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How WWE’s Gable Steveson became your favorite wrestler’s favorite wrestler

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How many 275-pound men do you know who can do a backflip?

While you’re ruminating on that seemingly trivial question, let’s take this thought exercise a step further: How many 275-pound men do you know who can backflip, capture the attention of Triple H and Ric Flair with their athletic prowess, win an Olympic gold medal and sign a multiyear deal with WWE before graduating college?

I reckon not many aside from Gable Steveson come to mind.

That’s because the tantalizing heavyweight freestyle wrestler is one-of-a-kind, a bona fide original.

“When and if I can win, put on a good show for America, that flip is coming,” Steveson teased to NBC Chicago of his signature post-victory backflip ahead of his awe-inducing run at the Tokyo Olympics in August.

In due time, the ultimate showman made good on his promise.

There’s a fine line between confidence and hubris, and Steveson walks it masterfully. The 21-year-old’s keen sense of self and his belief in his otherworldly abilities is what enabled him to cruise through the first three matches of his Olympic debut without giving up a point.

It’s a feat that’s particularly impressive when you consider one of his opponents was Taha Akgul of Turkey, the defending Olympic champion. Steveson — The University of Minnesota Gophers’ heavyweight, reigning NCAA Division I National Champion and winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy — made light work of Aiaal Lazarev of Kyrgyzstan in his opening match, taking only 2 minutes, 2 seconds to win 10-0. He followed that up with an 8-0 drubbing of Akgul before winning his semifinal match against Lkhagvagerel Munkhtur of Mongolia 5-0 to advance to the men’s freestyle 125kg wrestling final.

“He’s the best heavyweight wrestler to probably ever step foot (on the mat),” Steveson said of Akgul after their quarterfinal showdown last month. “But his time is up. I came here for business. I came here to win. … Ain’t nothing going to be given to me. I’ve got to go get it.”

And that’s exactly what he did in an incredible comeback win over Geno Petriashvili — the 2016 bronze-medalist and three-time world champion (2017-19) of Georgia — in the final.

Steveson was born in 2000, and America hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal in men’s heavyweight in his lifetime (Bruce Baumgartner, 1992). If you know his story, it’s not surprising that the Apple Valley, Minnesota, native would be the one to get it done.

That is not to say the Team USA standout’s mom set this all in motion by choosing to name her son after wrestling legend Dan Gable (Steveson’s middle name is Dan), who was a two-time national champion wrestler at Iowa State and an Olympic gold medalist in 1972.

Who am I kidding? That’s exactly what I’m saying. The whole thing felt preordained. Maybe that’s why the charismatic superstar was so fearless and brash about what he intended to do. He was born for it.

“You can see that when the lights get bright, Gable comes to perform,” he told the Associated Press. “And I think that’s number one with me. And I think that’s what people can expect with me wherever I go.”

If the wrestler choosing to address himself in the third person and the above quote gave you strong Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vibes, you’re on the right track. The pinnacle of athletic achievement, winning an Olympic gold medal, was just the first item on a long list of aspirations for Gable — a stepping stone on the way to his ultimate goal: Becoming a WWE superstar.

It’s not presumptive to say the wrestler’s plan to use the accomplishment to springboard his WWE career was a resounding success. On Thursday, Steveson signed a NIL deal with WWE that will allow him to attend the University of Minnesota for his senior year and defend the Division I national championship at heavyweight. WWE will also set up a remote training facility for Steveson near campus where he’ll learn the finer points of in-ring work with WWE coaches.

While only time will tell if he will eventually be afforded opportunities like The Rock or Steveson’s mentor, fellow Minnesota great and WWE champion, Brock Lesnar, his ascension to superstardom feels about as certain as a post-victory backflip.

“When you’re a kid, you don’t really know how to make it to the WWE, but when I got to the University of Minnesota, I learned how Brock went about things and how to make connections,” Gable told Gopher Sports.

“My relationship with Brock has been awesome. It’s outstanding that a guy like that has noticed me and has gone out of his way to be there for me and guide me in the right direction.”

It was never a matter of if Steveson would go down the professional wrestling route, but when. Which is the same energy I’m bringing to the question of whether we will ever get to see him face off with Lesnar.

Steveson has already made a ton of noise in the professional wrestling space without ever stepping in the ring. From appearing in the crowd at NXT TakeOvers and WrestleMania to waving at Vince McMahon on Twitter (and eventually meeting up with him at SummerSlam 2021 after his Olympic victory), Gable kept his name top of mind among the WWE brass and stars alike.

Then there was the famed picture of the Team USA standout with Roman Reigns and his manager Paul Heyman.

“The picture of me, Paul (Heyman), and Roman Reigns is gonna go down as maybe one of the best wrestling photos in history,” Steveson said. “Just because the path that I’m taking with it and the path that Roman Reigns has set in stone being a champion, that’ll probably never be defeated again. The path that Paul Heyman has done for wrestling. He’s probably the greatest spokesperson. (He’s going to the) Hall of Fame.”

Steveson’s expectations for his future are larger-than-life, but why shouldn’t they be? Thus far he has been a walking, back-flipping testimonial for the benefits of doing it big.



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Paralympian Deja Young-Craddock on Tokyo Paralympics 2021

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Deja Young-Craddock, a three-time Team USA Paralympic medalist, was born with brachial plexus, an injury sustained at birth that caused limited mobility in her right shoulder. She dominated in her first Paralympic Games in Rio, earning gold medals in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes. Young-Craddock, 25, currently competing in Tokyo at the 2020 Games, collected a bronze medal on Aug. 31 in the 100-meter dash. Ahead of her 200-meter dash event on Sept. 4, Young-Craddock discussed her depression, surviving a suicide attempt and walking away from an injury-causing automobile accident in 2016. The Texas native spoke to ESPN about how running, support from her family and working to heal physically and mentally have helped her manage life’s many obstacles.

There’s a lot of things in life I’m not in control of.

I’m pulled in a thousand different directions all the time. But when it comes to track and field, I’m in control of what I could do, when I can do it and how I can do it. That’s really what drew me in. I love team sports, don’t get me wrong. But there is something about doing something for myself, by myself, that is so empowering.

Running is freeing. It’s easy. It’s individualistic.

So, I stuck with it. In 2019 I went to an orphanage for the deaf and visually impaired in [Nigeria], which also happened to be a school. On the back of their uniform, it had a quote that read, “In disability, there’s ability.” That stuck with me. You are capable of any and everything that you put your mind to. And the biggest “no” that you will take personally is from yourself. I could have never imagined where this sport would take me, including becoming a gold-medal-winning Paralympian in my first Paralympic Games — something I didn’t even know existed until the year before I became one.

In 2015, I was a freshman in college at Wichita State University, competing in the 4×100 meter relay, 100m and 200m races. We host this huge indoor track and field meet every single year. Paralympian Tobi Fawehinmi and his coach were there. They saw my arm [which has limited mobility due to a brachial plexus birth injury] and thought I looked like I could be classified as a Paralympic athlete. When his coach approached my coach about it, my coach was kind of nervous about asking me. He didn’t want to offend me, thinking that I wasn’t good enough for the Olympics, but we hadn’t done our research yet. When I looked into it, I was like, “Wow.” There was a whole community of people out there that would understand me, would get me, and I had no clue about it my entire life.

