Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva on 2022 Winter Olympics: “This is all that’s left”

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From two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu to reigning World champion Anna Shcherbakova, some of the biggest names in figure skating associate with a stuffed animal that fans might throw onto the ice in the aftermath of an epic performance.

Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva could have hoped crowns would be thrown to the self-styled “Empress” upon her arrival at the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships—her first appearance at the event since winning it in 2015. However, the absence of non-athlete spectators at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden, left Tuktamysheva to summon an inner strength, one that had already brought her back to the sport’s pinnacle after six years on the periphery, to ultimately earn a silver medal as part of a Russian sweep alongside Shcherbakova and Aleksandra Trusova.

“I had to believe it wasn’t the end,” she told NBCSports.com/figure-skating by phone on Sunday. “I had to tell myself that I still have a future, that I should continue, and that adversity would only make me stronger. Every time I’ve had a bad situation in my life, I’ve told myself that. Bad things will happen, but I have to survive and move on.

“My career has been a lot like a mountain, something I climbed up and down before I could climb back up again.”

That climb back up has been fraught with peaks and valleys in the last Olympic quadrennium. Tuktamysheva was on course for a world team berth in 2019 after a bronze-medal finish at that season’s Grand Prix Final, only for pneumonia to force her out of the Russian national championships. She ultimately lost her spot to Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva in a skate-off at the Russian Cup Final.

“I was definitely upset when I knew I wouldn’t go to worlds, and [that] wasn’t an easy time for me in my career,” she said before chuckling, “I have had a lot of moments like that.”

This past season began in similar fashion; days after holding off Trusova and 2020 European champion Aliona Kostornaya at the Rostelecom Cup, Tuktamysheva tested positive for COVID-19 and was off the ice for two weeks.

“I didn’t have terrible COVID symptoms, just a fever for two days, and I remember feeling so tired. I’m happy I was only sick like that, and relieved that it was nothing worse.”

Unable to afford another withdrawal, the 24-year-old made the trip to nationals, a veritable thunderdome replete with quad-jumping teenagers, and finished fourth among worlds-eligible athletes to trigger another tiebreaker between herself and Kostornaya—who had withdrawn due to her own COVID diagnosis.

“I was glad to be able to show my programs at nationals because it was important just to be there and skate as well as I could,” Tuktamysheva said. “I was happy I didn’t fall on every jump and that it wasn’t so bad!

“After COVID, it took a while to skate my free program with good breath; I would get tired faster than before. By the Russia Cup Final, I understood I was back in shape and ready to compete.”

A near-perfect free skate in Moscow—one that included a triple lutz-triple toe combination in addition to her signature pair of triple axel jumps—assured her of a long-awaited worlds return, where she placed third in both portions of the competition to finish second overall.

“For me, international competitions have always been less pressure than the ones in Russia. Our national competitions have a good number of girls jumping quads, and so when I went to the world championships, I felt so much less pressure, and just… like I was able to enjoy the fact that I’m actually a really good skater.”

It is this kind of radical candor that has helped make Tuktamysheva a fan favorite and one of her sport’s premier personalities.

“I feel people understand me because of how open I am with them,” she explained. “I’m the same person on social media, in interviews, in real life, and I think that’s why people don’t just see me as an athlete, but like I’m their friend. Their love and support give me a lot of energy.”

A season full of national competitions allowed her the opportunity to draw unlikely support from rivals like Shcherbakova, with whom she led Russia to a maiden victory at the World Team Trophy earlier this month. in which Tuktamysheva was team captain.

“We’ve started to be more like friends,” Tuktamysheva said. “She’s a really cute and nice girl, and I feel comfortable with her. At competitions where her parents couldn’t be with her, I tried to keep her company.”

Seven years Shcherbakova’s senior, Tuktamysheva doesn’t envy the uniquely competitive atmosphere encouraged at the Sambo 70 club, led by coach Eteri Tutberidze and home to a bourgeoning next generation of Olympic-eligible talent like junior world gold and silver medalists Kamila Valiyeva and Daria Usacheva.

“I didn’t feel nearly the same amount of pressure at their age as I’m sure they feel now,” says Tuktamysheva. “It was a different time in figure skating; the level wasn’t as high, and so it was easier for me to feel confident about my place in the sport.

“At the same time, I was such a crazy girl growing up, and no one could stop me or tell me anything! I just led with my mind.”

Tuktamysheva’s triumphant finish to the 2020-2021 season puts her in unexpectedly good stead to at last compete in an Olympic Games, having fallen short of the team in both 2014 and 2018. Looking to set her programs with famed coach Aleksei Mishin before taking a short vacation in the Maldives, she aims to do all she can to earn the only crown still missing from her collection.

“I’ve had a lot of great moments, and I’ve had a long career,” she said. “An opportunity to finally make it to the Olympics would be the cherry on the cake. In my wildest dreams, I see myself winning bronze, silver, gold, standing on that Olympic podium. It’s going to be so hard getting there, and I don’t want it to be my main goal for next season, but it would mean so much to me and for my career to be able to make it to the Olympics.

