With the Beijing Games less than a month away, Olympic hopefuls are facing a unique winter challenge — making the team without catching COVID-19 and ending up on the sidelines.
Already likely qualifiers Alysa Liu and the pair of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew from this weekend’s US figure skating championships in Nashville after positive tests. Canada had only one men’s and one women’s entry at last weekend’s World Cup bobsled event in Latvia since 11 athletes were in quarantine. And more than a half-dozen skiers missed the recent World Cup women’s slalom in Croatia after testing positive.
“We’re worried,” David Shoemaker, the Canadian Olympic Committee’s chief executive, told CBC.
This month’s international competitions are crucial for Games qualifying in the skiing and sledding sports where places customarily are determined by Cup placements. The pandemic has been playing havoc with those events, too. Next week’s men’s and women’s cross-country races in France already have been canceled. And some events that are being held, like this weekend’s Canadian figure skating nationals in Ottawa and the US long-track speedskating trials in Milwaukee, are being staged without spectators.
“We must do everything to ensure that the Olympic dreams of athletes are not taken away just days before departure,” said International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, who implored athletes to follow the COVID playbook instructions to the letter.
If they test positive before leaving for Beijing, an international panel of experts will evaluate individual cases and deal with them. If Olympians test positive once they arrive at the Games, they could face quarantines that would keep them from competing. Once cleared to enter China they’ll be cocooned inside a “closed loop” for as long as they’re in-country. All they have to do is remain bubble-wrapped until then.
In via petition
As expected, Liu was named to the US Olympic figure skating team along with Mariah Bell and Karen Chen despite not competing in Nashville. Liu is a two-time champion who earned the Americans their third women’s spot last fall and has the most competitive international program.
Knierim and Frazier also should be granted their Beijing tickets by the selectors on Sunday. They were defending titlists, the top US finishers at last year’s world championships, and among the top two American pairs during this season’s Grand Prix competition.
There’s ample precedent for petitions being approved. Todd Eldredge (1992), Nancy Kerrigan (1994), and Michelle Kwan (2006) all were put on the Olympic team based on previous performances.
Look for the Russians once again to win all four events at this coming week’s European figure skating championships in Estonia. Their women’s team of Kamila Valieva, Anna Shcherbakova, and Alexandra Trusova, the likely Olympic entrants, figures to sweep the podium as the Motherland claims its eighth straight crown.
Mikhail Kolyada is the men’s favorite and Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov should take the pairs, as should Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov in ice dancing.
Back for more
Winning an Olympic gold medal provides a powerful incentive to continue on for another quadrennium.
The 13 members of the US women’s ice hockey team returning from the victorious 2018 squad are the most holdovers since 2002, which followed the American triumph in the inaugural tournament in 1998. Hilary Knight, the squad’s oldest member at 32, was the youngest on the 2010 squad when she was a Wisconsin undergrad. Of the four women who’ve made four teams, three — Angela Ruggiero, Julie Chu, and Knight — attended Choate Rosemary Hall, the Connecticut prep school.
Drive for five
Shaun White’s chance at a record fifth Olympic snowboarding team in halfpipe, where he already owns three gold medals, comes at this weekend’s Grand Prix event in Mammoth Mountain, Calif., where the final spots will be awarded. Also in the chase is Kyle Mack, who won the big air silver in 2018.
On the squad already are PyeongChang champions Red Gerard and Jamie Anderson (slopestyle), and Chloe Kim (halfpipe). In the freestyle events, Games victor David Wise (halfpipe), runner-up Nick Goepper (slopestyle), and bronze medalist Brita Sigourney (halfpipe) are bidding for return tickets. Alex Ferreira, who took silver behind Wise in 2018, already has earned a berth.
Down but not out
An untimely backstretch stumble at the Milwaukee trials cost sprinter Erin Jackson a spot on the US Olympic long-track speedskating team. But she still can race in the 500 meters in Beijing if one of the two women who placed ahead of her — Brittany Bowe and Kimi Goetz — gives up her spot.
That undoubtedly would be best from a team standpoint. Jackson, who’s ranked No. 1 in the world, would have an excellent chance at becoming the first American to win gold at the distance since Bonnie Blair in 1994. Bowe, who’s favored in the 1,000, isn’t among the global top 20 in the 500.
Off the rails
Shocker of the World Cup bobsled season was German pilot Francesco Friedrich finishing 12th in the two-man at last weekend’s Latvian stop after his sled touched the rail after both starts. It marked the first time since 2017 that the reigning Olympic and world champion missed a Cup podium and the first time since 2011 that the Russians (Rostislav Gaitiukevich) won a race.
Friedrich was back on top in the next day’s race, though, and remains the clear favorite in both two- and four-man in Beijing.
US bobsled pilot Elana Meyers Taylor’s first two-woman victory of the season in last weekend’s World Cup also put her atop the overall standings by 41 points. It was Meyers Taylor’s first triumph in the event in nearly three years.
With world titlist Kaillie Humphries sitting sixth in the table going into this weekend’s race in Germany, the Americans are well-positioned to put two women on the Olympic medal stand for the second time in three Games.
Yes, the results were correct. Latvian sledder Tomass Dukurs did win his second career World Cup skeleton race last weekend on home ice in Sigulda, where he collected his first 18 years ago. The 40-year-old Dukurs edged his more celebrated brother Martins (who has 59 Cup victories) by .06 seconds after Martins’s sled slipped out of the start groove . . . The US Olympic luge team is all but complete after this weekend’s World Cup stop in Latvia. Zack DiGregorio of Medway and Sean Hollander earned the sole doubles spot. Emily Sweeney and Ashley Farquharson joined Summer Britcher on the women’s team and Jonny Gustafson and Tucker West claimed the two men’s berths. Unless the international federation gives the US a third entry on Monday the odd man out will be Chris Mazdzer, who won the silver medal at the 2018 Games and had a chance to qualify in three events. But he and Jayson Terdiman crashed in Friday’s doubles qualifying and Mazdzer was the lowest Yank in the decisive Cup race . . . Making his third US Olympic biathlon team is Sean Doherty of Center Conway, N.H., who dominated last weekend’s trials in Germany. He joins previous qualifiers Jake Brown and Paul Schommer, as well as fellow New Englanders Susan Dunklee (Craftsbury, Vt.) and Clare Egan (Cape Elizabeth, Maine), who made it based on last season’s results. The final two women and one man will be determined this weekend.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from Olympic committees, sports federations, interviews, and wire services was used in this report.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.