Less than five months later, I entered my first Para meet. I was having one of the best collegiate and Paralympics seasons in my career. I made my first indoor conference team, made my first outdoor conference team, became an All-American on the 4×1 relay, went to the NCAA outdoor track and field championships. And my schedule didn’t end there. I continued to the 2015 United States Paralympics in Minneapolis. I didn’t know what I was doing there. I was tired but trying my best. I came in first at nationals. A couple of months later, the world team was announced, and I’d made it. I went to Doha, Qatar, and competed at the 2015 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships. I was thrown into the professional world as a baby. I came out with a gold medal in the 100m and a silver medal in the 200m, and I guess from there, it’s history. That was one of the best years, just because there was no pressure. It was literally just running.

By mid-2016, in the midst of my newly blossoming career, I began to feel overwhelmed. I had just turned 19, and there was so much going on all the time. I was in a major that I was not enjoying. I’d been gone so long with a busy race schedule that I wasn’t really socializing either — everyone kind of socialized together when school started, but I was isolated and misunderstood. It was my second year in this new state, and my closest family members were about five hours away. I felt all these emotions, and I kept trying to reach out, but not hard enough.

At that point in my life, it felt like I was in control of nothing. It was kind of this overwhelming sensation … of just, I don’t want to be alive because I can’t control anything. A month before the U.S. Paralympic team trials, I attempted suicide. Gratefully, I did not succeed. I eventually got the coping mechanisms that I needed and the help that I needed.

It was really hard. I was also on a very heavy antidepressant at the time. But I started to feel like I had a choice. My support system provided options. They let me know I didn’t have to compete. I can just chill, relax. There’s no pressure. They still loved me. They’re still proud of me. Or, I could go and see what happens. So, that’s what I did. Three and a half months after the attempt, I competed in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

It was amazing. I left with two gold medals in the 100m and 200m.

I knew I had to tell my story just because there are people out there thinking, “Man, I can’t do this,” or, “Man, I’ve tried to attempt [suicide] and did not succeed. Now, I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.” I was able to share my story and show people that you can get through this. I get painted as America’s sweetheart or perfect Patty, and I hate it just because I’m not perfect. I struggle, like everyone else. Yes, I won two gold medals, but you don’t realize what I’ve been through to get there. I went ahead and just said it [in public forums]. I feel like talking about mental health a few years ago was like talking about politics or religion in a professional setting. It felt awkward, like you shouldn’t speak about that or talk about it. I didn’t care. I was going to talk about it. I wanted to let it all out, because why not? Sometimes it’s going to be hard. I’m not perfect. I still have bad days. But at the end of the day, you can be your own light in your darkest times.

During one of the best moments in my life, I was about to be dealt yet another blow; 2016 was not my year.

After Rio, I went to Washington, D.C., met President Barack Obama and everyone at the White House when they hosted Team USA after the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics and Rio 2016 Summer Paralympics. Then, I went back to college. I was having fun with my friends. I remember going out for Halloween — I dressed up as a mermaid. I was having a good time and feeling like myself again. My sister was turning 18, and that was a big deal, so I told my mom I was going to drive down to Dallas and surprise her at her birthday dinner. I ended up doing that, and she was so happy. Me and my sister are best friends. It was our first time really being apart for that long. So, I went home and hung out and it was great. Being there made me realize I was homesick. I didn’t want to go back. I ended up staying an extra day but needed to be back on the road by 5 a.m. to make it to practice that afternoon.

I got up early, and it was raining. My mom told me to be careful repeatedly. I told her to relax. I’d done this drive lots of times. But this time, she was within reason to worry. I never made it to practice. I reached Oklahoma during my five-hour drive back to Kansas, but I was tired. I’m pretty sure I was [starting to] fall asleep behind the wheel. Because of the rain, my car hydroplaned and, as I overcorrected, began to flip and rolled into a ditch. There were no guardrails or anything. I landed upside down. Thankfully, there weren’t any cars around me. A nurse and a truck driver, who later cut me out of my car, were the ones who pulled over to help. I’m very grateful for them.

I had sutures in my face. I had sutures in my foot. Because my arm was pinned against my body and the door when I landed, I had a severe bone bruise to my left arm. I had a little bit of nerve damage in both of my wrists and a very small fracture in my right wrist. My arm was so swollen that you couldn’t see any of the bones. The circulation from my bone-bruised hips to my legs was really bad. I remember swinging my legs over the bed, and it was the worst pain I’ve ever felt. My legs were swollen. I looked at my mom and asked, ‘Why me? Why does this have to happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? Did I do something wrong? Why am I in this position?”

I went back down the rabbit hole of depression. I was mad. I was angry. I went through the seven stages of grief because I felt like I was losing myself all over again.

Having my mom, dad and sister there was really helpful. Being asked if I’m OK and talking about things helped. Going to therapy and continuing to be on my antidepressant was so important for me. At that moment in time, I don’t think I was capable of being able to do that on my own. I was really young and had just gone through two traumatic events within the span of the year. But I talked about things, stayed on top of things and got through it.

It was about three months before I could get back onto the track. Having that break really helped me reset. I needed just to step away because sometimes being a track and field athlete becomes a personality trait. Having that balance was really nice. Getting back onto the track was the best. I never thought I’d miss dry heaving at practice because I was so tired from doing repeats. I was out of shape, and I had gained weight, but I’d never been happier to be back on the track.

In the past couple of years, I’ve taken time to reflect, be grateful, take in gratitude, look forward to the future instead of comparing myself to the person from the past. I’m still the same person, but just better. That gratitude takes me a long way.

Now, I’m here in Tokyo. At first, I wondered if I should be here. If I deserved to be here. I haven’t had a great season. I didn’t know what I was capable of or what I was supposed to be doing. I was very sad. About two months ago, I was ready to quit. I remember getting home from a track meet in Arizona and literally lying in bed for a week, thinking, “I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I’m capable. I don’t think this is for me anymore.” It was kind of one of those things where I was questioning my entire career. Maybe I was going through a quarter-life crisis.

I went back to the training center, talked to my coach and realized I had to make a choice. My coach said he’d support me if I didn’t want to go. But I made the team for a reason. I’d gone back to the training center for a month, and I put all the pieces back together. I got here and after my first race, my prelim, I realized I deserve to be here. It doesn’t define who I am as a person whenever I cross that finish line. I know I still have supporters. I have people who still love me. I will be OK.

Knowing all of the sacrifices I made, I don’t want any of that to go to waste. I’ve been married for five months, and I haven’t seen my husband, maybe two of those five months. So constantly being gone and training late nights really made me put everything in perspective. I don’t want any of that to go to waste, so why not just leave it all out there? I have nothing else to lose. And if it doesn’t go the way I want it to go, I still put everything out there that I wanted.

The most important thing is, I have to finish. I have to finish for myself and not for everyone else.

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Simone Biles, on her competitive future and new business ventures

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After what she describes as a “unique” Olympic experience and a grueling extra year of training due to the pandemic, Simone Biles remains uncertain about what’s next for her competitive gymnastics career and a potential bid for the 2024 Paris Games.