“I’ve already done almost 100% of what I can do, and this is all that’s left.”

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Luz Long’s Olympic silver medal for sale from Jesse Owens long jump duel

Jesse Owens, Luz Long
Getty
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One of the most consequential Olympic medals ever awarded is on the auction block — the silver medal captured in 1936 by Germany’s Luz Long, the long jumper who walked arm in arm through the stadium with Jesse Owens to celebrate their triumphs while Adolf Hitler watched from the stands.

Long’s family has decided to auction the medal and other collectibles from the German jumper’s career. Long was killed in World War II in 1943.

The auction house selling the medal has labeled Long’s collection “The Beacon of Hope.”

“The story of Jesse Owens never seems to end,” said Long’s granddaughter, Julia Kellner-Long, in a phone interview from her house in Munich. “My grandfather has always been inspirational and influential in the way I choose to see the world, and this is something I think the world outside needs. Now more than ever. It gives us hope.”

Long cemented himself in Olympic lore during the Berlin Games when he was the first to congratulate Owens on his triumph in the long jump. Later they walked around the stadium together and posed for pictures.

There’s also the story Owens told of Long approaching him after he fouled on his first two attempts in the preliminary round. With only one more try to make the final, Owens said Long suggested he take off a foot in front of the board, to assure he wouldn’t foul on his last try. Owens took that advice and went on to win the title — one of four he captured in Berlin — with a then-Olympic record jump of 8.06 meters (26 feet, 5 1/2 inches).

Owens was Black, and his stirring success at those Olympics was said to have annoyed Hitler by puncturing the Nazi myth of Aryan racial superiority.

The camaraderie between Owens and Long, and the relationship that ensued between the men and their families, are often held up as the prime example of what the Olympics are supposed to be about — a peaceful coming together of people from different countries and cultures who set their differences aside in the spirit of competition.

“It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me,” Owens said, years later. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.”

The decision to sell came shortly after Luz’s son (and Julia’s father), Kai, died at age 80. Kellner-Long said the great responsibility of preserving her grandfather’s memorabilia should be passed onto an individual, or museum, that has the time and resources to do so. The family also wanted to use the sale to rekindle the story of Long and Owens.

“Even 86 years later, shining a beacon of hope is an important and realistic value, especially in a time of increasing racism, increasing exclusion and hatred,” Kellner-Long said.

The auction house started the bidding for Long’s medal at $50,000, and estimated the value at somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million. The bidding runs through Oct. 15. The value of Olympic medals on the open market varies widely. One of Owens’ four gold medals from 1936 fetched $1.46 million. Bill Russell’s gold medal from the 1956 Olympics recently sold for $587,500.

David Kohler of SCP Auctions, which is conducting the sale, said the medal is about Long, but also “the story of the courageousness and the athlete and what he did there.”

Long didn’t live long enough to see his legacy play out. He was killed in 1943 in the battle of St. Pietro on the Italian island of Sardinia. Shortly before that, he wrote a letter to Owens, one he predicted would be “the last letter I shall ever write.”

In it, Long asked Owens to go to Germany after the war and find his son.

“Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we were not separated by war,” Long wrote. “I am saying — tell him how things can be between men on this earth.”

Owens and Kai Long met several times over the years, including at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in 1966. Owens later was a best man at Kai’s wedding.

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Jenny Simpson, most decorated U.S. miler, shifts focus with new Puma sponsorship

Jenny Simpson
Puma
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Jenny Simpson, the most decorated U.S. female miler in history, plans to return to racing on Sunday with a new shoe sponsor, Puma.

Simpson, whose last race was the Cherry Blossom 10-mile road race in Washington, D.C., in September 2021, according to World Athletics, will run what she called “a little rust-buster” at the Army Ten-Miler in Washington, D.C.

“My intention is to turn my focus to the roads,” Simpson, 36, wrote in an email. “I have some great PUMA spikes that I love so the track isn’t off the table. But my emphasis will be road racing.”

Last year’s Cherry Blossom was her first race longer than 5,000 meters, according to World Athletics. What are the chances she eventually moves up to the marathon distance?

“This new chapter is an exploration,” she answered. “I’m going to let the races, training, and coaching guide the next steps as they come. I know I can physically do it, it’s a matter of whether I can be great at it and my team and I will only go there if we think we can be competitive. So, let’s say for chances… 51% :)”

Simpson made her first Olympic team in 2008 in the 3000m steeplechase, then in 2012 and 2016 in the 1500m, earning a bronze medal in Rio. She is the lone U.S. woman to win a world 1500m title (2011) or an Olympic 1500m medal.

From 2007 through 2019, Simpson finished in the top three in one of the 1500m, 5000m or 3000m steeplechase at all 13 annual USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Last year, she was 10th in the Olympic Trials 1500m in a bid to become the oldest U.S. Olympic 1500m runner in history, according to Olympedia.org.

Simpson focused much of her time this year helping her Colorado community heal and rebuild from a late December fire. She did not enter the USATF Outdoors for the first time since 2006.

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