Tutberidze with Medvedeva
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Brian Orser reacts to Yevgenia Medvedeva’s coaching switch back to Eteri Tutberidze

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During the Russian Figure Skating test event last weekend, when Brian Orser and Yevgenia Medvedeva were bridging the 5,000-mile span between him in Toronto and her in Moscow via video chat, they laughed about how different the atmosphere seemed than it had been at the same event two years earlier.

Orser would tell me Wednesday morning he had no idea during those weekend conversations that the bridge linking them was on the verge of collapse under the weight of separation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A few hours before Orser called me, what Medvedeva had told him Tuesday became public: she was making the stunning move of returning to her previous and longtime coach, Moscow-based Eteri Tutberidze, whom she had left in an acrimonious split three months after the 2018 Olympics.

“She (Medvedeva) and I agree if there was no pandemic, we would not be having this discussion right now,” Orser said.

So, there was a bittersweet irony in Orser’s recollection of his earlier conversations with Medvedeva, 2016 and 2017 world champion and 2018 Olympic silver medalist.

“We talked about how two years ago at the test skates, it was all about me and Eteri,” Orser said. “I could see from the telecast that this time, it was about Eteri and [Yevgeny] Plushenko. It was nice not to be involved in that media circus, and Yevgenia and I joked about that.

“Fast forward two days, and I’m back in it.”

The 2020 test skates came a few months after two of Tutberidze’s stars, Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kostornaia, had decamped to join a group headed by Plushenko, the 2006 Olympic champion. Plushenko and Tutberidze already had been sniping at each other on social media before the skaters officially switched sides.

The 2018 test skates had come just a few months after Medvedeva made the even more startling decision to leave Tutberidze to train with Orser. Never before had one of the sport’s Russian stars left Mother Russia to train with a non-Russian coach.

But this latest switch is almost as startling because she has gone back to the coach who had bad-mouthed Medvedeva publicly when their 2018 split was imminent.

“Yevgenia told me she had four options,” Orser said, declining to specify them. “The going to Eteri one was totally out of the blue. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.

“I’m definitely not angry, and there is absolutely no bitterness. I don’t believe this was a case of a political move or a strategy. It just happened.”

In a statement issued by the Russian Figure Skating Federation, Medvedeva said, “I am very grateful to Brian for his understanding and the work done.”

Medvedeva, who turns 21 in November, and Orser stopped working together in person soon after the pandemic led to cancellation of the 2020 World Championships and the shutdown of Canadian rinks in March.

Medvedeva first went to Los Angeles to work with choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne on new free program and then to Japan for a show that was cancelled. After quarantining in Japan, she and her mother returned to Moscow.

Trying to get back into Canada was complicated for Medvedeva, Orser said, because she would be coming by air with no guarantees she would be given an exception from Canada’s immigration restrictions in response to the pandemic. There was also the issue of whether her mother would be allowed to enter Canada.

As the weeks passed, it became obvious to both Orser and Medvedeva that she needed more coaching than he could give a few times a week via Face Time.

“I told her she needed to get some real coaching, daily coaching,” Orser said.

Until they spoke Monday, after Medvedeva’s poor performances at the test skates Saturday and Sunday, Orser had no inkling that would lead to her ending their relationship.

“These wheels were not in motion prior to the test skates,” Orser said. “Yevgenia and I don’t mince words, so she got right to the point (Monday) and said, ‘I’m thinking of going back to Eteri.’ Of course, I was kind of shocked.

“I told her, I can’t do anything for you if we can’t be together. The pandemic is bigger than both of us. Our hands are tied.”

Medvedeva made up her mind Tuesday.

“I don’t know how it all came down,” Orser said. “The (Russian) federation was involved, Eteri was involved and ultimately Yevgenia was involved. And that’s fine. They want to help her.”

