Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi is latest female athlete at risk in home country

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MORIOKA, Japan (AP) — Days after Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi caused an international incident by not wearing a her country’s mandatory headscarf while competing abroad, her fate is top of mind for the world’s best climbers.

“It has made me ill — nauseous,” said American Brooke Raboutou, speaking to The Associated Press on Friday at a World Cup climbing event in northern Japan.

“I support her 100 percent and I’d like to think I can speak on behalf of most of the athletes,” she added. “I’ve reached out to her, just asking if there is anything we can do to help, to support. I know that she’s fighting a really hard battle and doing what she can to represent the women in her country.”

Raboutou said she had not received a reply.

Rekabi, 33, competed Sunday without her headscarf, or hijab, in Seoul during the finals of the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship. She was immediately embraced by those supporting the weekslong demonstrations in her country over the hijab that increasingly include calls for the overthrow of the country’s theocracy.

She returned home to a crowd of cheering protesters, including women not wearing the required head covering. In an emotionless interview before leaving the airport terminal, she told state television that competing without her hair covered was “unintentional.”

Sports in Iran, from soccer leagues to Rekabi’s competitive climbing, broadly operate under a series of semi-governmental organizations. Women athletes competing at home or abroad, whether playing volleyball or running track, are expected to keep their hair covered as a sign of piety. Iran makes such head coverings mandatory for women, as does Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Rekabi’s act of what seemed to be open defiance has been described as a lightning-rod event in Iran. Activists say it lends support to the antigovernment protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the country’s morality police over what she was wearing.

In the tight-knit climbing community, she’s become an inspiration for many athletes who barely know her — or only know of her.

“I feel I cannot understand how it feels,” French climber Oriane Bertone said. “Athletes from that country (Iran) are obligated to wear something. I feel like this is something she did knowing perfectly that she was risking something. And that must have been really hard.

“We’re trying to be her voice because it’s not only concerning her, it’s concerning everyone in the country,” Bertone added.

Bertone was asked if she believes Rekabi is safe.

“She’s definitely not. She’s not safe right now,” Bertone said. “When we watched the (television) interview she did, she was trembling.”

Rekabi’s case has drawn comparisons to that of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai.

Peng wrote publicly a year ago about being sexually assaulted by a former high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official. She quickly disappeared from public view, tried to recant, and is reported to have come under crushing pressure as China was preparing to hold the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. She is rarely seen in public and doesn’t leave China, although she took part in some orchestrated events around the Olympics.

Then there’s sprinter Krystsina Tsimanousksya. She criticized her Belarusian team officials, then was forced to flee to Poland during last year’s Tokyo Olympics. She feared returning home and now has Polish citizenship.

Iranian athletes did not compete at the climbing event in Japan. The field was made up of largely Europeans, Americans and Japanese. The only athletes from a Muslim-majority country were two brothers from Indonesia.

The International Federation of Sport Climbing, the government body, has echoed similar statements made by the International Olympic Committee, saying it has assurances that Rekabi “will not suffer any consequences and will continue to train and compete.”

Neither the IOC nor the climbing federation has said how it will track how Rekabi is treated in Iran.

The IOC and its President Thomas Bach have repeated similar messages in the cases of Peng and the Belarusian-Polish sprinter. Bach has been criticized for looking away from well-documented human-rights abuse in Olympic host countries like China and Russia. Both nations spent billions to host recent Winter Olympics — while other nations have backed out of bids because of high costs.

American Natalia Grossman said other climbers at the event in Japan were thinking of Rekabi, and trying to find ways to support her. She said she did not know Rekabi well and had “not talked to her too much. But everyone in the climbing community is close in one way or another.”

Grossman said she wasn’t certain if Rekabi intentionally competed without the hijab. But she has her suspicions.

“I can’t know because I’m not her and I haven’t spoken to her,” Grossman said. “But every day you wear it, and you just don’t forget one day.”

Like several other climbers, Grossman argued that sports and politics could not be separated — and shouldn’t be.

“I don’t really think you can keep them apart,” she said. “I don’t think we should have to keep them apart. You should be able to make whatever statement.”

Japanese climber Miho Nonaka, who won an Olympic silver medal a year ago in Tokyo, said she was trying to understand Rekabi’s plight.

“There is some physical distance, so in terms of actual support, I think the most immediate thing I can do is share it on (social media) as much as possible, or obtain the correct information and spread it to many people,” she said in Japanese.

Marco Vettoretti, a spokesman for the climbing federation, described the climbers as “a young, cohesive and a diverse group.”

“We have Muslim athletes competing almost everywhere,” he said. “But it’s bigger than us sometimes. You try to respect everyone. Then sometimes it’s bigger than the athletes. It’s bigger than us when it comes to religion and politics.”

Vettoretti said the climbing federation expected Rekabi to be back competing in the northern hemisphere this spring.

Japanese climber Ai Mori seemed to have the same expectation, addressing her best wishes to the Iranian.

“You are not wrong,” she said in Japanese. “So do your best to come back to climbing to compete again. We’ll be waiting for you.”

Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.