Paralympics: Thomas Walsh goes from unpacking his bags to first U.S. Alpine medal

Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics - Day 6
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Thomas Walsh, who last month “unpacked the bags,” pessimistic that he would be able to travel to the Paralympics, earned a giant slalom silver medal on Thursday, the first U.S. Alpine medal of these Games.

Walsh, a 26-year-old from Vail, Colorado, had the fastest first run and the fifth-fastest second run, overtaken for gold by .04 by Finland’s Santeri Kiiveri.

“My life experiences, surviving pediatric cancer to dealing with COVID days before I was supposed to be at the Paralympics, god I’m just lucky to be able to compete,” Walsh said on USA Network. “Earning a medal is only a bonus.”

The U.S. entered these Games with the most Alpine skiing gold medals in Paralympic history, and the second-most Alpine medals of any color behind Austria. But more than halfway through these Games, no American had made an Alpine podium.

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Andrew Kurka, the only U.S. Alpine gold medalist in 2014 or 2018, was fourth defending his title in the opening downhill. Just before that race, heavy winds put him into a fence, so he competed with a broken humerus and thumb.

Walsh, too, would have been a medal contender earlier in these Games under normal circumstances.

But he tested positive for COVID last month, at least clearing protocols to arrive less than 48 hours before his first race, the super-G, where he finished 15th. Then came the combined, in which Walsh took bronze at the 2019 World Championships. He placed fourth, missing a medal by 11 hundredths of a second.

“No struggle, no progress,” Walsh put in his Instagram bio.

Walsh harbored Olympic dreams, skiing by age 2 and racing at 5. His first coach was Eileen Shiffrin, who coaches her own daughter, Mikaela, a childhood friend of Walsh.

Walsh was awarded a full scholarship to Green Mountain Valley School, a ski academy in Vermont. The day before he was scheduled to leave for school in 2009, Walsh was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that developed in his pelvis and lungs.

He spent the next year undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and pelvic resection treatments. He was declared cancer-free after 14 months. While Walsh was in the hospital, Olympian Steven Nyman gave him one of his bibs from the 2006 Torino Games. Shiffrin said she visited for weeklong stints, according to The New York Times.

“Once I finished treatment, it was such a shot in the dark to try to ski race again,” Walsh said, according to TeamUSA.org. “I was so bent out of shape, and my life was in shambles. I could hardly walk, never mind put a pair of skis on.

“But coming back to skiing was a no-brainer. It was the reason why I lived.”

Walsh did enroll at Green Mountain Valley School, where he took Shiffrin to prom and graduated in 2013. Then he attended the 2014 Sochi Olympics, watching Shiffrin win slalom gold through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Walsh then researched Para Alpine skiing. He discovered he was eligible to compete in the standing classification due to a limb deficiency. He made the 2018 team and had a best finish of fifth in the slalom in PyeongChang. The slalom is the last event at these Games, on Sunday.

“I’ve ski raced my whole life. I always wanted to be an Olympian,” Walsh said Thursday. “Now I’m a Paralympian, and now I’m a Paralympic medalist.”

NBC Paralympic research contributed to this report.

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Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

Laura Nolte Bobsled
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Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

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