But she’s more than OK with that.

Instead, she’s been enjoying her long-awaited free time with her family and friends, preparing for the upcoming “Gold Over America” tour and working on a slew of ventures with her sponsors, including her own collection of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) with Autograph that launch on Monday.

“[I’ve been] relaxing, resetting, working on these new projects,” Biles said. “Been in the gym a little bit here and there to train, but not too much. Just taking time off, enjoying life.”

Any training, at this point, has been casual.

“[I’m] still very much undecided [about returning to full-time training],” Biles said. “The most training that I’m thinking about right now is tour, because coming off of not only [an] Olympic year but an extra year because we had to train for five years, which was totally unplanned, your body takes a beating. So trying to recover from that and get through a tour.”

Biles, 24, earned a silver with the U.S. team as well as a bronze on beam at the Tokyo Olympics. An overwhelming favorite to defend her 2016 Olympic all-around title, she withdrew midway through the team competition citing her mental health, then withdrew from all of the individual events until balance beam.

Competing a routine with a lesser-degree of difficulty than normal on beam, Biles received a large ovation from the crowd that was in attendance and received messages of support from fans and peers around the world.

“I definitely felt that love and support,” said Biles. “So I couldn’t ask for anything else because I just wasn’t expecting that. I didn’t really know what to expect [ahead of the beam final], but to just feel the love and support and have everybody rooting for me, after everything that had gone on and not the way I planned, was so good to see.”

Biles said the Games weren’t what she expected, but she remains grateful for the overwhelming encouragement she received.

She even received a “heartwarming” text message from tennis star Naomi Osaka, the four-time major champion who sparked an ongoing conversation about mental health earlier this summer, which Biles admits she still needs to respond to.

“I’m so bad at texting back,” Biles said. “But she’s inspired me in so many more ways than just being dominant recently. I know she knows exactly the feeling that I was going through, so it’s nice to relate to somebody on that high level.”

It was Osaka’s involvement with Autograph and NFTs that got Biles most excited for the partnership. Biles is hopeful her collection will sell out in just a few minutes, like Osaka’s did.

She will then turn her attention to the tour, which includes many of her Olympic teammates, as well as other elite and NCAA stars of the sport. The tour gets underway on Sept. 21 in Tucson, Arizona.

“I’m most looking forward to seeing and meeting all the fans,” said Biles. “We’re going to 35 cities and that’s always super exciting to see and perform in front of the fans, especially without having a crowd in Tokyo. … It’s always really fun, especially if we have days off and we can explore the cities. And we’re like a family, so it is really nice to continue that journey and have a little bit of a party around the U.S.”

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South Africa’s silver surfer Bianca Buitendag inspired by mom’s cancer fight

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Competitive surfing consumed Bianca Buitendag’s every thought until her father’s sudden death in 2015 sapped her motivation. But then her mother’s two bouts with cancer inspired her to a silver medal performance at the Olympics in Tokyo.

Her mother’s struggle with colon cancer, which was removed, and then lymphoma, which she still has, reignited the fire inside Buitendag, which helped her in the final against gold medalist Clarissa Moore.

The South African surfer, one of only two people to medal for the country at the Games, was seeded 17th out of 20 when surfing made its Olympic debut, and her shocking place in the final was all she needed to confirm her decision to retire immediately afterward.

Buitendag, who often considered quitting the sport after her father’s death, says she only went to Tokyo at the urging of her mother, and didn’t ever contemplate reversing her decision to leave the sport behind her once the Games ended.

“I’m going to get emotional now,” Buitendag told ESPN. “During [the] COVID [pandemic], we did quite a few hospital runs. She went through chemo and stuff. … We were in the ICU and she was like, ‘I didn’t survive two cancers for you not to go to the Olympics.’

“I felt like I was bringing some positivity to her life and South Africa was also going through a wild time when I left. There were protests, looting and burning in Durban [following the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma].

“A lot of factors kind of contributed to my motivation. It really fuelled me [to] bring good news home, because there hadn’t been much in a long time.”

Those were not the only adverse conditions that spurred Buitendag on in the water. When news broke that a typhoon was heading toward Japan, Buitendag must have been one of very few Olympians, if not the only one, to see it as good news.

“My goal was to qualify [for Tokyo]. Once I did that, I was happy [and thought] it couldn’t get better than that. I definitely did not go to the Olympics to get a gold, silver, bronze or anything like that,” Buitendag admitted.

“The first few rounds were in very small conditions, which is not my forté, because I’m so much taller than any other girls. I was really struggling at the start, but I was trying to make opportunities that weren’t there — trying to catch all the waves I could find. I really worked hard in the first two rounds.

“On the last day, there was a typhoon that hit Japan, so the swell was huge. When I saw that, I thought, ‘Here’s a chance for an underdog like me. With the changing ocean conditions, it’s anyone’s game.’

“Everything just fell together. When someone needed a heat score in the last 10 minutes, they didn’t get it. I call it divine intervention, because I honestly believe it really was a miracle, but there were these moments when it could have gone either way and it just went my way over, and over, and over again — all in one day.”

Buitendag stunned seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore in the last 16 en route to the silver medal. Rather than a reason to reconsider her retirement, Buitendag saw this as the ideal moment to go out on a high.

“I made up my mind a long time ago [to retire]. I always promised myself that I would stop my career on a highlight. I don’t want to be one of those struggling athletes — I wanted to go out on a bang,” she said.

She did, however, lament fellow South African Jordy Smith’s absence in Tokyo due to injury, claiming that the conditions would have been ideal for him.

“It’s such a pity that he wasn’t there. He would have done so well in those conditions as well, but he’s got a good decade of professional surfing ahead of him and I’m looking forward to seeing him take down everyone at the next Olympic Games,” Buitendag said.

Asked if she foresees much development in South African surfing as a whole, particularly for women surfers, she said, “I hope now that the sport has been included in the largest scale of professional sports worldwide, that more resources would be available for prospective talents coming through the ranks.

“If that will happen? I can’t say, but I sincerely hope so.”

Buitendag was rewarded, after some speculation and controversy, for her efforts in the waves, as she and Tatjana Schoenmaker were awarded medal bonuses nearly a month after leaving Tokyo.

She said of the financial rewards for being an Olympian: “I actually haven’t heard much — not a lot of information, but in sport, you don’t really do it for financial gain.

“Whatever we get is a bonus. I’m obviously very grateful for all the support we’ve had from South Africa, but I’m not too bothered about it.

“I just had a fantastic time with the SASCOC team at the Olympics. They really made our trip wonderful and really looked after us there, so if it comes, I’m very, very grateful.”

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‘My mind wasn’t working’: What drove Julius Ssekitoleko to go MIA in Tokyo?

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Content warning: The following story contains descriptions of suicidal ideation.

On July 17, six days before the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Tokyo, reports emerged that Uganda weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko had gone missing from the team hotel, despite the coronavirus quarantine measures in place.

The East African athlete, according to reports, had left the team hotel in order to seek a new life, leaving behind his luggage and a note explaining his intention to find work, and vanished into the night.

