Bruna Moura nearly died trying to get to the Olympics. Now she’s back on her skis.

Bruna Moura

On Jan. 16, 2022, Bruna Moura received the news that she had worked more than a decade for: She made Brazil’s Olympic team.

Eleven days later, Moura was in an Italian hospital. She never made it to the Winter Games. She was lucky to be alive. The other person in her van did not survive.

Moura, a 28-year-old cross-country skier, competed on Wednesday for the first time in 13 months. She finished ninth in a race with 38 women, mostly from nations without winter sports tradition. The top 10 qualified for next week’s 10km at the world championships in Planica, Slovenia.

On Thursday, Moura placed 78th out of 99 skiers in the first medal event of worlds, the sprint. She deemed the comeback successful, and hopes it leads to the next Winter Olympics in Italy in 2026.

In an interview last month, Moura described what she feels in a cross-country skiing race.

“Everything’s burning,” she said. “We ask ourselves, ‘Why are we doing this?’ Because it’s too painful. But at the same time, it’s like anger. You really want to do it. You really want to cross the finish line, just like if it’s a big challenge. And if you cross the finish line, you are a hero. That’s how it feels.”

Back in 2011, Moura, then 17, was a promising mountain biker. She was coached by an Olympian, competed on the junior World Cup circuit and strove to represent Brazil at the 2016 Rio Games.

But a medical exam revealed a heart condition that required surgery and, ultimately, led her to cross-country skiing. The winter sport became more appealing for a few reasons.

During her recovery, Brazilian sports officials gifted her equipment for roller skiing, which cross-country skiers use for summer training. She took to it. It was also difficult to get sponsors back to return to mountain biking. Plus, her mountain bike coach was actually a two-sport Olympian, switching back and forth between mountain bike and cross-country skiing.

Come 2015, Moura competed at the world junior championships in biathlon. Later that year, she entered her first international race in cross-country skiing, where Olympic qualifying is slightly easier for non-traditional winter sports nations.

She competed in her first world championships in cross-country skiing in 2017 and by January 2022 was in contention for the second and last Brazil women’s Olympic berth. At the last qualifying event in Switzerland, she finished her race and called her partner, Dutchman Pascal Luiten, who tracked the live results and told her she earned the Olympic spot.

“I started crying and jumping,” Moura said. “It was really, really, let’s say a fantastic day.”

Two days later, Moura tested positive for COVID-19 with symptoms that were not life-threatening. She quarantined in Austria for 10 days and changed her itinerary to get from Europe to China.

On Jan. 27, she could leave. She booked a van through a car service to take her, and her ski equipment, about four hours north to Munich, where she planned to stay a few nights before flying to Beijing.

Moura woke up around 5 a.m. to wipe down the room in the house where she quarantined. The van arrived at 7. She learned from text messages that the driver was a Russian named Yevgeny who lived in Berlin.

She remembers details about that morning that altered their estimated arrival time. Yevgeny at first parked behind the house, but she needed him to be in the front where her three large bags were. The GPS had to correct after they took the wrong street leaving the Austrian town.

Yevgeny drove fast enough that Moura became afraid and instinctively looked for the seatbelt. She said that, growing up in Brazil, she always made sure that everybody had their belts on before starting the car. On this morning, she did not initially follow her own advice. Minutes into the trip, she looked at the loose belt and thought.

“Do I wear it, or not because the way he’s driving?” she recalled a year later. “Maybe if I do not wear it, I have time to react, open the door and jump. That’s crazy thoughts of course. But that’s what I thought at the moment. … Then I put it on and tried to sleep.”

About an hour later, Moura woke up. The van was still.

“I was scared,” she said. “I opened my eye, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘You were sleeping. You are waking up now.’ … I saw so many people around me, and I did not understand anything because I did not remember anything when I saw them. I got scared, like what the hell is happening here? And then all the pain started, and it was hard to breathe.”

Images showed the van up against a guard rail. The windshield and everything below it was mangled, the van’s insides and one tire spilled into the side of a two-lane road. On the other side of the road, a large truck lie on its side.

A medical helicopter took Moura to a hospital. She broke an arm in three places, had three broken ribs, lung damage and a broken left foot.

