Speed skater Ethan Cepuran makes first Olympic team while his brother announces race

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With no spectators allowed at the U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Trials, Ethan Cepuran missed hearing the cheers of family and friends as he made his first Olympic team.

But a voice he knew well accompanied him around the oval.

Cepuran’s older brother Gordon was the race announcer. His play-by-play boomed throughout the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee as Ethan came from behind to win the longest race of the trials, the 5000m, by the tip of his blade.

“It’s always awesome to have a familiar voice,” Ethan said. “That was really cool to still be able to have a family member in the building.”

Cepuran, 21, got his left leg across the finish line of the 5000 barely ahead of the right leg of training partner Casey Dawson, who is about three months younger.

The reigning U.S. champ, Cepuran, clocked 6 minutes, 16.54 seconds over the 12 ½-lap race while Dawson came in at 6:16.58 in the photo finish.

“This was just a bloodbath to the end,” said Cepuran, who was behind by 1.5 seconds with four laps to go and still trailed at the bell. He finished half a second shy of the track record of 6:16.23 set by Olympic medalist Chad Hedrick in 2008.

Cepuran clinched the first Olympic berth for Team USA at the trials, which began five days of competition Wednesday.

Dawson must now wait to see how the rest of the trials play out to determine if he will compete at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in the 5000. Team USA has earned 10 individual men’s Olympic berths, but can only send seven men; some athletes are expected to double, which would clear room for Dawson on the team in the individual event.

Emery Lehman, 25, in a bid to make his third straight Olympic team, was third with a time of 6:16.71.

But Dawson and Lehman have another route to Beijing. Team pursuit could be the best chance for them – as well as Cepuran – to win a medal at the Games. The trio, as well as two-time Olympian Joey Mantia, has already earned medal contender status from US Speedskating in the team pursuit. The team composed of Mantia, Lehman and Dawson set the world record last month.

“We train with each other every day, we race each other,” Cepuran said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without them; they’re the best teammates in the world. It’s always an honor to be on the line and skate with them.”

Mia Manganello Kilburg, a 2018 Olympic bronze medalist in team pursuit, won the longest women’s race, the 3000m, with a time of 4:07.61. She was paired with Dessie Weigel, who clocked 4:15.35 to place second. Kilburg, 22, will be the first reserve skater to make the Olympic field if an athlete from another country gives up the spot.

Both Kilburg and Weigel are contenders in women’s mass start later this week.

Kilburg said she was physically prepared for the race, “but the head is a whole other thing. I feel like I conquered a beast that I’ve been fighting for a while, so it’s very exciting.”

Team USA will qualify a maximum of five women for the Olympics.

Kilburg said not having a crowd – a decision made by US Speedskating due to the rise in Covid-19 cases – turned out to be to her advantage.

“I think it kind of helped for me not have the outside noise, to really be able to focus on what I needed to focus on, what was in my mind, hearing my coach on the backstretch,” said Kilburg, who tends to get nervous on race day.

She added that wearing masks and being apart from family and friends would be good preparation for the Olympic bubble.

“This is what we have to deal with,” Kilburg said. “We either stress about it or refocus to get the job done.”

The men’s 5000 had been looking all season like it would be a three-man battle.

Lehman, skating in the pair before Cepuran and Dawson went head to head, “threw down an absolutely amazing race,” said Cepuran. “He laid the hammer down.”

But the Glen Ellyn, Illinois, native also knew that if he defeated Dawson, he had a good chance of going to Beijing. “I knew we were close to Emery,” he said, “and If I could keep Casey in my sights, I can dig deep those last few laps. At least one spot’s guaranteed, possibly two.”

Dawson, however, held the lead nearly the entire race. With 1600 meters left, Cepuran not only trailed by 1.5 seconds, he was also behind Lehman’s pace. Cepuran was still 1.20 behind Dawson with two laps to go, although he had moved into second overall. With one lap left, Dawson had a lead of .63 seconds.

OLYMPIC SPEED SKATING TRIALS: Broadcast Schedule

“Between the three of us, those last few laps can be super decisive,” Cepuran said, “ and you’ve just got to lay it all out there until the end.”

Coming around the final curve, Cepuran had momentum. He was on the inside and flew down the straightaway to get ready for “the hawk,” the move in which a skater flings a skate forward at the line.

“It takes a little bit of timing,” Cepuran said.

And the crowd – what little there was – went wild.

“I had tons of family coming up to watch, and it’s sad they weren’t able to make it,” Cepuran said. “But it was the right thing to do. The biggest thing was make it to Beijing. There were plenty of racers cheering their hearts out. They were just as invested as we are.”

Even though the Pettit was nearly empty, Cepuran said there’s no place he would rather skate. “This is my home rink,” he said. “I’ve been coming to the Pettit even before I was born. My mom was pregnant with me when my older brothers skated.”

His oldest brother, Eric, is a former junior national team member and coach. “He’s my role model,” Ethan said of his brother, who coached him before the youngest Cepuran moved to Salt Lake City.

Gordon, who is about eight years older than Ethan, also skated.