He was found, four days later, in Yokkaichi, 105 miles from his hotel in Izumisano, and was promptly returned to the Uganda camp and flown back to his homeland.

On July 23, one month and five days after arriving in Japan, he landed back at Entebbe airport in handcuffs, with authorities taking a dim view of his attempt to abscond while on international duty.

For the next five days, while the likes of Sunisa Lee, Sifan Hassan and Tatjana Schoenmaker wrote their Olympic legacies, Ssekitoleko languished in a Ugandan prison, facing charges of attempting to defraud the government.

For some observers, Ssekitoleko was dismissed as just another athlete from Uganda who had taken the opportunity to go MIA when a brighter future presented itself overseas.

The weightlifter’s motivations and pressures, unknown to the public at the time, highlight another side to the Olympic Games, demonstrating the critical need for greater mental health support for athletes who may not have resources of their own.

Ssekitoleko detailed, for the first time, to ESPN the events that led up to his disappearance, and the pressures that evoked his thoughts of self-harm, and eventual flight from the hotel.

The gamble that didn’t pay off

Ssekitoleko says he headed to Japan on June 19 with a mountain of debt, having sold his motorbike — losing the income from working as a delivery driver — in order to buy weightlifting equipment.

The 21-year-old took a gamble and promised the owner of the property in which he lived and trained that he would return from the Games with the required funds to pay back the rent he owed.

He was fueled by the unrealistic, as it turned out, dream of future riches contingent on medal success at the Games.

“In Uganda, people are struggling, as was I,” he told ESPN. “In Kampala, if you don’t have land or a house, you have to pay to rent, pay to train, so I used to do that.

“[However] I wasn’t paying, and I told the guy, ‘I will pay you.’ I knew I was going to the Games, I knew I could do it, would come back, and it’d be OK, my life would have changed.

“I would have won there, and they would [have given me] some money. You see the guys who win the gold, silver, bronze medals, they got a lot of things; they got cars, they are going to build good houses for them.”

Disaster struck for Ssekitoleko after he’d already arrived in Japan, however. He says he was shocked to learn that he had been cut from the Olympic team and would not be competing after all.

Ssekitoleko, who had been a travelling reserve, seemed to be unaware that he had to wait for the final IWF rankings to be published before knowing his competition fate. He had not met the Olympic qualifying criteria.

“We reached there, and they told me at the last minute — three days before we were due to go to the Olympic Village — that I wasn’t going to compete and that I hadn’t qualified,” he said. “I didn’t know they could do this; that they could tell me I hadn’t qualified and couldn’t compete.

“I felt so bad, I had so much stress, because I had given myself so much time to prepare for these Games.”

The Ugandan weightlifting authorities said in a statement that Ssekitoleko had indeed been informed, before leaving Uganda, that he was not guaranteed a place and would need to wait for the final rankings.

The UWF statement read: “His qualification was pending announcement by the International Weight-lifting Federation (IWF) of its final qualified weightlifters to participate at the Tokyo Olympic Games. He had been duly informed and was aware of this position from the time he was set to leave Uganda for Izumisano, Japan.”

Compounding Ssekitoleko’s sense of desperation, he heard stories from people back home that his pregnant wife was being threatened with eviction due to the unpaid rent.

He added: “People were talking and saying that they’d thrown my wife out of the house. I was stressed when they told me about that.

“She’s pregnant and will soon give birth, and I was thinking that when I go back to Uganda, I would have nothing, nowhere to start. … It was a very big problem for me.”

Standing on a rooftop

With his misguided plan to pay back the accrued debt shattered by the news that he would not be competing at the Games, Ssekitoleko said that went up to the roof of the team’s hotel, where he considered taking his own life.

“On that day, a guy gave me a ticket and said, ‘You’re going back to Uganda,'” the young weightlifter recalled.

“My mind was not even working at that time. When he finished telling me and gave me my ticket, I just went straight to my room, sat down and started praying to God.

“I was thinking a lot of things: to kill myself, to disappear, or maybe I could get help from people. I left my room, I got outside — where we were staying was a very tall building — and I wanted to throw myself down, because of this pressure.

“I had nowhere. … If I came back to Uganda, where could I start? I wanted to kill myself.

“[Then] at the moment I was thinking of throwing myself down, I looked forward and I saw a train that was moving, and I thought, ‘Maybe instead of killing myself, I can get help for myself from people.'”

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Caeleb Dressel speaks to Stephen A. Smith about the intense anxiety he faced while at the Olympics.

Last gasp bid for a new life

Ssekitoleko says he then went back to his room to pack some belongings, fled the team hotel, and boarded a train to Nagoya, approximately 215 miles southwest of Tokyo.

“I went down, very early in the morning, at 4 a.m., carried my bag, and went to the train station,” he said. “I thought I would go to Nagoya, I knew this name from Toyota cars, and I thought there would be a lot of people there, I can get help from there.

“I had $100 I came with from Uganda, and went to the train station. I went to the [ATM] machine, they gave me balance for 2000 Yen and some coins and they gave me a ticket, and I sat in the train to Nagoya station.”

He concedes that he didn’t have a clear idea of how he would construct a new life for himself or raise funds, but he remained optimistic that through a combination of local generosity and/or work opportunities, finances would come.

He had weighed up going home to his pregnant wife, with no money, versus being away and earning money, and says he had opted for the latter: “I wasn’t worried [about not going back home] because I knew that if I got work, I could send them money and that their life and situation would get better.”

Living on the streets for the next few days after getting off the train in the city of Yokkaichi, and surviving off the bananas and donuts he’d taken from the hotel, Ssekitoleko began to take stock of his situation.

“In those countries, they don’t have animals who can bite you or affect you, so I just laid down in some clothes of mine, and slept,” he said. “I started to relax, because I saw other people and knew that I could get help from them, maybe I could meet people who knew English.”

On his final evening in Yokkaichi, he found an unlocked car and slept the night, before eventually being recognised by the owner of the car and accepting an offer of refreshment.

“I asked if he could help me, and if he had anything I could eat, or a bathroom,” Ssekitoleko said, still unaware that he was making headlines worldwide for his disappearance.

“He was from Pakistan, he knew English very well, and he told me, ‘People have shown me your photograph, they are looking for you.’

“I had my phone, but you know, if you don’t have signal, or Wi-Fi, or data … so I wasn’t connecting or communicating. This guy gave me food, tea, he showed me his bathroom, and I bathed. I told him I didn’t know where I was, so I asked him to take me to the police.”

Exhausted, and encouraged even by the prospect of a good night’s sleep and a warm meal in Japanese custody, Ssekitoleko says he willfully handed himself over to the authorities, and was soon reunited with the Ugandan delegation.

Returning home in handcuffs

Despite the weightlifter expressing his futile desire not to return to Uganda, he ultimately boarded a flight home on July 23. He was arrested upon landing and taken to the headquarters of the Ugandan Criminal Investigations Directorate for questioning.

After five days in custody, accusations that Ssekitoleko had misled the Ugandan authorities about his qualification — and therefore had fraudulently been selected for the Games — were dropped.