When she was stabilized, they brought her to a room. She remembers an old woman entered and told her what happened, a few hours after the accident. “Until then, I didn’t know anything,” Moura said.

“You had a collision with a truck,” Moura was told. “There was nothing to do for the driver. He died with impact.”

Moura and Luiten later learned from a police report that Yevgeny, the driver, had a job in music, and that his child went to Italy to identify him and pick up his belongings.

“I happened to see somewhere that he was buried in a cemetery in Berlin,” Luiten said.

Moura said that a doctor told her that three things saved her. First, sitting in the back seat. If she had been in the front, she would have died with Yevgeny. Second, she would not have survived if she didn’t buckle her seat belt. Third, she would have lost her left foot if not for durable shoes.

After two surgeries, she was discharged the next week and taken 11 hours by ambulance taxi to the Netherlands, where she lives with Luiten. They rented a hospital bed and put it in the living room.

The first night was the worst.

“All night it was just moaning from pain.” said Luiten, who slept on a couch in the room. “That did not stop until the morning.”

She was prescribed stronger medication the next day. That’s about the time the Olympics began.

“I wanted to watch it,” she said. “At first, it was not easy. The Opening Ceremony was like a punch in my face.”

Luiten said they watched the Games all day every day.

“It was mostly a matter of trying to enjoy the fact that people were visiting her, caring about her, and there was sports to watch as a distraction,” he said. “Trying to get her mind off the pain, especially at night.”

She spent most of her time in bed for those first three weeks, the rest in a wheelchair. She began walking, first with crutches, and then, two months after the accident, on her own. By August, she began roller skiing again. She was determined to ski on snow, though her foot still hurt.

“I was already aiming at 2026,” she said. ” Yeah, it hurts like hell now, but it will not stay like this forever.”

Also that summer, she began working at a bike shop and then taking kickboxing classes. Co-workers learned her story and set up a Gofundme page to aid with the costs of becoming an international athlete again.

In the fall, Moura ran for the first time since the accident. Late last month, she skied on snow for the first time in a year. Then two weeks ago, she traveled back to Austria, to the same place where she quarantined a year ago. On a bus, she passed by the site of the accident and shared the video on her Instagram story.

The 2026 Winter Olympic cross-country skiing races will be about 50 miles south of where last year’s tragedy occurred.

Moura said she asks herself daily why she continues this pursuit, which began as a mountain biker more than a decade ago.

“When I decided to become an athlete, I decided that I wanted to get to the highest I could,” she said. “When you are an athlete, the highest you can get is the Olympics.”

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Football takes significant step in Olympic push

Flag Football
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Football took another step toward possible Olympic inclusion with the IOC executive board proposing that the sport’s international federation — the IFAF — be granted full IOC recognition at a meeting in October.

IOC recognition does not equate to eventual Olympic inclusion, but it is a necessary early marker if a sport is to join the Olympics down the line. The IOC gave the IFAF provisional recognition in 2013.

Specific measures are required for IOC recognition, including having an anti-doping policy compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency and having 50 affiliated national federations from at least three continents. The IFAF has 74 national federations over five continents with almost 4.8 million registered athletes, according to the IOC.

The NFL has helped lead the push for flag football to be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games. Flag football had medal events for men and women at last year’s World Games, a multi-sport competition including Olympic and non-Olympic sports, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Football is one of nine sports that have been reported to be in the running to be proposed by LA 2028 to the IOC to be added for the 2028 Games only. LA 2028 has not announced which, if any sports, it plans to propose.

Under rules instituted before the Tokyo Games, Olympic hosts have successfully proposed to the IOC adding sports solely for their edition of the Games.

For Tokyo, baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were added. For Paris, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were approved again, and breaking will make its Olympic debut. Those sports were added four years out from the Games.

For 2028, the other sports reportedly in the running for proposal are baseball and softball, breaking, cricket, karate, kickboxing, lacrosse, motorsports and squash.

All of the other eight sports reportedly in the running for 2028 proposal already have a federation with full IOC recognition (if one counts the international motorcycle racing federation for motorsports).

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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