Cousin of Georgian luger who died at 2010 Olympics qualifies for Beijing Games

Vancouver 2010 - Luge - Nodar Kumaritashvili
Getty Images

Luge is Saba Kumaritashvili‘s family business. His great-grandfather is credited with bringing the sport to their homeland, the former Soviet republic of Georgia, more than a half-century ago. His father runs the national federation, as his relatives have for decades.

At home, his family is synonymous with sliding.

At the Olympics, his family is synonymous with sadness.

He qualified for the Beijing Games with hopes of changing that.

It’s been 12 years since his cousin, Nodar Kumaritashvili, died in a training accident at the Vancouver Games, a death that still haunts the sport, especially so every four years when the Olympics roll around and the memories get rekindled. Nodar was 21 when he would have made his Olympic debut; Saba is 21 now, about to make his Olympic debut.

Put simply, Saba slides for his country. For his family. And for Nodar.

“Every generation of our family had at least one luge sportsman, and now my father and I are continuing this tradition and following Nodar’s footsteps,” Saba Kumaritashvili said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Thinking about him is painful but gives me strength as well.”

It is that strength that got him here, even while he knows that some in his family are nervous whenever he takes the ice because of what happened to his cousin.

Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed Feb. 12, 2010, after losing control of his sled during a training run just hours before the Vancouver Games officially opened. He would have raced the next day, becoming the first in his family to compete on sliding’s biggest stage.

His cousin now has that chance.

“I am happy and proud that I have opportunity to represent my family and country at these Olympics,” Saba Kumaritashvili said. “Now I feel responsibility to them, because they expect good results from me. It’s really big motivation, so I will try to do my best for them.”

That is what Nodar Kumaritashvili was trying to do 12 years ago.

The crash happened at 10:50 a.m. on a Friday, with most people already turning their attention to the opening ceremony taking place that night. The Whistler, Canada, track has 16 curves, and Nodar Kumaritashvili appeared to lose control around the 13th turn. His 176-pound body was no match for the gravitational forces, which sent him careening along the ice-covered walls of the track. The last impact with one of those walls knocked him off his sled and sent him flying across the track, his arms and legs flailing.

His body sailed over the wall of the track near the finish line, the back of his head striking a metal post outside of the track. Rescue workers got to him within seconds to no avail. He was pronounced dead after 59 minutes of resuscitation efforts, though a coroner’s report later revealed his head injuries were so traumatic that he died instantly.

His last recorded speed was 89.4 mph, which almost certainly was the fastest of his career. Some of the world’s best sliders had said that week that the track was too fast and too dangerous; after Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death, Olympic officials made several changes, including having competitors begin from a lower spot on the track in an effort to reduce speeds.

“I won’t forget every detail of that day, that’s for sure,” said Erin Hamlin, a former women’s luge world champion who competed for the U.S. at the Vancouver Games. “And I don’t think any athlete who raced in Whistler will.”

German slider Felix Loch, who won the gold medal in men’s luge at those Olympics, went to Georgia two months later and tearfully presented the Kumaritashvili family with a gold medal of its own – because Nodar’s death, in Loch’s words, changed the sport. There have been other gifts: paintings, photos, books, even letters from some of the first responders who remain haunted that his life couldn’t be saved. His headstone in Georgia is adorned by a massive bronze sculpture of him on a sled, not far from where his actual sled and the damaged helmet he wore for his last ride are displayed.

Somehow, Saba was never deterred. The family, he decided, had unfinished Olympic business.

“I worked hard and believed in myself strongly,” he said. “Now I feel happy and satisfied that I’ve achieved one of my goals. … I think every sportsman’s goal and dream is to be competing in the Olympic Games, so two years ago I decided to achieve this goal. And here I am.”

He is one of nine athletes from Georgia, and the only one from a sliding sport, to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.

That Saba Kumaritashvili could endure the family anguish and still follow his cousin’s path to an Olympics has drawn admiration from other sliders.

“He saw through the haze,” said former U.S. luge athlete and Olympian Christian Niccum, who competed in the 2010 games. “It was a terrible accident. An accident. These things happen in life and it’s awful, but we can either live in fear from it or learn from it, grow from it and keep going. That’s why I think he’s an excellent story.”

The family’s relationship with luge is believed to go back to at least the early 1970s when Aleko Kumaritashvili – “my great-grandfather laid the foundation for this sport,” Saba said – oversaw the building of a short training track. Soviet officials helped build a more complete track around 1973, and Aleko Kumaritashvili served as the country’s coach.

It has been part of the family makeup ever since. Saba and Nodar took similar paths to the Olympics; both were introduced to the sport by their family as kids, then got into international sliding and did enough to qualify for the Games despite not having World Cup circuit experience.

Saba insists he is ready.

“I look at his story as what the Olympics are all about,” Niccum said. “It’s what life is about. It’s what every motivational story there is talks about. It’s perseverance. Forgetting about the past, the fears of the past, the tragedies of the past and looking forward, not living in fear or letting anything slow you down.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!