Some members of the Ugandan government have since criticised the handling of the Ssekitoleko affair, suggesting that he should have been treated with compassion and care, instead of being considered a criminal.

“It’s clear that Ssekitoleko was distraught after not qualifying for the competitions thus choosing to leave the camp,” said MP Martin Ojara Mapenduzi at a parliamentary hearing on Aug. 18.

“There’s [a] need to come up with a system to help support our sports representatives in all aspects of their lives and create a fund for them so that they do not engage in desperate actions.”

The athlete garnered support online too, with a social media hashtag #StandWithSsekitoleko doing the rounds, and presidential candidate Henry Tumukunde tweeting: “How many people can stand up & say they’ve been good enough to represent the country at a major sports event? Talent needs guidance & the right environment to be fully realised. This young man, Julius Ssekitoleko, needs a second chance. #StandWithSsekitoleko”

Ssekitoleko, who represented Uganda at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, remains disappointed that both his Olympic ambitions and his attempt to forge a new life for himself in Japan were in vain.

He says that he is determined that one day he will access the riches that are on offer to elite athletes: “You go to the Olympics, you win a medal, you come back to Uganda and they give you your money.

“I’m not going to stop this sport. I’m going to compete, I’m going to do my best, and I’ll prepare to go to the Olympics in 2024.”



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Blind Paralympian sprinter David Brown found clarity in just 10.92 seconds

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FIVE YEARS AGO, Paralympian and world champion sprinter David Brown walked out to the 100-meter final race at the Rio Olympics to a rousing crowd of Brazilian fans. He smiled, adjusting his blinders, trying to pick up on what the fans were chanting.

He cocked his ears as he slapped his thighs.

“Gomez, Gomez, Gomez,” he heard them say.

They were cheering for his main opponent and crowd favorite — Brazil’s Felipe Gomez.

“What the … ?” he remembered thinking to himself. “It was time to put the smackdown down.”

At the same time, his running guide, Jerome Avery, who was right by his side, said, “You ready, David?”

“Oh, I am ready,” David responded, smiling.

Avery held Brown’s hand and walked him down the track about 40 meters, and then lifted his hand, pointing to where Brown’s mother was seated. Brown waved, then walked back with Avery to the starting point.

Avery pulled out a rope with two hoops on either end. The rope connected the two runners, one who is running for a Paralympic gold, and another who is helping him see the track and the finish line. Avery hooked his right hand to the hoop. Brown hooked his left hand to the other end.

The starter’s gun went off and with it the T11 sprinters — a designation given to runners with a visual impairment who need a guide to race. There was one sprinter who led the pack the entire race, but didn’t know he won until it was whispered in his ears. He became a Paralympic gold medalist and a record holder with a time of 10.92 seconds, breaking the 11-second mark, an astonishing feat that still stands.

Eleven seconds later, fans, including his family, were yelling, “David, David, David.”

Avery yelled, “You did it, man. You won gold,” jumping on Brown’s back, the U.S. flag in his arms.

Brown made his way over to his mother and sister, placing his fingers on their faces, feeling for their reactions. They cried in happiness, holding him.

At age 23, 10 years after he completely lost his eyesight, Brown became a gold medalist. The world’s fastest blind man, who will compete for back-to-back gold medals at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, which start this week.

“I had goosebumps all over,” he recalled.

He also had a secret, which only a few members of his family also knew: Brown was fortunate just to be alive to compete, let alone win a gold medal.

Hardship and sacrifice

BROWN WAS 15 months old when he was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease, a rare syndrome that results in inflamed blood vessels. He had glaucoma in both eyes as a result, and by the age of 3, Brown lost vision in his left eye. He didn’t have a prosthetic eye implanted until he was 9 and was often bullied by kids, he said.

“For six years, I was walking around with a hole in my eye [socket] — and kids can be mean,” he said.

Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Brown spent years being terrified of either extremes — afraid to go outside because it was too bright and also being afraid of the indoors because it was too dark. When he did go outside, he was terrified to play, because he couldn’t anticipate or gauge a ball hitting him in the face. He stuck to areas he had spent days memorizing.

The same year, 2001, another tragedy struck. The grandmother who raised him died.

The following years, Brown struggled to cope, not knowing how to handle the loss of the one person who made him feel safe.

Two years later, his mother enrolled him in the Missouri School of the Blind, moving their entire family, including her sister, to St. Louis for Brown’s education. For five months, Brown watched his mother try to find a new job and a place to live and resolve conflicts with Brown’s aunt, who was a year older than him.

He blamed himself and his challenges for all the problems his family faced.

Then at age 13, he lost vision in his other eye.

“I ended up snapping,” Brown said. “I just didn’t want to be here.

“I attempted suicide when I was 13.”

He needed to change something. To find help. And that help came in the form of wrestling. The Missouri School for the Blind had a wrestling program, and Brown started attending it religiously. He loved it. It gave him discipline and purpose. He dedicated hours every day to wrestling.

“Having that avenue of wrestling — being able to go to the mat and bulldoze people — that was great,” Brown said.

“I applied wrestling to life situations — let’s say I’m wrestling somebody, I am constantly talking to myself, ‘Are you going to let this person push you around? Are you going to let life push you around? You know, you’re not going to let it pin you down, you’re not going to let it get to you. Don’t you break right now.'”

When he found time, he would run. It was a good way to keep fit and speed train — and he was good.

Brown says sports saved his life.

In 2008, he wrote an essay about his life — about his setbacks, and how sports helped him — which would get him all the way to Beijing, China, for the Paralympics, where he attended his first track and field event as a spectator.

That day put Brown on a different track, a different lane, a new goal altogether.

Newfound goal

THE MISSOURI SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND was invaluable in getting Brown to realize he could be an athlete. The 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing did something more important: It made him realize his dream all along: He wanted to be a track and field athlete, and a great one at that.

It made him realize he could make a career — and a life — out of it.

The Missouri School for the Blind, in conjunction with the Paralympic Games, organized an essay-writing competition for its students. The writers of the top five essays would be flown to the Paralympic Games in Beijing to learn about Paralympic athletes and to gain exposure. Brown made the list. When he walked out on the track in Beijing and was introduced to some of the blind runners he grew up reading about, he felt it in his bones.

He had found a new home, a new resolve.

“There were blind people that were as blind as I am, if not, worse,” he said. “I was like, ‘They are running and they’re not bumping into anything — this is possible.’ So it gave me a sense of hope and an idea on what could become of me.”

I’m fast. I can run this faster. I can beat them, too. I want to beat them, he told himself from the sidelines.

He went back to Missouri with a fresh goal. He started sprint training every day.

In 2010, Brown was invited to compete for Team USA in the relay event at the Penn Relays, the oldest and largest track and field competition in the country. The Penn Relays was also where he met Jerome Avery, a longtime guide runner, whose friendship launched him on the path to Paralympic gold.

“He was hungry. He was excited. I could see his bright future, and I immediately wanted to work with him,” Avery said.

They went their separate ways then, but reconnected in 2014, right when Brown was starting to put up some fast numbers in open races. Avery remembered a competition in 2014 with post-collegiate and professional runners.

