Beijing Winter Olympics: The top storylines in women’s sports

0 Comments

With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics set to begin in 100 days – the Opening Ceremony is scheduled for Friday, February 4, 2022 – here are a few of the biggest storylines in women’s sports. 

A Winter Olympic record: 45% of Olympians will be women

Over 45 percent of the athletes at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will be women, a record for the Winter Olympic Games. At the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, women comprised 41 percent of competitors.

Why don’t the Winter Olympics have a 50-50 gender balance?

While the gender gap is closing, men still have more events on the Olympic Winter Games program (51), compared to 46 for women. Men also compete in nordic combined, the only Olympic sport – summer or winter – not open to women.

RELATED: Not every Olympic sport is open to women (or men)

Ice hockey also contributes to the gender balance discrepancy. The 2022 men’s Olympic hockey tournament will include 12 teams (300 players), while the women’s tournament will feature 10 teams (230 players) – though that’s an increase from the eight women’s hockey teams that competed in 2018.


Women’s hockey: USA-Canada rivalry remains fierce, with a twist

Since women’s hockey debuted on the Olympic program in 1998, all but one gold medal game has come down to the United States and Canada. That tradition appears likely to continue in Beijing.

The U.S. women will enter the 2022 Winter Olympics as the defending Olympic champions, while the Canadians won the most recent world title. Earlier this week, Canada defeated the U.S. 3-2 during the second stop of this fall’s “My Why Tour.”

That said: don’t count out Finland. The Finns have consistently challenged for bronze, and in 2019, they almost won the world title (losing only after a controversial call).

While the Americans and Canadians remain bitter rivals on the ice, players from both teams have been working closely together off the ice to create a sustainable women’s pro league that pays a living wage.

In May 2019, over 200 women’s hockey players (including every post-grad member of the current U.S. and Canadian national teams) announced that they would not play in any North American league, essentially boycotting the NWHL (since rebranded as the PHF).

While the NWHL/PHF is about to start its seventh season, the league has not included any current U.S. or Canadian national team players since 2019. Instead, players from both teams – as well as Noora Raty from Finland and Iya Gavrilova from Russia, banded together to form the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA).

That said, the PWHPA isn’t a league. Instead, it was created to provide athletes with training opportunities “until they have a professional league” that provides a liveable wage and insurance coverage.

“We have the same dream, so on the ice, it’s going to get feisty,” said Canadian legend Marie-Philip Poulin. “When the on-ice part is done, we know what we want to do: create a league for the next generation.”

“We know what we deserve. And we can’t settle for anything less than that because if we do, that means the next generation has to suffer as well,” said American Kendall Coyne Schofield. 


Alpine skiing: Already among the greatest, Mikaela Shiffrin continues to cement legacy

Since claiming two medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Mikaela Shiffrin‘s resume has only gotten longer. In 2019, she won her third career overall World Cup title (the most prestigious honor in alpine skiing) and became the first skier to ever win four straight world titles in the same discipline.

Shiffrin has also experienced a tremendous loss. In February 2020, her father Jeff died following an accident at the family’s Colorado home. Shiffrin has been open about her grief since her father’s death, telling the Washington Post, “It takes all of your physical and mental and emotional energy in the beginning just to wake up and get out of bed. And then to get through half a day without completely breaking down.”

On the slopes, Shiffrin has continued to impress. She left the 2021 World Championships with a career-best haul: four medals in four events (gold in the combined, silver in the giant slalom, and bronze in the super-G and slalom).

This past weekend, the-26-year-old kicked off the 2021-22 World Cup season with a giant slalom win on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria. The win marked Shiffrin’s 70th World Cup victory. Only two other skiers have previously achieved the 70-win feat: Ingemar Stenmark (86 wins) and Lindsey Vonn (82 wins).

At the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Shiffrin has the potential to contend in all five Olympic alpine events. While the Colorado native has long been known for her technical prowess in the slalom and giant slalom, she also plans to ski more speed events (downhill and super-G) this season.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: The impact of climate change? These winter Olympians have seen it


Figure skating: Russian ladies could sweep the Olympic podium

For Russia’s female figure skaters, making their country’s three-women Olympic roster will likely be more difficult than winning a medal at the Olympics. The Russian delegation swept the podium at the 2021 World Championships and could repeat the feat at the Winter Olympics. (Note: Just like at the Tokyo Olympics, Russian athletes in Beijing will represent the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). This sanction was imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) as a result of a state-sponsored doping program.)

Earlier this fall, 17-year-old Russian skater Aleksandra Trusova became the first woman ever to land five quads in a program (a rare feat even in men’s figure skating). Over the weekend, she won Skate America with a watered down free skate that included only one quad.

Trusova’s top competitors – and countrywomen – include 15-year-old Kamila Valiyeva, 2021 world champion Anna Shcherbakova, 2020 European champion Aliona Kostornaya, and 15-year-old Maya Khromykh. All five train together in Moscow under the same coach: Eteri Tutberidze.

