‘Do not let me die’: Olympic skier Aaron Blunck details halfpipe crash aftermath

Aaron Blunck
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Olympic halfpipe skier Aaron Blunck lacerated a kidney, broke ribs, fractured his pelvis and even bruised his heart. Before he learned all that, he thought it could have been much worse.

Blunck, the reigning world champion, shared video of a preseason training crash in Switzerland last month, when he was working on a switch double cork 1440. The 24-year-old from Colorado previously landed it in practice, but no skier has ever landed the trick in halfpipe competition.

Blunck lifted out of the halfpipe and flipped twice while spinning before striking the lip of the pipe on the way down. His shoulder smacked the snow first. One of his skis detached as he fell into the flat bottom.

“The first thing I remember was the pain,” Blunck said, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS). “I just shut my eyes, and I was just screaming in immediate, horrible pain, and thinking to myself, ‘This is bad. This is really not good.’ And I knew if I was already in that much pain after having so much adrenaline just before the crash  …honestly, it crossed my mind that I might die.”

U.S. coach Mike Riddle stopped filming Blunck’s run from the opposite lip and rushed to him.

“I had grabbed Riddle’s hand, and I was just like, ‘Do not let me die. Do not let me die. But if I do die, tell everyone that I love skiing, I love my fiancée, and I love my family and friends. Tell them that,'” Blunck said, according to FIS. “So I laid there just trying to breathe, thinking how bad it was, in the worst pain I could ever imagine. … I pretty much felt like I was on my way to a body bag.”

Riddle said Blunck’s quote might not have been verbatim, as he remembered it, but the sentiment was accurate.

“He knew he was hurt and gave me his fiancée’s number and told me to have it just in case,” Riddle, the 2014 Olympic ski halfpipe silver medalist for Canada, wrote in an email Wednesday. “He was getting loaded onto a helicopter and was a little panicked; as I was myself.”

Blunck said that, after a few minutes, he tried to tell those with him that he was OK, though he felt significant injuries. They forced him to load into a helicopter to be flown to a hospital.

Swiss doctors said he had a broken rib and kidney laceration. Blunck returned to the U.S., where he was diagnosed with more serious injuries and told by one doctor, “You are so lucky to be alive. Like, beyond lucky to be alive,” according to FIS.

“The doc said that typically it would be a six-month recovery for most people, but she understood who I am as a person and an athlete, and she understands athletes, and she’s pretty sure they’re going to have me back on snow in six weeks,” Blunck said.

He could return in time for significant contests in February — the first 2022 Olympic qualifier in Mammoth Mountain, Calif., and the world championships in the 2022 Olympic host nation China. Blunck finished seventh at the Olympics in 2014 and 2018.

“After having a crash as serious as the one I had, now I just want to ski for the sake of skiing,” he said. “I don’t want to worry about impressing the judges, I don’t want to focus on winning the contest. I just want to do the best that Aaron Blunck can do.”

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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