“People were showing us sympathy — ‘aww that’s a great thing you’re doing’ — but then Brown went out and won the meet, running a 11.12 race, and breaking the American [Paralymic] record,” Avery said.

“He wasn’t running for sympathy.”

For two years, Brown trained with Avery, perfecting not just his running, but their technique as running partners. If they wanted to win a Paralympic medal, they needed to run seamlessly — two bodies in unison.

And at the Rio Paralympic Games, that’s exactly what they did, their legs and arms swinging like they were one body, not two.

Avery knew before Brown they had won an Olympic gold medal. He grinned as he crossed the finish line with one of the toughest runners he has had the pleasure to work with.

Even more special: It wasn’t just Brown who received a gold medal at the podium. For the first time, an American guide was also receiving a gold medal for his race (a 2012 Olympic amendment ruled that guides would also be given medals alongside their runners).

For Brown and Avery, it was a magical moment.

They should make a movie

BROWN AND AVERY walk onto the Staten Island Ferry, Brown using his stick to guide his path. The camera follows them as they sit down on a bench and talk about the Tokyo Paralympics. Brown says the 100 is the hardest race to run, “especially for blind folk,” because they have to be keenly aware. One misstep and they are out of medal contention, he explains.

Avery sets the scene for Brown. He takes Brown’s hand and points it toward the Brooklyn Bridge. They find a replica of the Statue of Liberty, and Avery describes the symbol of opportunity to Brown as he moves his palm across her face, her crown, her gown.

It’s a scene in the recently released short film “Untethered,” produced by the Swiss sportswear company On. The film is all about texture: Brown playing the drums, Brown holding onto the hands of a person he is talking to, Brown’s hands as they touch the field before takeoff.

Brown will pursue his second gold medal without Avery, who suffered injuries that have prevented him from serving as Brown’s guide in Tokyo. The COVID-19 pandemic also delayed Brown’s dreams an additional year.

But despite these setbacks, Brown has used this year to perfect his technique. He has trained extra hours in his home in Chula Vista, California, with his new running guide, and he’s confident as he takes aim at his own record.

“I am prepared. Now, it’s time to race,” he said.



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The biggest feel-good moments from the Tokyo Olympics

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TOKYO — Athletes didn’t have their family members in the stands cheering them on. The stadiums and venues were largely empty. There were nonstop COVID-19 protocols and restrictions — and a looming threat of testing positive for the virus and being deemed ineligible to compete in the Tokyo Games.

It wasn’t the Olympic experience anyone had dreamed about as a child.

But hundreds of athletes stepped in to be the support systems and cheerleaders for one another. There was little doubt the athletic performances would still be, well, gold-medal worthy, but it’s the sportsmanship and camaraderie that will be perhaps what everyone best remembers about these Games.

There were countless displays of it over the past two weeks, but here are some that we’ll be thinking about long after the closing ceremonies:


Biles as the ultimate team player

Simone Biles’ legendary career has been filled with memorable moments and unbelievable highlights, but the images of her in the stands at Ariake Gymnastics Centre night after night, loudly and enthusiastically cheering on her teammates, might be one of the most lasting memories of all.

After experiencing mental blocks so severe she had to withdraw from the team final after just one event, Simone Biles didn’t dwell in her own personal disappointment and instead turned her focus to her new role: hype woman.

She did exactly that throughout the rest of the competition as her teammates — Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum — stepped up in the absence of the superstar and won the silver medal.

The 24-year-old Biles later withdrew from the all-around competition, as well as the event finals in vault, uneven bars and floor exercise. Still, she was seen — and heard — at every competition cheering on her teammates, and even those athletes from other countries. She was frequently the loudest one in the building.

“It’s seriously cool to see her love and support, and her cheering us on,” said MyKayla Skinner, who replaced Biles on vault and won a silver medal.

“And I knew she was going to be the loudest one in there because she’s like, ‘I want you to make podium, I want you to medal.’ She’s just been so awesome in the last couple of days. And after everything she’s gone through, it’s really cool to see how strong she’s being.”

When Biles made her return on the balance beam on the final day of the competition, her teammates loudly and tearfully returned the favor as they supported her from the stands. Chiles was emotional as Biles earned the bronze.


Friends first, rivals second

Japanese skateboarder Misugu Okamoto had entered the park finals in first place and was looking to secure a medal in the sport’s Olympic debut.

But the 15-year-old couldn’t land her biggest trick and she fell to fourth place in the standings. A devastated Okamoto lay on the ground and put her hands on her helmet while visibly crying. She was clearly still distraught as she began to walk out of the bowl, and her opponents went to her side to lift her up — literally and figuratively.

They consoled and embraced her in a group hug, and then carried her on their shoulders. Despite her disappointment, Okamoto couldn’t help but smile.

Okamoto later told reporters she was “full of regret” over her performance but was “grateful” for her fellow competitors.


A gold-medal victory made even better

Round by round throughout the high jump competition, Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy were locked in a fierce battle that lasted over two hours. Both had perfectly executed their first six jumps up to 2.37 meters.

Neither was successful in any of their three attempts at 2.39 meters and an official proclaimed the next step in determining the gold medal winner was a jump-off. Upon hearing the update, Barshim asked, “Can we have two golds?”

As soon as the official said, “It’s possible, yes,” the two foes were locked in a congratulatory hug and celebrating their joint victory.

“History, my friend,” Barshim said to Tamberi.

The two have been close for over a decade — Tamberi was even in attendance for Barshim’s wedding — and it made the moment even sweeter for both men.

“He is one of my best friends, not only on the track, but outside the track,” Barshim said later. “We work together. This is a dream come true. It is the true spirit, the sportsman spirit, and we are here delivering this message.”


A world-record-worthy celebration

South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker had a dominant performance in the women’s 200 meter breaststroke to win the gold medal — and break a world record. When the result and time flashed on the screen, Schoenmaker was thrilled, and she began to cry while still in the pool.

Americans Lilly King and Annie Lazor, who finished with the silver and bronze medals, immediately flanked her to celebrate, as did Schoenmaker’s teammate Kaylene Corbett. Lazor could be heard saying, “So amazing — congratulations!”

Schoenmaker later said the camaraderie made the race even more memorable.

“I feel that it was such a special race, knowing that we could celebrate each other’s victories,” Schoenmaker said. “That the competition in the pool, and outside the pool we can be happy for each other, motivate each other, and say, ‘Good luck.’

“Sometimes, everyone wants to be focused, and you don’t want to take anyone out of their race. But it was nice that we could say, ‘Good luck,’ and knowing that we were going to give our all in that race, and then celebrate together.”


Showing humanity in disappointment

Rounding the final turn in his semifinal heat of the 800 meters, American Isaiah Jewett was ready to start his kick to complete the race when the back of his heel appeared to hit Botswana’s Nijel Amos. They both went down.

Their Olympic dreams seemed to be immediately over. The two men helped each other up, hugged and walked with their arms around one another to the finish line.

Their time was 54 seconds behind the heat winner, but Jewett knew it wasn’t when they finished, but how, that was the most important.

“Regardless of how mad you are, you have to be a hero at the end of the day,” Jewett said. “Because that’s what heroes do — they show their humanity through who they are and show they’re good people.”