Tutberidze suddenly found herself with openings for senior skaters when Trusova and Kostornaia left, and Alina Zagitova, the 2018 Olympic champion, all but retired in announcing she was skipping the test skates to be host of a reality TV show. At the test skates, cameras caught Tutberidze clapping encouragement for Medvedeva after her badly flawed free skate.

In an interview at the Toronto Cricket Club in early fall 2018, Medvedeva had pointedly avoided criticizing Tutberidze. She spoke of feeling “more adult” and also of how at the Cricket Club “…everyone looks so happy that you don’t feel you came to do heavy work, hard work, only work, work, work and nothing else. You feel you just came here to improve yourself, to improve your personality, not only your athlete side.”

“Maybe Yevgenia will be able to go back into her old environment with a different outlook,” Orser said. “I don’t know if there are any conditions. I don’t know if she [Tutberidze] will approach coaching her any differently than she did before. Whatever the conditions are, I think she [Medvedeva] will have some kind of control.”

Medvedeva had drawn virulent criticism on social media for her decision to leave Tutberidze. But spectators have been overwhelmingly supportive when she competed in Russia, turning her into something of a beloved grande dame trying to fend off skaters three and four years younger who brought quadruple jumps to the party.

Her two years with Orser had ups-and-downs that were not unexpected for someone who not only had changed coaches but had turned her life inside out and was dealing with what has become chronic back pain.

The first season ended with an unexpected bronze medal at the 2019 world championships. The second ended unexpectedly when boot problems forced her to withdraw from the 2020 Russian Championships.

Earlier last season, she finished second to Trusova at the 2019 Rostelecom Cup. Medvedeva won the short program and finishing second in the free skate with a near flawless performance without the quadruple jumps that accounted for Trusova’s winning margin.

“I think we made some great progress.” Orser said. “I think I got her back on track emotionally to the point where she really loves skating and training.

“I guess I kind of got her to see it from another angle. I think she came to the conclusion she is not being defined as a person by her championship medals. She’s a strong woman. It was a great experience to coach her.”

Orser said he had no idea if Medvedeva might come back to him when the pandemic is brought under control.

“She is jumping in with both feet right now, so I’m out,” he said. “There is not going to be a collaboration between me and Eteri. And that’s fine. All I want is for Yevgenia to be happy and skating well.”

She began training again with Tutberidze Wednesday. Medvedeva posted a picture to her Instagram account of her and the old/new coaching team with the caption, “Good, when all is good. We will work hard, and that is great.”

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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Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week).

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

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NBA participation in Tokyo Olympics could be limited, Adam Silver says

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Tokyo Olympics’ effect on the league’s schedule planning for 2021 is unclear, but that it’s possible that Olympic participation may be limited.

“There are a lot of great U.S. players, and we may be up against a scenario where the top 15 NBA players aren’t competing in the Olympics, but other great American players are competing,” Silver told Bob Costas on CNN on Tuesday. “Obviously, there are many NBA players who participate in the Olympics from other countries. That’s something we’re going to have to work through. I just say, lastly, these are highly unique and unusual circumstances. I think, just as it is for the Olympic movement, it is for us as well. We’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those two competing considerations.”

Silver said his best guess is that the next NBA season starts in January with a goal of a standard 82-game schedule and playoffs. A schedule has not been released.

In normal NBA seasons that start in late October, the regular season runs to mid-April and the NBA Finals into mid-June.

The Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony is July 23. If an NBA season is pushed back two or three months to a January start, and the schedule is not condensed, the Olympics would start while the NBA playoffs are happening.

The current NBA season is in the conference finals phase in an Orlando-area bubble after a four-month stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a factor in our planning,” Silver said of the Olympics. “It would be tough for us to make a decision in January based on the Olympics happening on schedule when that’s so unclear.”

The NBA has participated in every Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Monday was the 29th anniversary of the announcement of the first 10 members of the original Dream Team on an NBC selection show (hosted by Costas).

Before the NBA era, U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams consisted of college players.

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