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Roland Matthes, 8-time Olympic medalist swimmer, dies at 69

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Roland Matthes, an East German swimmer who swept the backstrokes at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, died Friday after a brief illness at age 69, according to Germany’s swimming federation.

Matthes went undefeated in the backstroke from 1967 through 1974, a run that included seven total Olympic medals between Mexico City and Munich. American John Naber ended the streak, then helped relegate Matthes to 100m back bronze at his last Olympics in 1976.

Matthes, who was married to fellow East German swim star Kornelia Ender for four years, lowered the 100m back and 200m back world records a combined 16 times. He earned the nickname “Rolls-Royce of Swimming” for his elegant technique.

He remains the only swimmer, male or female, to sweep the backstrokes at multiple Olympics.

In retirement, Matthes was honored by the International Swimming Hall of Fame and German Sports Hall of Fame. He also became an orthopedic surgeon.

Isabell Werth, Olympics’ greatest equestrian, faces Tokyo question: which horse to take?

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Over 27 years after winning her first of six Olympic gold medals, German dressage rider Isabell Werth is beating herself in the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) world rankings.

Werth, 50, sits in second with her three-time World Cup winner and Olympic gold and silver medalist horse Weihegold Old, a 2005 Oldenburg mare. But it’s her self-described “dream horse” Bella Rose 2 who takes the FEI’s top spot.

Werth can only compete with one of the two horses at the Tokyo Games.

In less than a year span, she swept the 2018 Tryon World Equestrian Games, won her fifth World Cup title and took her 20th title at the European Championships. After a busy year, Werth has her sights set on a bigger goal: a sixth Olympics.

Already the winningest equestrian in Olympic history, at Tokyo, Werth could build on her collection of 10 Olympic medals and claim a gold medal from four different decades.

This would extend her era of winning Olympic titles from 24 years (tied for the women’s record) to 28, which would tie the overall record held by Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich.

Werth debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games, picking up team gold and individual silver on Gigolo FRH. The pair swept both the team and individual titles in 1996, and Gigolo went out on a high note, picking up one more team gold and individual silver in 2000 before retiring a few months later.

Werth returned to the Olympics in 2008 with Satchmo 78, taking team gold and individual silver.

After passing the bar eight years post-Barcelona, Werth worked in law and marketing until beginning her own training stable in 2004.

She initially thought she would retire from riding around her 30s—until Madeleine Winter-Schulze, a prominent and longtime supporter of German equestrians, offered her sponsorship that remains active to this day.

At the Rio Olympics, Werth was relegated to individual silver after Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin defended her individual dressage title, but two years later, Werth flipped the script to take gold in Tryon.

Like many elite equestrians, Werth started riding at a young age. She show jumped and evented as a teen until Uwe Schulten-Baumer, a six-time European Champion, introduced her to dressage and his horse Gigolo.

Unlike many riders at such an elite level, Werth is known for bringing her own horses along from the beginning stages to the world stage.

Werth, known as the “Dressage Queen,” first laid eyes on Bella Rose when the horse was 3 years old. Werth, already a four-time gold medalist with six World Equestrian Games titles, saw something special in the Westfalen mare.

“I saw her, and I got goosebumps,” Werth said. “I said, ‘Wow, the charisma of the horse, the way she moves, the way she showed herself, she presents herself and her character’ — that was what touched me in the first second. And then of course later on, I was really happy that she also was very, very kind and really motivated every day.”

In 2014, Bella Rose was part of Germany’s team gold at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France.

Then a stretch of soundness issues kept the mare out for the next four years. She announced her return to competition with a roar in Tryon, and then followed it up less than a year later with team gold, special gold and freestyle gold at the European Championships last August.

“Most people know that my heart is so close to this horse,” Werth has said about Bella Rose. “She is a gift. I saw that when I first met her as a three-year-old and she has never lost it.”

Sitting just below Bella Rose on the FEI dressage world rankings is Weihegold Old, Werth’s Rio mount. Together, they captured team gold and individual silver at the Rio Games.

As Tokyo approaches, Werth must decide between her No. 1 “dream horse” Bella and her proven Olympian Weihegold.

Chief among her concerns is the potential for extreme heat and humidity in Japan during summertime. Training in Germany can’t prepare a horse for those conditions.

“Of course, I have a little plan for each horse in my mind, but most of the time you have to be flexible because the horse makes their own plan,” Werth said. “We will see what happens next spring.”

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Natalie Geisenberger, Olympic luge champion, will not race this season

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For the first time in eight years, there will be a new World Cup women’s luge champion.

Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger — the seven-time defending champion and two-time defending Olympic singles gold medalist — announced that she isn’t sliding this season because she and her husband are expecting their first child in April.

“Our happiness is on the way,” Geisenberger said on her Facebook page.

Geisenberger plans to return next season and still has hopes to compete at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, where she could match fellow German great Georg Hackl’s feat of winning three consecutive singles golds.

With Geisenberger not sliding this season, the top returning women from last year’s World Cup standings now are Julia Taubitz of Germany and Summer Britcher of the U.S. — second and third, respectively, in 2018-19.

Geisenberger has a luge record-tying four Olympic golds in all, being part of Germany’s victories in the team relays in Sochi in 2014 and Pyeongchang in 2018 as well.

Her 49 World Cup singles wins are another record, and she’s one of two sliders to win seven consecutive World Cup titles — Austria’s Markus Prock took the men’s championships each year from 1990-91 through 1996-97.

Geisenberger’s break from sliding only adds to how the World Cup standings — and the German roster — will look very different this season. Dajana Eitberger, who was fourth in last season’s World Cup standings, is also pregnant and expecting a baby in February. And Tatjana Huefner, who was sixth overall last season, has retired.

Huefner won five consecutive World Cup titles before Geisenberger took over and began her seven-year streak of championships. Geisenberger earned medals 11 times in 12 singles races last year — six golds, four silvers and one bronze.

“We are so happy for you even though we will miss you this season!” two-time Olympic singles gold medalist Felix Loch of Germany wrote in a message to Geisenberger on Instagram.

Geisenberger has been in the top three of the World Cup standings in 12 consecutive seasons. She was third in 2007-08, finished second in each of the next four seasons, and then began her title streak in 2012-13.

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