Amos was ultimately reinstated into the final on appeal, and he finished in eighth place, but that’s not what he or Jewett will be remembered for during these Games.



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Tokyo Games again show what the Olympics are all about

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If ever there is a new motto created for the Olympic Games, one could make a very strong case for it being, “That’s what the Olympics is all about.”

Just look at these Tokyo Games. Over the past three weeks, we have heard “That’s what the Olympics is all about” used in reference to feats of incredible athletic prowess, like when Suni Lee soared in the gymnastics all-around, or when Sifan Hassan, the Dutch runner, tripped and fell on the last lap of her qualifying heat for the 1500 meters only to get up, stage an eye-popping comeback, win the heat and then go on to take gold in the final.

We’ve heard it used to describe heart-wrenching emotional moments, like Tamyra Mensah-Stock winning gold in wrestling, bursting into tears on the mat and later revealing that she was going to give most of her prize money to her mother so she could start her own business.

We’ve come to learn that sometimes the Olympics is all about an athlete showing incredible innovation, like gold medalist Jess Fox using a condom — yes, a condom — to repair her kayak. Or all about the quirky, like British diver Tom Daley sitting in the stands and knitting a perfect little pouch for his gold medal.

To some competitors, it turns out, the Olympics is all about the basics and nothing more: “To be able to stand on top of that podium,” said Australian swimmer Emma McKeon after she won gold in the 100-meter freestyle, “that’s what the Olympics is all about.”

To others, the Olympics is about something more visceral: “I think we’re ready for more kick-ass performances,” American Chase Kalisz said after he won gold in the 400-meter individual medley, because “that’s what the Olympics is all about.”

Kalisz, to be fair, may have a point — who isn’t ready for more kick-ass performances? — but these assertions about what the Olympics is all about are not definitive; they can only be added to the larger anthology of what the Olympics has been all about for years.

As far back as 1988, for instance, Team USA second baseman Ty Griffin postulated that “playing against the best” was what the Olympics is all about. In 1996, Dream Team guard Reggie Miller classified meeting Kerri Strug as “what the Olympics is all about.” An Australian sailor said the Olympics is all about whether a certain day’s sea breezes end up being “shifty and puffy and quite fresh.”

So what is the Olympics all about, really? Maybe Wolf Wigo, the American water polo player, was right in 2004. Wigo, while talking about how he had given up his full-time job and nearly missed the birth of his child because of the “suffering” he had put himself through in pre-Olympic conditioning, said learning “to push ourselves to the absolute limit” was “what the Olympics is all about.” Or maybe Shane O’Connor, the Irish skier, was correct when he said in 2018 that among competitors “there’s a huge tradition of pin-swapping here” at the Olympics and so, to him, pin-swapping is “what the Olympics is all about.”

The truth, of course, isn’t quite so simple because none of them is right and they’re all right at the same time. That is the beauty of the Olympics, the enduring grace of a global sports phenomenon that is often criticized (fairly, more often than not) for having become riddled with corruption and money and doping and farce.

The athletes are what save it, and we take from them what we need. We soak in their stories. Their passion. Their honor and wonder and class. Do you remember how you felt when you saw Ahmed Hafnaoui, a Tunisian swimmer, ripping through the pool and shocking everyone — himself included — to claim his country’s first-ever gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle? Or when Qatari high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim asked an official, “Can there be two golds?” instead of a tiebreaker, and he and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi stood next to each other atop the podium?

The Olympics give us that. They give us moments of clarity and depth and breadth. They give us an Australian swimming coach who celebrates like a banshee. They give us a Hungarian sailor who wins a medal despite coming from a country with no sea. They give us a magnificent swimmer from Alaska who sets the world on fire. They give us an Indonesian badminton player who thought her career might be over after disqualification from the 2012 Olympics only to win gold nine years later.

They give us a gymnast, the greatest of all time, who moved us forever when she stepped on the mat, yet inspired us even more with the strength she showed stepping off it.

On Sunday, at the Closing Ceremony, the Olympic flame was passed from Japan to China. The Winter Games in Beijing are only six months away. There will be controversy and consternation over the organization of those Games as well as the execution of those Games and even the basic existence of those Games — again, most of it absolutely deserved — but ultimately, there will be, too, those moments that bring all of us back.

Incredible dominance. Superior strength. Fight. Mettle. Grit. Courage. Laughter and joy and grief and pain.

A sprinter stretching for the tape. A wrestler reversing defeat to victory. A diver with seven perfect 10’s. A triathlete on his back at the finish line. A heptathlete pushing away a wheelchair, steeling herself and limping across the finish line on her own wounded leg.

That is what the Olympics is all about. All of it.



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Five-time Olympic gold medalists Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are ‘greatest teammates in history of sports’

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As the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals — leading the U.S. women to a seventh consecutive gold in the process on a historic final day at the Tokyo Games — Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi also solidified the title given them by the coach who brought the duo together two decades ago.

“They are two of the greatest teammates in the history of sports,” UConn’s Geno Auriemma said. “Even if you only used UConn, or only the Olympics, or only Europe. Throw in all three, and no one even comes close.

“If this is indeed their last Olympics together, winning a gold medal just got a lot harder [for U.S. women’s basketball].”

“If” might seem an unnecessary qualifier considering Bird turns 41 in October and Taurasi is 39. While Bird has said this will be her last Olympics, the backcourt duo has been at the top of the sport so long, it’s hard to imagine Team USA without them.

“We always say we’re lucky we get to do this together,” Taurasi said. “There’s this confidence and this trust factor you have.”

Perhaps they will have one last go-round next year at the FIBA Women’s World Cup. It’s the kind of thing Bird and Taurasi would consider, because they’ve taken their national team commitment as a solemn oath, as dear to them as anything in their epic careers. They played together two seasons at UConn and several years overseas in Russia. But their most iconic pairing has been wearing the red, white and blue of the senior national team through five Olympics and four World Cups.

Including Saturday’s 90-75 win over Japan, Bird has 10 medals between the Olympics and World Cup, more than any men’s or women’s basketball player. All are gold except the 2006 World Cup bronze. Taurasi is one medal behind her. Bird’s first came in the 2002 World Cup when she was a Seattle Storm rookie, and Taurasi was a UConn junior.

“They’ve done so much for USA Basketball that the rest of us players are just continuing to try and return the favor,” said U.S. forward Breanna Stewart, who is also Bird’s teammate with the Storm, “and make sure that they realize how much we appreciate them.”

A huge amount of talent — including four-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Leslie, and Teresa Edwards, who played in five Olympics — paved the way and helped the United States win nine of the 11 Olympic women’s tournaments they’ve entered, and their run of winning seven in a row matches the longest gold-medal streak any country has had in any Olympic team sport. But no players have contributed more to the U.S. gold haul than Bird and Taurasi: 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016, 2020.

“They’re a big part of the glue to the whole system,” Leslie said. “Once, they were the babies coming in. They were open to listening, respectful to the older players. That’s the culture.

“I believe they’ve carried the torch beautifully.”

