Natalie Geisenberger, Felix Loch slide back into luge in different comebacks

Felix Loch, Natalie Geisenberger
Getty Images

Natalie Geisenberger and Felix Loch, Bavarian lugers who have known each other for 22 years, spent nearly half of that span excelling at the highest level of the sport. But last season, the Germans vanished altogether from the top of podiums.

Geisenberger, the 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion, announced one month before the 2019-20 campaign that she was pregnant with her first child and missed the entire season.

Loch, the 2010 and 2014 Olympic champion, did compete. But he struggled, failing to win a single World Cup or world championships race for the first time since 2007.

This season’s world championships, the most prestigious event leading up to the Olympics in 13 months, start Friday in Königssee, Germany (TV schedule here).

The prevailing storyline: Geisenberger and Loch are back atop the world of luge.

Geisenberger just about picked up where she left off after having son Leo in May.

She finished second in the first eight races of the season, conjuring Serena Williams, who came back from childbirth to finish runner-up in four tennis majors. Then Geisenberger won the two most recent full, two-run World Cups leading into worlds, eclipsing 50 career victories.

“If you told me that in the summer, that I would not win, but win so many medals, to get second every time, for me, I would take that,” Geisenberger said last week. “I was really satisfied with my second places, but to read, ‘She was just second place,’ It was so negative. That was not so great for me. … I’m happy that topic is over.”

At Königssee, the longtime home track for Geisenberger and Loch, she can win a fifth world title in the traditional, two-run event, tying longtime rival (and retired) countrywoman Tatjana Hüfner‘s female record.

Starting when she was 19 in 2008, Geisenberger made the singles podium in all but one of her 12 Olympic and world championships starts. This season, she has traveled with Leo and excelled despite missing three months of her typical preseason training due to childbirth.

“It’s a big challenge,” coming back, she said, “but of course the other years before were also not so easy. I can’t compare [to past years] because the situation is completely different now.”

Count Loch as at least mildly surprised with Geisenberger’s seamless return.

“In October, when we start sliding … I was thinking she needs one month, two months to come back on the sled to slide like one or two years ago,” he said. “When I see Natalie sliding, I said, OK, she [looked like she] was always sliding, [like] she had no one-year break.”

Loch joked with her about all the runner-up finishes into mid-January. (“He was joking about that. Not me,” Geisenberger noted, chiming in as Loch spoke in a joint interview.)

Loch had reason to be in such a light mood — he swept all eight two-run World Cup events so far this season.

“I know every time I can be fast, but the last two years, sometimes only one run was good, the second run was bad,” Loch said. “No two runs worked together, or only in the training was good. But I didn’t forget about how to compete in the luge. I was always in a better situation than other guys think about. I was relaxed, and I know I can slide, and now everybody, I would say, can say I didn’t forget about how to do it.”

In 2018, Loch appeared destined for a third straight Olympic title to match childhood idol and coach Georg Hackl‘s luge record. He led through three of four runs. In the finale, he made a mistake midway down the track, hit the wall and finished fifth. His father, Norbert, also the German head coach, consoled him on the ice as the medalists celebrated just feet away.

Loch remembered his dad saying a German equivalent of “s— happens.”

“At home your son [then-1-year-old Lorence], and your wife [Lisa] is waiting for you,” Norbert told him. “Next year it will be gone.”

Loch notched one World Cup race victory in 2018-19, his lowest output in nine years, but more than salvaged the year by winning his sixth singles world championships title, tying Italian Armin Zöggeler‘s record.

There was no silver lining to the 2019-20 season: no wins, just two podiums, seventh in the season standings and ninth and 13th in two events at the world championships.

Asked about Loch’s talent, Geisenberger pointed at her bicep and then her head in saying, “He’s strong here and here.”

“He thinks about the sled the whole time,” she said.

Loch went back to work last summer. With Hackl, they made small changes to his sled, which he cited as the primary reason for the revival.

“Only an expert can see the difference,” he said, adding that he hasn’t felt this comfortable in seven years. “At the moment, I have a perfect sled.”

If Geisenberger and Loch carry over this season’s success into the Beijing Games, they can tie the Winter Olympic record for golds in one individual event. It’s currently shared by many athletes, including Hackl and fellow legends Sonja Henie, Bonnie Blair, Shaun White and Ole Einar Bjørndalen.

Then the questions will start about 2026, when the Winter Olympics will be in Central Europe for the first time in their careers, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, just four hours south of their shared home track of Königssee.

Neither Geisenberger nor Loch said they plan to stop sliding after 2022. In 2014, two men in their 40s earned luge medals. German Sylke Otto won the 2006 Olympic women’s title at 36.

“Three years ago, I said I will stop finally after 2018,” the 32-year-old Geisenberger said, “and here I am.”

Loch, a 31-year-old who plans to take it year-by-year after Beijing, dreams of friends and family watching him in Cortina.

“That would be a really cool end of my career, maybe,” he said, “but never say never.”

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Football takes significant step in Olympic push

Flag Football
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Football took another step toward possible Olympic inclusion with the IOC executive board proposing that the sport’s international federation — the IFAF — be granted full IOC recognition at a meeting in October.

IOC recognition does not equate to eventual Olympic inclusion, but it is a necessary early marker if a sport is to join the Olympics down the line. The IOC gave the IFAF provisional recognition in 2013.

Specific measures are required for IOC recognition, including having an anti-doping policy compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency and having 50 affiliated national federations from at least three continents. The IFAF has 74 national federations over five continents with almost 4.8 million registered athletes, according to the IOC.

The NFL has helped lead the push for flag football to be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games. Flag football had medal events for men and women at last year’s World Games, a multi-sport competition including Olympic and non-Olympic sports, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Football is one of nine sports that have been reported to be in the running to be proposed by LA 2028 to the IOC to be added for the 2028 Games only. LA 2028 has not announced which, if any sports, it plans to propose.

Under rules instituted before the Tokyo Games, Olympic hosts have successfully proposed to the IOC adding sports solely for their edition of the Games.

For Tokyo, baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were added. For Paris, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were approved again, and breaking will make its Olympic debut. Those sports were added four years out from the Games.

For 2028, the other sports reportedly in the running for proposal are baseball and softball, breaking, cricket, karate, kickboxing, lacrosse, motorsports and squash.

All of the other eight sports reportedly in the running for 2028 proposal already have a federation with full IOC recognition (if one counts the international motorcycle racing federation for motorsports).

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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