Tutberidze previously coached Yevgenia Medvedeva to two world championship titles and Alina Zagitova to the 2018 Olympic title.

Meanwhile, the top American woman is likely to be 16-year-old Alysa Liu. The California native won her first U.S. national title at age 13, making her the youngest champion in the event’s history.


Freeskiing: San Francisco native Eileen Gu expected to be one of China’s biggest stars

Freeskier Eileen Gu will enter the Winter Olympics as the reigning world champ in both slopestyle and halfpipe, and as one of the host nation China’s biggest medal hopes. The 18-year-old freeskier should contend in three events: slopestyle, big air, and halfpipe.

RELATED: Eileen Gu becomes first female freeskier to land double cork 1440 (video)

Gu was born in San Francisco and initially competed for the United States, but announced in 2019 that she would be switching her national affiliation in order to represent China. Gu, who is fluent in Mandarin, grew up taking yearly trips to China with her mother Yan, who was born in Beijing.


Cross-country skiing: Already a pioneer, Jessie Diggins could make more Olympic history for Team USA

Cross-country skier Jessie Diggins has already made plenty of history for the United States. At the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, Diggins and teammate Kikkan Randall won the U.S. team’s first ever gold medal in cross-country skiing. Last season, the Minnesota native became the first American to win both the Tour de Ski and the overall World Cup title.

Diggins has also become more outspoken about some of the topics that matter most to her, from raising awareness about eating disorders to calling for action on climate change.

At this February’s Winter Olympics, Diggins could become the first American (of any gender) to win more than one Olympic medal in cross-country skiing.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Five women to watch at the 2022 Winter Paralympics


Bobsled: No longer rivals, Elana Meyers Taylor and Kaillie Humphries hope to compete for the same team

With three Olympic medals each, pilots Elana Meyers Taylor and Kaillie Humphries are currently tied for most decorated woman in Olympic bobsled history.

Humphries previously represented Canada, but the two-time Olympic gold medalist departed the federation in 2019 after filing a complaint alleging verbal and mental harassment by Canada’s bobsled coach. While she has since gained the right to compete for the United States in most international bobsled competitions, she doesn’t currently have U.S. citizenship – which could prevent her from competing at the Winter Olympics in February.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can to make this happen as fast as we can, but it’s still an unknown at this point,” Humphries said at the Team USA media summit last week.

Even before Humphries moved to the United States, her rivalry with Meyers Taylor was always friendly. “If I can’t win I truly do hope she is the one to do so, and I know she feels the same way about me,” Humphries told the CBC in 2017.

Meyers Taylor has also dealt with some life changes since 2018. She and husband Nic Taylor welcomed son Nico in February 2020. Nico has Down syndrome and profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.

With both Elana and Nic trying to make the 2022 U.S. Olympic team (Nic is a bobsled brakeman), figuring out how to balance both of their training schedules – along with Nico’s therapies – has been a challenge, especially during the pandemic.

“It’s been quite an adventure the whole time,” Meyers Taylor said. “Figuring out how to train, how to breastfeed, how to do all these different things, how to travel around the world.”

Women’s bobsled will also debut a new Olympic event in 2022, though it is not the one Humphries or Meyers Taylor initially wanted. While both athletes advocated for the addition of a four-women event (to match the men’s program), a monobob event was added instead.

While Meyers Taylor and Humphries both appreciate that female pilots now have the chance to win two Olympic medals, they believe the talented pool of brakewomen behind them also deserve the same opportunity. “The work’s not done,” Meyers Taylor said.

MORE BOBSLED NEWS: Meyers Taylor and Humphries lead U.S. women’s bobsled team for Beijing


Snowboarding: After two-year hiatus, Chloe Kim still dominates the halfpipe

Between 2019 and 2021, Olympic halfpipe gold medalist Chloe Kim took nearly two years off from competition. While away, the California native healed up a broken ankle and enrolled at Princeton for her freshman year.

Kim enjoyed the time away so much that she wasn’t initially sure she would ever compete again. Eventually, though, the 21-year-old found herself longing to return to the snow.

“I just had the same emotions I did when I was 14, excited to get out there, excited to try new things, and excited to push myself,” Kim told NBC Olympics research in September.

Since making her return, Kim has continued to impress, winning the halfpipe title at both the 2021 World Championships and 2021 X Games.

Earlier this year, Kim – along with Alex Morgan, Sue Bird, and Simone Manuel – helped launch TOGETHXR, a media and commerce company dedicated to women’s sports, lifestyle, and fashion.


Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

The NBC Olympics research team contributed to this report. 

Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC defensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

Courtesy Diana Flores
0 Comments

Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC defensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Paula Moltzan talks first World Cup podium, being Mikaela Shiffrin’s teammate and unconventional path to the U.S. Ski Team

Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

0 Comments

When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC defensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin gets candid about grief, loss and finding motivation on the mountain

“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Paula Moltzan talks first World Cup podium, being Mikaela Shiffrin’s teammate and unconventional path to the U.S. Ski Team