There are many famous pro sports duos: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh Jennings. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

But Bird and Taurasi, who will one day both be in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, are different. What are the odds of two players from opposite coasts, born 20 months apart, ending up at the same college, then going on to be both good enough and healthy enough to stay at the top of their sport through five Olympic cycles? Both also complement each other so well: Taurasi is the WNBA’s all-time scoring leader who is also an expert passer, while Bird is the league’s career assist leader also known for her dagger-like shooting.

It has been a fantastic confluence of athletic talent, ambition, personality and commitment. One of the closest comparisons in basketball is Bill Russell and KC Jones, who led the University of San Francisco to two NCAA titles, won gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics with the United States, and then won eight NBA titles together with the Boston Celtics.

Bird and Taurasi came together at UConn in the fall of 2000: Bird a junior from Long Island who had won a national championship with the Huskies earlier that year and Taurasi the highly anticipated recruit from California. They lost in the 2001 Final Four, but nothing could stop them the next season. They defeated Tennessee so thoroughly in the 2002 national semifinals that Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt went to the UConn locker room to tell them they were one of the best teams she had ever seen.

Bird was the No. 1 pick in the 2002 WNBA draft, and was the understudy at point guard to current U.S. coach Dawn Staley in the FIBA World Cup later that year. Taurasi won two more NCAA titles and was a No. 1 draft pick herself, by Phoenix, and then joined Bird and Staley on the 2004 Olympic team. Their only loss in a major competition with USA Basketball came to Russia in the 2006 World Cup semifinals.

Each has been the longtime face of her WNBA franchise. Bird has won four WNBA titles in 18 seasons in Seattle, while Taurasi has three in 17 seasons in Phoenix. Bird missed two seasons dealing with knee injuries; Taurasi sat out one to rest after years of non-stop play between the WNBA and overseas.

The overseas part of their careers was far from the limelight in frigid Russian winters. They lamented missed milestones with family and friends back home, but it paid so well they committed to doing it. They played on three different Russian teams together and won five EuroLeague championships.

Bird said the few quarrels they’ve had didn’t come when they were playing at UConn or with USA Basketball.

“It was when we were in Russia,” she said. “At some point, you get sick of people, or an argument comes up that goes a little too far. Maybe a little too much wine. You take your space and then you wake up the next day and play. But we’ve had to apologize to each other before.”

Taurasi said she could count on one hand the times they truly have been mad at each other.

“And it’s probably over the dumbest s— ever,” she said. “We’re able to have different opinions but always come to an understanding of working through things. We take that attitude and put it into all the teams we’ve been on.”

Auriemma coached Bird and Taurasi in two Olympics and two World Cups, and said he is particularly proud of their longevity, and the mental toughness it takes to keep pushing yourself year after year.

Staley loves their maturity and dependability: “They’ve played everywhere. They’ve been through everything. There is nothing they haven’t seen.

“They want to play perfectly. They still want to be coached, and that’s an incredible thing at this level, when their intellect is off the charts.”

Bird said wearing the Team USA jersey still matters just as much to her, no matter how big her medal collection. At 15, she went with AAU teammates to see the national team playing an exhibition in 1995 while preparing for the Atlanta Olympics. Watching U.S. point guard Jennifer Azzi, in particular, inspired Bird, who called it her first “see it, be it” moment.

“I was like, ‘Here’s this player who is kind of the same size as me, same build, and she’s able to do this,’ ” Bird said. “And remember, there was no WNBA yet. So for us, in that generation, you were really looking to the Olympics as the ultimate goal.”

Bird couldn’t have known that 26 years later, she would be celebrating a fifth Olympic gold medal with one of her best friends. Both Bird and Taurasi have been “see it, be it” inspirations for countless kids.

Taurasi jokes that she deals with the weight of history, of her place in the game and all that she and Bird have shared by, “Not doing a lot of thinking. I’m very narrow-focused on the things I’ve got to get done.”

What they’ve gotten done has been remarkable.

So much has changed in the world and in women’s basketball over the last two decades. But the bond between Bird and Taurasi has been unchanging, bringing a sense of confidence and purpose to the national team that all who have played with them have appreciated.

“There’s certain people in life you just get along with really well, and you have so many shared experiences that you can relate a little more,” Taurasi said of her friendship with Bird. “That’s what the last 20 years have been like.”

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Alvarez is 6th to medal in Summer, Winter Games

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YOKOHAMA, Japan — Eddy Alvarez had to be consoled — scolded, even — after his first silver medal.

“My coach had to bring us together and make us snap out of it,” Alvarez said. “He yelled at us. … He basically said, ‘You know, you’re silver medalists.’ And that’s when it kind of hit me.”

The speedskater-turned-second baseman needed no such pep talk for silver No. 2.

Alvarez and the U.S. baseball team accepted their Olympic silver medals after losing the championship game 2-0 against Japan on Saturday night, capping a remarkable run for the 31-year-old Miami Marlins minor leaguer.

A silver medalist in 2014 at Sochi as part of the U.S. four-man short track speedskating team, Alvarez turned to baseball later that year — a path that ultimately led him back to the Games and another silver medal.

“Feels like déjà vu,” Alvarez said. “It’s just as heavy as the other one. Same color, little different design, but it’s still an incredible journey, an incredible experience.”

The U.S. leadoff hitter was assured his second medal when the Americans beat South Korea in the semifinals Thursday, becoming just the third American and sixth Olympian with medals from the Winter and Summer Games.

Alvarez joined Eddie Eagen (boxing in 1920, bobsled in 1932) and Lauryn Williams (track and field in 2004 and 2012, bobsled in 2014) as the only Americans with medals from Summer and Winter Games.

The others are Norway’s Jacob Tullin Thams (ski jumping in 1924 and yachting in 1936), East Germany/Germany’s Christa Luding-Rothenburger (speed skating in 1984, ’88 and ’92 and sprint cycling in 1988) and Canada’s Clara Hughes (cycling in 1996 and speed skating in 2002, ’06 and ’10).

“It’s hard to describe it, because it’s like bittersweet, but at the same time, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” Alvarez said.

“I had no idea this is where I was going to end up. Once I retired from skating, never in my wildest dreams would I ever think I would have the chance to come back to the Olympics.”

Alvarez spent seven seasons in the minor leagues before finally get a look at the majors. He debuted on Aug. 5, 2020, after a COVID-19 outbreak ravaged the Marlins’ roster, and hit .189 in 12 games.

The otherwise anonymous Triple-A infielder has been a marquee name at these Olympics. He carried the American flag along with basketball player Sue Bird at the opening ceremony, and he says other athletes have approached him in the village, calling him “the flag bearer guy.”

He backed up the hype once the games began. He entered the gold medal game hitting .350 with three RBI, then had one of the Americans’ six hits in the final, a night they couldn’t solve a quintet of pros from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.

Alvarez was the first U.S. player to receive his medal — teammate Eric Filia draped it around his neck. He lingered on the field after as Team Japan soaked in its moment.

“A little nostalgia,” Alvarez said. “I know that feeling a little bit. I know watching someone celebrate a victory of that magnitude is never a good feeling, because you know you’ve got to listen to someone else’s anthem.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re so close to winning and you fall short. But at the same time it’s one of those things that I know will hit me eventually, of how incredible and blessed I am to be a part of this.”

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