Brianna Decker retires from hockey

Brianna Decker

Brianna Decker, a star forward on the 2018 U.S. Olympic champion hockey team and a three-time Olympic medalist, retired from the sport at age 31.

She set a new goal to return to the Olympics in a different capacity.

In her final career game, Decker suffered a broken left fibula and torn ankle ligaments less than 10 minutes into last year’s Olympic opener against Finland. Decker stayed with the team through its silver-medal run.

She wanted to take a full year to recover and see where she was at before deciding whether to continue playing. A turning point came in August, when she was named girls prep associate head coach and special advisor to the Shattuck-St. Mary’s hockey program in Faribault, Minnesota, where she played in high school.

Top U.S. national teamers often coach in between playing — and Decker previously did so with U.S. women’s U18 teams — but she also used the early days of this ongoing stint to see if coaching without playing was still fulfilling her passion for the sport.

“It was,” she said, “and I felt like it was a good time for me to decide to retire [and focus on coaching].”

Decker, a Wisconsin native, made her senior national team debut at the 2008 Four Nations Cup at age 17. In 2009, after her senior year of high school, she was third-youngest of the 41 players who essentially tried out for the 2010 Olympic team, but she did not make the cut.

She matriculated at the University of Wisconsin, won a national title in 2011 (which she ranks right up with her top national team memories) and in 2012 won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the NCAA’s top player.

Decker played in her first of eight consecutive world championships in 2011, including winning tournament MVP in 2017.

She then made her first Olympic team in 2014. Decker co-led the U.S. with six points in Sochi en route to a silver medal.

She was an alternate captain on the 2018 team that won the U.S.’ first Olympic hockey title since women’s hockey’s debut at the 1998 Nagano Games. A tenacious, 5-foot-4 forward, she played on the top line with Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield.

After coming back from double groin and double sports hernia surgery in October 2019, she was the third-oldest player on the 2022 Olympic roster behind Knight and Megan Bozek. She was on the second line of forwards with Amanda Kessel and Alex Carpenter.

In the late 2010s, the U.S. won five consecutive global championships (one Olympics, four worlds) to become a dynasty for the first time. A trademark, maybe the trademark of those teams was their fast, skillful attackers, personified by Decker.

“When it came to game time, it was incredible,” she said. “The one thing that goes unrecognized a little bit — you’re competing against those players every day of practice. So you’re competing against some of the best players in the world every single day, and that’s how you excel your game. So I thank them for training so hard to make our team better as well.”

Decker, third on the U.S. career points list in world championship play behind Knight and Cammi Granato, said she brings her playing mentality to her coaching.

“I’m pretty intense,” she said. “When we’re inside the rink, it’s all business for me. I want to get the most out of the players, and I obviously want them to take advantage of every training session that they have. But from an off-ice standpoint, I obviously goof around with them and have fun and make them realize that it’s all about balance.”

When Decker told family members that she was hanging up her skates, one of her three brothers texted to tell her it was time to repeat her playing accomplishments as a coach.

“We’ll see if I can mark off those things,” Decker said. “My list starts now.”

A goal is to coach an Olympic team. Women’s hockey has been contested at seven Winter Games. The U.S. has never had a former women’s national team player as Olympic head coach, and just once had a female head coach (Katey Stone, 2014).

“Right now I’m in the best spot I can be,” said Decker, whose duties at the boarding school include doing laundry and aiding with equipment. “I have a great mentor, [girls hockey director] Gordie Stafford at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, so I’m in a good spot to start my coaching career.”

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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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