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

Chris Plys
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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 Olympedia.org — 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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Matt Weston, Susanne Kreher win first world skeleton titles; Olympic champs struggle

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Great Britain’s Matt Weston and German Susanne Kreher consolidated breakout post-Olympic seasons by winning world skeleton titles in St. Moritz, Switzerland, on Friday.

Weston, 15th at last year’s Olympics, prevailed by 1.79 seconds combining times from four runs, the largest margin of victory at worlds for men or women since 2012.

Weston became the second British man to win a world skeleton title after Kristan Bromley in 2008. The 25-year-old from Surrey left taekwondo at age 17 due to a reported back injury and has three wins in six World Cups this season.

Italian Amedeo Bagnis, whose best World Cup finish is eighth, took silver, a year after placing 11th at the Olympics. South Korean Jeong Seung-Gi earned bronze by one hundredth over Brit Chris Thompson, a year after placing 10th at the Olympics.

Kreher, a 24-year-old sprint convert in her first full World Cup season, won by one hundredth of a second over Olympic bronze medalist Kimberley Bos of the Netherlands. Mimi Rahneva took bronze for Canada’s first Olympic or world skeleton medal since 2015.

Kreher extended Germany’s streak to six consecutive women’s world titles. Kreher, last year’s world junior champion, has three World Cup podiums this season, but no wins on the circuit.

Germany’s reigning Olympic champions Christopher Grotheer and Hannah Neise were 10th and 15th, respectively. Tina Hermann, who won the last three women’s world titles, was fifth.

Two other Olympic champions were absent: 2014 gold medalist Aleksandr Tretiyakov is out due to the ban on Russians for the war in Ukraine. Yun Sung-Bin, a 2018 gold medalist, is taking this season off but is expected to come back, according to the South Korean federation.

The top Americans were Hallie Clarke in 10th for the women and Austin Florian in 19th for the men. The last U.S. medalist at worlds was Noelle Pikus-Pace, who took silver in 2013.

Katie Uhlaender, the top U.S. finisher at the last worlds and last Olympics (sixth both times), has not competed this season after rupturing a tendon in her right ankle two months ago.

Worlds continue with the women’s monobob and two-man bobsled events Saturday and Sunday.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

U.S. Figure Skating Championships
U.S. Figure Skating
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The U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in some ways marking a new era in the sport, air live from San Jose, California, on NBC Sports, USA Network and Peacock.

After last February’s Olympics, U.S. figure skating saw its greatest turnover from one season to the next in more than 20 years.

Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, the top two men last season, are not competing this season and may be done altogether. Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell, the top two women, retired. As did the top ice dance couple of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, last year’s national pairs’ champions, also left the sport.

So, for the first time since 1993, the U.S. Championships feature a reigning national champion in just one of the four disciplines.

Amid all that, U.S. skaters performed well in the fall Grand Prix Series and made the podium in all four disciplines at December’s Grand Prix Final for the first time. Note the absence of Russian skaters, banned from international events due to the war in Ukraine.

At nationals, skaters are vying for spots on the team — three per discipline — for March’s world championships in Japan.

Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old from Virginia, is the headliner after becoming the first skater to land a quadruple Axel, doing so at all four of his events this season. He ranks second in the world by best total score, a whopping 38.28 points ahead of the next American (Camden Pulkinen).

Jason Brown is the lone Olympian in the men’s field, competing for the first time since placing sixth at the Games.

Isabeau Levito, 15 and a reigning world junior champion like Malinin, took silver at the Grand Prix Final against the world’s other top skaters. She enters nationals with a best score this season 18.13 points better than the next American, Amber Glenn. Bradie Tennell, a 2018 Olympian coming back from foot and ankle injuries, is also a threat to gain one of the three women’s spots at worlds.

Ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates are the lone defending national champions and will likely make the podium for an 11th consecutive year, which would be one shy of the record.

Bates, who last year at 32 became the oldest U.S. champion in any discipline in decades, has made 12 career senior nationals podiums with Chock and former partner Emily Samuelson. It is believed that a 13th finish in the top three would break the U.S. record for a single discipline he currently shares with Michelle Kwan, Nathaniel Niles and Theresa Weld Blanchard.

In pairs, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier return after missing nationals last year due to Frazier contracting COVID-19 the week of the event. Since, they posted the best U.S. pairs’ finish at an Olympics in 20 years, the first world title for a U.S. pair in 43 years and the first Grand Prix Final medal ever for a U.S. pair.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships Live Broadcast Schedule

Day Event Time (ET) Platform
Thursday Pairs’ Short Program 3:30-5:45 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Rhythm Dance 6:30-9 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Rhythm Dance 7-9 p.m. USA Network | STREAM LINK
Women’s Short Program 9:10 p.m.-12 a.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Women’s Short Program 10 p.m.-12 a.m. USA Network | STREAM LINK
Friday Men’s Short Program 4:10-7 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Men’s Short Program 5-7 p.m. USA Network | STREAM LINK
Women’s Free Skate 7:45-11 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Women’s Free Skate 8-11 p.m. NBC | STREAM LINK
Saturday Free Dance 1:45-4:30 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Free Dance 2:30-4:30 p.m. NBC | STREAM LINK
Pairs’ Free Skate 7:30-10 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Pairs’ Free Skate 8-10 p.m. USA Network | STREAM LINK
Sunday Men’s Free Skate 2:30-6 p.m. Peacock
Men’s Free Skate 3-6 p.m. NBC | STREAM LINK

*All NBC and USA Network broadcasts also stream on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app for subscribers.