“I just wanted to go to the rink, follow Eric and Gordon, and the easiest way to keep track of me was just put me in skates,” said Cepuran. “They put me in the center with a paint bucket to push it around. When you’re 2 years old, you can barely walk. It’s just how you survive.”

He said he doesn’t remember how long he pushed that bucket. “I definitely wasn’t all that good at first,” Cepuran said. “But it was years of having fun and smiling. Skating was always a way to be around my brother, be just like him and just have fun.”

Cepuran, who was 15th in the 5000 and 22nd in the 1500 at the 2021 World Championships, said his earliest Olympic memory was watching the 10,000 at the 2002 Olympics when he was only about 18 months old. He was better able to appreciate Shani Davis winning the gold in the 1000 at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Cepuran calls the 5000, which usually has older Olympic medal contenders, “a race of experience.”

“Every 5K I’ve done in the past two years has elevated my ability to skate,” he said. “I just gotta believe in myself. If it doesn’t hurt, I’m not doing it right.”

However, Cepuran said the folks back home – who contacted him before his race – weren’t dwelling on the outcome of the race.

“As long as I’m happy doing what I do,” he said, “they just care if I’m the kid that’s still smiling like I was when I was out with the bucket.”

Karen Rosen, who has covered every summer and winter Olympics since 1992, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Shoma Uno tops Grand Prix Final short program; Ilia Malinin 5th

Shoma Uno
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World champion Shoma Uno of Japan leads after the short program at the Grand Prix Final, the biggest figure skating competition of the fall. Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old American, is fifth out of six skaters after struggling on jumps on Thursday.

Uno, bidding for his first Final title after two silvers and two bronzes, landed a quadruple flip and quad toe loop-double toe combination en route to 99.99 points at the Palavela, the 2006 Olympic venue in Turin, Italy.

He takes a 5.13-point lead over countryman Sota Yamamoto going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin is fifth, 19.89 points behind, after stepping out of the landing on the back end of a quad toe-triple toe combination and spinning out of a triple Axel landing, putting a hand on the ice.

“It was a performance that I wasn’t really expecting,” said Malinin, who did not mention a left foot injury that affected him at his last competition (a win) two weeks ago. “We put a lot of effort trying to perfect all these movements in the program with all these jumps. The jumps didn’t go so well, but I think that my performance and my spins definitely have improved. … I just have to stay confident and look forward to the free skate.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Malinin rallied from smaller short program deficits to win his first three competitions in his first full senior season, becoming the first skater to land a quad Axel in September and repeating it in October and November.

Uno, the world’s top returning skater after Yuzuru Hanyu retired and Nathan Chen went back to Yale, didn’t compete against Malinin at those earlier events.

“It wasn’t up to the levels of my best performance,” Uno said of Thursday’s short program, according to a translation. “But I think I was able to show what I’ve done this season up until this competition. I’m genuinely happy.”

The quad Axel is not a point-scoring element in short programs, but it is in free skates.

Malinin, the son of Olympic skaters from Uzbekistan, was second at last January’s U.S. Championships but left off the three-man Olympic team due to his relative inexperience. He went to senior worlds in March and finished ninth, then won the world junior title in April.

The Grand Prix Final, which takes the top six per discipline from the six-event Grand Prix Series, is the most exclusive figure skating competition. It was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier, Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara topped the pairs’ short program with 78.08 points, edging world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier by 43 hundredths of a point.

Miura and Kihara, ranked No. 1 in the world this season, are bidding to win the biggest title ever for a Japanese pair.

Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, recorded a personal best score with their first clean program since those worlds. Frazier put his hand on the ice on their side-by-side triple toe landings, but judges still barely graded it positively.

“We’ve made a big improvement from our [fall] Grand Prix [starts],” Knierim said. “I am elated with the outcome.”

Pairs experienced the biggest change of the four figure skating disciplines since the Olympics with none of the top five teams from the Winter Games competing internationally this fall. Russian pairs, traditionally the best in the world as a group, are ineligible due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including gold medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t skate in the Grand Prix Series.

The Grand Prix Final continues Friday with the pairs’ free skate, rhythm dance and women’s short program, all live on Peacock.

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Katie Ledecky talks swimming legacy and life in Gainesville

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OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.

What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.

Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.

Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?

Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.

What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?

Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!

How often do you get to see your family?

Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.

I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?

Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.

There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?

Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.

To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations? 

Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”

I just want to read you a few tweets… 

You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?

Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.

Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?

Ledecky:  Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.

Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.

OLY-2012-SWIM

2016 Rio Olympics.

Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.

Tokyo Games.

Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.

You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?

Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.

I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.

Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?

Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.

Rapid-fire questions. Race day hype song? 

Ledecky: “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.

Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?

Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.

Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?

Ledecky: Well, USA Swimming did carpool karaoke in 2016 before the Olympics. My car did “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which is a great karaoke song because it’s like 10 minutes long so maybe I would choose that just as a fun memory. We also did “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012. Those are two fun songs with some fond memories.

Post-workout meal?

Ledecky: After morning practice, eggs and toast or veggies and eggs. I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast food for all three meals and I’d be satisfied.

Cheat meal? 

Ledecky: Either pizza or a burger.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Ledecky: Probably hockey. I’m not good on skates, but it’s my favorite sport to watch.

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