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Usain Bolt on Kobe Bryant, fatherhood and Tyreek Hill’s Olympic outlook

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MIAMI — The world’s fastest man sauntered into the back room of a Miami art studio that had been converted into a Gatorade pop-up for Super Bowl weekend.

He opened a bottle of Bolt24, Gatorade’s new off-the-field drink for the 24/7 athlete, an endorsement Usain Bolt takes literally.

“Last night I went to bed at, maybe, like 5 [a.m.],” he said the Saturday morning before Super Bowl Sunday, adding that outside of his native Jamaica, he believes the party scene in Miami is second only to London.

Bolt fully reclined and rested his legs in a NormaTec compression therapy device while spending the next 20 minutes discussing a wide range of topics with NBC Sports.

The retired sprinter recently announced he is going to be a father in a social post.

He does not know the gender of his child yet and declined to reveal the due date.

“I’m excited, but I’m nervous,” said the 33-year-old. “I’ve always been a fun guy, I’ve always been that person. But should I be that person and make my girlfriend [Kasi Bennett] be the bad guy? Those are the questions I’m asking, so we’ll see what happens.”

Bolt, who has two siblings and eventually wants three children, will not encourage his offspring to pursue sprinting.

“That’s going to be hard for my kid,” he said. “If they want to do it, I’m fine with it. But initially I’m going to say don’t do it, ’cause I know the pressure that will come along with it.”

Bolt has always wanted to have a son to follow in his footsteps. But after watching ESPN anchor Elle Duncan deliver an emotional tribute about Kobe Bryant’s pride in being a #GirlDad, Bolt is now hoping for a daughter.

“I could see in his eyes how much he loved his girls,” Bolt said. “I would love to have that feeling.”

Bryant’s untimely death hit Bolt hard. Bolt was driving when he heard the news and immediately pulled over. He completely stopped checking social media. He tried to watch the Lakers’ tribute, but changed the channel after five minutes because he teared up.

Bolt had at least three significant interactions with Bryant. During an NBA All-Star Weekend, Bryant paused a conversation with Bolt to fetch his daughters for sprinting advice and a photo.

Bolt believed he competed with Kobe’s Mamba Mentality.

“I wouldn’t say I was dedicated as Kobe,” Bolt said, “but when I competed, I went out there no matter what was going on and was focused.”

Being in Miami, the conversation eventually turned to football.

Bolt laughed when asked about Tyreek Hill, the Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver who said he is serious about trying to qualify for the U.S. Olympic track and field team. Hill, who reached the top in-game speed of any NFL player in 2019, was a world-class sprinter in high school but is seven years removed from his track days.

“No, there’s no chance,” Bolt said, pointing out that Hill would have to run the 200m three times over three days at June’s U.S. Olympic Trials. “A lot of people think it’s about one-off runs, but it’s rounds that really show who you are and the amount of work you do. So I think no, he wouldn’t make the team.”

Bolt, a longtime Packers fan, reiterated he would try out for the team as a wide receiver if Aaron Rodgers called.

“I think my hands are good,” he said, “and I know I’ve got the speed.”

But Bolt, who had a brief professional soccer career, would not listen if the MLS or another soccer league called.

“I think I’m past the soccer stage,” he said. “I tried it, and it was OK, but it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.”

Bolt still follows track closely.

He said it was “nerve-racking” watching the 2019 World Championships as the Jamaican men failed to earn a 100m or 200m medal for the first time since 2003.

“I actually missed it,” he admitted. “I was like, ‘Aw crap, did I do the right thing? Did I retire too soon?’”

But he has no regrets about retiring in 2017.

“You question yourself,” he said, “but I know I made the right decision.”

Bolt wonders why the Jamaican men stopped dominating the sprints since he retired.

“Hey, if you know, tell me,” he said. “But the girls are doing awesome, so that’s a good thing.”

Bolt will be in Tokyo during the Olympics. He has had conversations with television networks, but has not committed. He is excited to go to an Olympics as a fan, and hopes to experience swimming and an Argentina soccer match, in addition to track.

Bolt predicted a U.S. sprinter will win the Olympic men’s 100m title for the first time since 2004.

“From my standpoint right now, Christian Coleman has got the Olympics won already,” Bolt said. “He’s fearless. He’s really fearless.”

Yet Bolt has learned to never overlook Justin Gatlin, who finished second to Coleman at the 2019 World Championships but will be 38 in Tokyo.

