacted Morris’ husband. Tyrone Smith, 36, is a three-time Olympic long jumper for Bermuda and an MBA student at the University of Texas. Smith planned to end his Olympic career in Tokyo this summer.

When the Olympic postponement was announced, Smith took a week or two to weigh whether to tack on another year.

“Ultimately, the decision was that I was always going to try to make it,” said Smith, who wed Morris last October. “It was just figuring out logistically how I was going to make that happen.

“I had motivation from being with Sandi and having the chance to do something special together. We didn’t really get to experience it [the Games] together as a couple. Having the opportunity to have those moments together, that we can share with our family, and if we have kids one day, to share those with our kids. It’s incredibly rare to do that.”

Smith recently began an internship as a brand marketer with Sony PlayStation to launch the PS5. He had a teaching position lined up, too. But after hearing about the postponed Olympics, he adapted.

Like his wife, Smith had to build his own training setup.

He bought a shovel and garden rake from Home Depot. Over a few weekends, for about three hours at a time, he excavated an entire sand pit in Austin.

It wasn’t the first time Smith felt the need to show what he could do.

“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder trying to prove to myself that I belong at this level,” he said.

Two decades ago, Smith walked through the gym of North Chicago Community High School while coach Trent Robinson taught girls how to triple jump.

“Can I learn?” Smith asked.

Robinson obliged. No one on the boys’ team knew how to triple jump, or was particularly eager to learn. Smith made all-county and all-conference after training for two months.

He walked on at the University of Missouri-Rolla (UMR), now the Missouri University of Science and Technology, a Division II track team, as a triple jumper.

It wasn’t until Smith’s sophomore year that he found a coach, Bryan Schiding, who encouraged him to consistently long jump. Years later, Schiding stood as a groomsman in Smith and Morris’ wedding.

Smith and Morris have yet to live in the same city in their four-year relationship.

“We’ve been scheming, and planning,” Morris said. “It hasn’t quite lined up yet.”

Whether Smith is pursuing an MBA, or pushing his limits to qualify for a postponed Olympic Games, one thing is certain.

“I will stand by whatever he decides to do,” she said.

MORE: Project Runway: Morris builds own pole vault setup

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Snowboarders sue coach, USOPC in assault, harassment case

LG Snowboard-Cross FIS World Cup

Olympic bronze medalist Rosey Fletcher has filed a lawsuit accusing former snowboard coach Peter Foley of sexually assaulting, harassing and intimidating members of his team for years, while the organizations overseeing the team did nothing to stop it.

Fletcher is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Thursday. One names Foley, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team and its former CEO, Tiger Shaw, as defendants. Another, filed by a former employee of USSS, names Foley, Shaw and the ski federation as defendants.

One of the lawsuits, which also accuse the defendants of sex trafficking, harassment, and covering up repeated acts of sexual assault and misconduct, allege Foley snuck into bed and sexually assaulted Fletcher, then shortly after she won her bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics, approached her “and said he still remembered ‘how she was breathing,’ referring to the first time he assaulted her.”

The lawsuits describe Foley as fostering a depraved travel squad of snowboarders, in which male coaches shared beds with female athletes, crude jokes about sexual conquests were frequently shared and coaches frequently commented to the female athletes about their weight and body types.

“Male coaches, including Foley, would slap female athletes’ butts when they finished their races, even though the coaches would not similarly slap the butts of male athletes,” the lawsuit said. “Physical assault did not stop with slapping butts. Notably, a female athlete once spilled barbeque sauce on her chest while eating and a male coach approached her and licked it off her chest without warning or her consent.”

The USOPC and USSS knew of Foley’s behavior but did nothing to stop it, the lawsuit said. It depicted Foley as an all-powerful coach who could make and break athletes’ careers on the basis of how they got along off the mountain.

Foley’s attorney, Howard Jacobs, did not immediately return requests for comment from The Associated Press. Jacobs has previously said allegations of sexual misconduct against Foley are false.

In a statement, the USOPC said it had not seen the complaint and couldn’t comment on specific details but that “we take every allegation of abuse very seriously.”

“The USOPC is committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Team USA athletes, and we are taking every step to identify, report, and eliminate abuse in our community,” the statement said.

It wasn’t until the Olympics in Beijing last year that allegations about Foley’s behavior and the culture on the snowboarding team started to emerge.

Allegations posted on Instagram by former team member Callan Chythlook-Sifsof — who, along with former team member Erin O’Malley, is a plaintiff along with Fletcher — led to Foley’s removal from the team, which he was still coaching when the games began.

That posting triggered more allegations in reporting by ESPN and spawned an AP report about how the case was handled between USSS and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is ultimately responsible for investigating cases involving sex abuse in Olympic sports. The center has had Foley on temporary suspension since March 18, 2022.

The AP typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they have granted permission or spoken publicly, as Fletcher, Chythlook-Sifsof and O’Malley have done through a lawyer.

USSS said it was made aware of the allegations against Foley on Feb 6, 2022, and reported them to the SafeSport center.

“We are aware of the lawsuits that were filed,” USSS said in a statement. “U.S. Ski & Snowboard has not yet been served with the complaint nor has had an opportunity to fully review it. U.S. Ski & Snowboard is and will remain an organization that prioritizes the safety, health and well-being of its athletes and staff.”

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages to be determined in a jury trial.

Oleksandr Abramenko, Ukraine’s top Winter Olympian, tears knee, career in question

Oleksandr Abramenko

Aerials skier Oleksandr Abramenko, who won both of Ukraine’s medals over the last two Winter Olympics, is out for the season after a knee ligament tear and said he might not return to competition at all, according to Ukrainian media.

Abramenko, 34, won gold at the 2018 Olympics — Ukraine’s second-ever individual Winter Olympic title after figure skater Oksana Baiul in 1994 — and silver last year.

He competed once this season, placing 10th at a World Cup in Finland on Dec. 4, and then flew with the Ukrainian national team to stay in Utah ahead of World Cups in Canada in January and at the 2002 Olympic venue in Park City this weekend. The area also hosted many Ukraine winter sports athletes this past summer.

Abramenko missed the competition in Canada two weeks ago due to injury and then wasn’t on the start list for today’s aerials event in Park City. He is set to miss the world championships later this month in Georgia (the country, not the state).

Abramenko said he needs surgery, followed by a nine-month rehabilitation process, similar to an operation on his other knee six years ago, according to Ukraine’s public broadcaster. He said he will see how the recovery goes and determine whether to return to the sport at age 35, according to the report.

Abramenko is already the oldest Olympic men’s aerials medalist and come the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games will be older than all but one male aerialist in Olympic history, according to Olympedia.org.

At last year’s Olympics, Abramenko, Ukraine’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony, was hugged after the aerials final by Russian Ilya Burov, who finished one spot behind Abramenko for a bronze medal. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

A week after that, Abramenko posed for a photo sitting on a mattress in a Kyiv parking garage with his wife and 2-year-old son published by The New York Times.

“We spend the night in the underground parking in the car, because the air attack siren is constantly on,” Abramenko texted, according to the newspaper. “It’s scary to sleep in the apartment, I myself saw from the window how the air defense systems worked on enemy missiles, and strong explosions were heard.”

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