Chris Plys, mistaken for a gold medalist, has an Olympic shot 12 years in the making

Chris Plys
Getty Images

Chris Plys has been called a gold medalist more times than he can count over the last three years. But he’s never won an Olympic medal of any color.

The misnomer stems from a bike ride along Lake Superior in spring 2018.

Plys, then a 30-year-old who spent two-thirds of his life as a curler, received the most coveted phone call in recent American curling history while out cycling. It came from Matt Hamilton, one of the four members of the U.S. Olympic team that stormed to surprise gold two months earlier in PyeongChang.

The conversation “wasn’t super glamorous or anything,” Plys said, but he certainly won’t forget it.

Hamilton asked if Plys was interested in filling the team’s vacant roster spot, left by Tyler George‘s soon-to-be-announced retirement to become an ambassador for the sport.

“You don’t get an opportunity to join a defending Olympic champion team very often,” Plys said this week, deadpan.

His decision made, it was time for Plys to make one of his hardest phone calls as a curler: dialing up his team’s skip to say goodbye. The previous November, Plys was on a team that beat Shuster in the opening game of a best-of-three series in the Olympic Trials finals.

But Shuster won the next two to nab his fourth Olympic berth. Three months later in South Korea, he led an epic Olympic comeback, winning five consecutive elimination games to grab gold.

Team Shuster is back in the Olympic Trials finals in Omaha, starting Friday night (broadcast schedule here). Shuster, Hamilton and John Landsteiner are trying to become the first men to earn back-to-back Olympic curling gold medals.

Then there’s the fourth and final member of the team. Plys is shaggy and tattooed up and down his arms and legs and on his chest. He’s often introduced as part of a gold-medal team. But at autograph sessions with the rest of the guys, he passes along 2018 Olympic items rather than signing them. This week, he’s just trying to make his first Olympics outright (which is a key word).

“This would be kind of full circle coming back for me,” he said.

Plys has been to an Olympics. He went to the 2010 Vancouver Games as an earringed alternate, picked up by Shuster’s rink after going 3-6 skipping his own squad at trials a year earlier.

He got the Olympian treatment as part of the traveling roster. A Pussycat Dolls member asked him out on E!, and Stephen Colbert called him “the cute one” on the team on Comedy Central.

Plys, then 22, thought he would spend those two weeks at the Olympics in the background. Alternates’ primary responsibility is “matching rocks,” throwing competition stones after the completion of play to gauge their variance in preparation for their teammates’ next game.

But Shuster struggled. Plys was called up to the gameday foursome, replacing Shuster as the skip in an unprecedented shuffle. Plys is glad to have competed — the youngest American man to curl in Olympic history, according to — but would have rather stayed on the bench if it meant the team was playing well.

Plys failed to make the Olympics in 2014 and 2018. After Shuster won in PyeongChang, he figured that team would stick together, creating a formidable roadblock for anybody else to represent Team USA in the near future.

He was surprised to learn that George, then 35 and oldest on the team, was stepping away two months after the Winter Games.

“I had thoughts about it as far back as 2016,” said George, a liquor store owner who was gifted new curling shoes by The New York Times at the Olympics to replace his eight-year-old Skechers. “I’ve just been playing for so long, and you kind of get burned out, and there’s other things you want to do in life. And you know what kind of effort it takes to play at that level.

“I just didn’t think I could put that in again.”

Plys hadn’t yet heard who would replace George but was reluctant to proactively campaign to Hamilton, a teammate on a 2008 World junior champion team who has stayed at Plys’ house. Or Shuster, a fellow Duluthian and teammate for a 2007 World University Games title run.

Turns out he didn’t need to make a case. Shuster said this week that Plys was the first and only person they asked to replace George, though others were considered. George, who would have been shocked if it was anybody else, noted that Plys was already on the second-best team in the country and shared a hometown with Shuster and Landsteiner.

“It was a natural fit,” Shuster said.

Plys, among many tattoos over the last decade, got the words “I Choose Joy” inked on a forearm. His dad, Patrick, wrote those words on a dry erase board when he couldn’t speak following a stroke near the end of a 17-year brain cancer battle that lasted until 2012.

Before that, Patrick was the face-painted man banging on a cowbell at the 2010 Olympic curling venue. Then in 2011, seven months before his death, Patrick fulfilled a lifelong dream by tandem biking 1,300 miles around Lake Superior, the same lake that Plys was cycling alongside when he received that call from Hamilton. (Two months before the call, Hamilton shouted out Plys in his intro at the Olympic final.)

Plys’ family and curling club members later founded Project Joy, raising money toward helping children who need food. Patrick grew up poor and always wanted his kids to know how lucky they were to have steady meals.

“He’s very laid back,” George said of Chris, who in 2011 started running his father’s food brokerage company, Plys Superior Consulting, and has curled on Lake Superior. “He’ll slam a broom every once in a while, but he’s not a finger pointer.”

Plys’ talent shone last month, when he and Vicky Persinger won the Olympic Trials in mixed doubles, which debuted in PyeongChang.

But Plys’ spot in Beijing isn’t yet secure. He and Persinger must qualify at an international event in December. They should be able to, and if the favored Shuster team prevails in Omaha this week, Plys will be one of the busiest athletes at the Games.

Team Shuster, bonded over several Minnesota ice fishing trips, placed fifth at worlds in 2019 and 2021. At the latter, Plys tested positive for COVID going into the playoff rounds. It was deemed a false positive after further testing, but it was a distraction and the Americans lost their next game.

At this week’s Olympic Trials, they steamrolled through the first eight games undefeated to clinch a spot in the finals with two round-robin games to spare.

The curling community is so interwoven that Plys also played with George, back in the Sochi Olympic cycle. George boasts more about being there when a pre-teen Plys threw his first rocks in a junior program in Duluth.

“I told him his second day of practice … that years down the road, when he wins all the championships that he’s going to win, he has to give me all the credit,” George joked. “It all comes full circle.”

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)

Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

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Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze

Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

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