“My greatest competitor was Justin Gatlin,” Bolt said. “For the last five years of my career, he kept me on my toes, and I will always respect him for that.”

Bolt was less confident predicting the Olympic 200m champion.

“I think [reigning 200m world champion Noah Lyles] could be beaten,” Bolt said. “In a one-off run, no. But through the rounds, he kind of didn’t impress me as much.”

Since he will be in Tokyo, Bolt was asked whether he could — hypothetically — lace up racing spikes and advance out of a heat to an Olympic semifinal in the 100m or 200m.

“For sure, no problem,” he said without hesitation. “In both.”

Does he still have enough speed to advance from an Olympic semifinal to a final?

“I think over 200m, I could make it to the final as the last, last guy,” Bolt predicted. “But in the 100m, I don’t think so.”

Both scenarios are purely hypothetical, since the deadline to unretire for a 2020 Olympic bid has passed. Retired stars like Bolt must re-enter the drug-testing pool six months before they are allowed to compete. Track’s international governing body confirmed that Bolt has not done so.

Since Bolt is happily retired from Olympic competition, how does he want to be remembered?

“I want to be remembered as one of the greats,” he said. “My only goal in track and field was to be among the greatest in the world. The Kobe Bryants, the Muhammad Alis, the Peles, the Maradonas. That’s how I want to be remembered. That’s the work I put in. I want to be remembered as one of the greatest sportsmen to ever live.”

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Olympic champion Kikkan Randall, cancer survivor, beats NYC Marathon goal

Kikkan Randall
NBC Olympics
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NEW YORK – Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” blared through the loudspeakers in Central Park as Kikkan Randall crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon.

The Olympic cross-country skiing champion clocked 2:55:12, easily beating her three-hour goal, just one year after her final round of chemotherapy for stage 2 breast cancer.

“I bet I ran as fast today as I would have last year if I hadn’t had cancer,” Randall said.

Randall immediately received a hug from 1984 Olympic marathon champion Joan Benoit Samuelson, who had texted her advice during training.

“[Cancer] is part of my story, but it’s not the defining thing,” Randall said. “I love being an athlete and facing challenging goals.”

The last 20 months have been a roller coaster for Randall, who will turn 37 on New Year’s Eve.

She won the U.S.’ first cross-country skiing gold medal with Jessie Diggins in the team sprint at her fifth and final Olympics in PyeongChang. She planned on celebrating her retirement from ski racing by running the November 2018 New York City Marathon.

But after a Mother’s Day hike with her husband Jeff Ellis and their 2-year-old son Breck, less than three months after February 2018 Winter Games, she discovered a lump in her right breast. It was later diagnosed as stage 2 breast cancer.

She underwent six rounds of chemotherapy in the summer and fall of 2018. She is “pretty confident” that she has been cancer-free since Nov. 2018.

She remained physically active and even considered keeping her 2018 marathon entry, but instead traveled to New York to support Olympic teammate Liz Stephen.

Last Halloween, bald from chemotherapy, Randall dressed as Mr. Clean.

This Halloween, with trademark pink streaks back in her hair, she went as a unicorn.

Randall ran with Stephen during most of the 2019 race. But with half a mile to go, Randall had enough energy to push the pace and Stephen, who finished 25 seconds later, encouraged her to sprint ahead.

“My engine is still so strong from skiing,” Randall said. “It’s my legs that are like, ‘whoo!’”

Randall will decide in the spring whether she wants to run the 2020 race. In the meantime, she would like to complete an off-road triathlon.

“I love having a goal,” she said.

Crossing the finish line was a feeling Randall did not experience during her PyeongChang triumph, since Diggins completed the final leg of the six-lap race (inspiring the memorable “Here comes Diggins! Here comes Diggins!” call).

“Crossing the finish line in any race, especially when you hit the goal that you want, is such a great feeling,” Randall said. “It makes it worth it.”

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Beachvolley Vikings, sport’s top team, inspired by Kerri Walsh Jennings

FIVB
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HAMBURG, Germany — Kerri Walsh Jennings smiled at the decade-old picture of her posing with a young Anders Mol.

Since Walsh Jennings met Mol, the now-22-year-old and his 23-year-old Norwegian partner Christian Sorum have become the top-ranked team in the world.

“Those boys inspire me a lot,” she said. “That’s how I want Brooke [Sweat] and I to play, really.”

Walsh Jennings met Mol in his native country at the 2009 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Stavanger. Mol attended with his father, Kare, who was coaching the Norwegian teams, as well as his brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias Berntsen.

