X Games: Mark McMorris breaks Shaun White record on quest for first Olympic gold

Mark McMorris
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Canadian Mark McMorris won a record-breaking sixth Winter X Games snowboard slopestyle title, moving one ahead of Shaun White‘s tally, but there is still one gaping hole in his resume: an Olympic gold medal.

“Of course it’s something that I really want to get, and it’s something I know I can get,” McMorris, who won his 21st career X Games medal, said before the event. “But it’s not going to make or break me.”

On Saturday, he landed a switch backside triple cork 1620 stalefish, frontside triple cork 1440 Weddle and a backside triple cork 1620 Indy on his fourth run in Aspen, Colorado. Athletes are ranked on overall impression of their best run over the course of a jam session for the entire field rather than scoring individual runs.

He beat a field that included the world’s top two ranked slopestyle riders — 2018 Olympic champion Red Gerard (fourth place Saturday) and Norwegian Marcus Kleveland (second place). Kleveland came back to win snowboard big air later Saturday with a backside quad cork 1800 Indy and a Cab 1800 Weddle.

At 28, McMorris is headed to his third Olympics. The greatest slopestyle rider in history took bronze in 2014 and in 2018, coming back from major injury obstacles.

Ahead of Sochi, he suffered a broken rib at X Games 12 days before slopestyle’s Olympic debut, earning him the nickname “McRib.”

Ten months before PyeongChang, he crashed into a tree while backcountry riding and suffered a fractured jaw, fractured left arm, ruptured spleen, stable pelvic fracture, rib fractures and a collapsed left lung.

After missing last year’s X Games due to COVID-19, McMorris was thankful simply to be in Aspen. Next up: Beijing.

Earlier, Jamie Anderson kept pace with McMorris with her 21st X Games medal across all sites, a silver in snowboard big air. Anderson also took silver in slopestyle on Friday behind the same gold medalist, New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, who hit a frontside double cork 1080 melon and a backside 1260.

Anderson, the two-time Olympic slopestyle champion, goes into Beijing with medal chances in both events. But Sadowski-Synnott is ranked No. 1 in the world in slopestyle, Anderson’s better event, and looking to become her nation’s first Winter Olympic champion.

Japan’s Sena Tomita won a women’s snowboard halfpipe contest that lacked Olympic champion Chloe Kim, who is focusing on Beijing prep.

The event shaped up as a showdown between Spain’s Queralt Castellet and American Maddie Mastro, who has been working on the double cork 1080 — a trick with two off-axis flips that some believe gives her an outside chance to beat Kim in China.

But Mastro couldn’t land either of her double cork attempts Saturday night. She came in nursing an ankle injury from earlier this season. The falls shook her up, and when her last chance came around, she passed. She finished fifth.

Americans Alex Hall and Mac Forehand went one-two in ski big air, boosting their hopes of earning medals at the event’s Olympic debut in Beijing. Hall’s tricks included a 1980 and a 2160. Swiss Andri Ragettli, last year’s X Games champ known for his social media videos, was seventh.

France’s Tess Ledeux earned her second title in as many days, taking the women’s ski slopestyle to add to her big air crown. She landed a switch leftside 1080 Japan, switch rightside bio 900 safety and a left double 1260 Weddle grab.

Both fields lacked China’s Eileen Gu, who could sweep the three freeski golds at the Olympics, including ski halfpipe, too.

X Games finishes Sunday with men’s ski slopestyle and ski halfpipe.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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IOC looks for ways for Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ to compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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