Walsh Jennings noticed the young Norwegians, who are now nicknamed the “Beachvolley Vikings,” eagerly doing the pepper drill on the sand between matches from 6 a.m. until well after dark.   

“She walked by and told us, ‘Hey, you guys are so good that if you guys keep practicing, you’re going to be playing on this stage one day,’” Mol recalled.

Mol’s passion for the sport only increased as he hit puberty.

As a teenager, he derailed his family’s vacation plans in San Diego by making them battle traffic up to Los Angeles to hear Walsh Jennings give a speech.

Childhood photo of Mol and Walsh Jennings. Courtesy of Anders Mol.

At 13 or 14, Mol and his brother beat their parents for the first time. Impressive, considering Mol’s father was a former national indoor team player and his mother, Merita Mol (née Berntsen), competed in beach volleyball at the 1996 Olympics.

At 16, he enrolled in ToppVolley Norway, a beach and indoor volleyball school that is a two-hour boat ride north from Stavanger. For three years, the boys would attend classes, lift weights and train for a minimum of 20 hours per week. Free time often meant pick-up soccer matches, which occasionally proves useful on the sand.

“It doesn’t look like Hogwarts,” Mol said, “but it sounds like Hogwarts because everybody is like a big family in this school.”

When Mol graduated, he played a year of professional indoor volleyball in Belgium. But he quickly realized that he preferred the freedom of beach volleyball, where players book their own travel, hire their own coaches and schedule their own practices.

In 2017, Mol was named the international tour’s top rookie. By the end of the 2018 season, Mol and Sorum had firmly established themselves as the world’s top team, winning their final three international tournaments including the FIVB World Tour Finals.

They have not slowed down in 2019, winning three tournaments on three different continents over three weeks in May. They have won 36 of their last 38 matches.

“The best blocker right now is Anders, and the best defender is Christian,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb. “It’s not really fair.”

The only two teams who have defeated the Norwegians since April 28 — Germany’s Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler and Brazil’s Bruno Schmidt/Evandro Goncalves — did not offer any clues on how to do it.

Wickler admitted that “in no other stadium would we have won this game” after the Hamburg world championships semifinal played July 6 in front of more than 12,000 hometown fans, the largest crowd either team had ever experienced. Mol and Sorum rebounded to claim the bronze medal the next day over Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Bruno rebuffed multiple teams who approached him looking for the secret to beating Norway.

“I’ve never seen a player like Anders who is so powerful and so skilled at the same time,” said Bruno, the 2016 Olympic champion with former partner Alison. “Players like that raise the level of this sport.”

Much of their success can be attributed to their defensive scheme. Most teams play a “zone defense,” with each player defending half of the court. The Norwegians play a “read defense” that gives each player the freedom to react and move to where they think the attacking player will hit the ball.

NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong compared the Norwegians to “free safeties” in football.

“They are the most innovative defensive team we’ve seen in a long time,” he said.

The pair is relatively unknown outside Norway — neither has a Wikipedia page in English — and even in Norway they claim they are nowhere near as famous as the Alpine skiers nicknamed the “Attacking Vikings.”

But that will change.

At worlds, the pair hired a videographer to capture content for their YouTube and Instagram channels. They launched a Beachvolley Vikings clothing line that includes a “Sleeping Christian” shirt. They patiently fulfilled each and every request for pictures and autographs after matches.

“They are like rock stars,” said American Taylor Crabb, talking extra loud to be heard over a crowd of teenage girls hoping to take a selfie with the tall, blonde Norwegians. “Fans can relate to them because they see guys around their age becoming the No. 1 team the world.”

It is not just fans who are lining up to see the Norwegians.

“I love to watch them play,” said 2016 Brazilian Olympian Pedro Solberg, who made his international debut when Mol was just 8. “Every chance I get to watch them I do, because I learn a lot from them.”

Whether Mol and Sorum struggle with anything is up for debate. When asked, Kare boasted about beating them at the card game “President and the bum.”

“They are really smart in beach volleyball,” he said, “but they are really stupid in card playing.”

But both players disputed their coach’s claim.

“It’s not true at all,” Sorum said. “He loses even when he has the best cards.”

The Beachvolley Vikings are just getting started. 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser pointed out that beach volleyball players typically do not peak until their late 20s or early 30s.

“In my book, they are already among the top teams to ever play,” he said. “There are no holes in their game. I don’t see why they can’t keep this going.”

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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