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Olympic notebook: Meet Alaska’s Team Asterisk — and where’s Keegan Messing?

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: February 10, 2018
  • Published February 9, 2018

UAA’s Casey Wright prepares for her semifinal start during the freestyle sprint races during the Seawolf Invitational at Kincaid Park on Feb. 7, 2017. (Bill Roth / ADN)

She comes from the land Down Under. She goes to school at the top of the world. And now Casey Wright's world tour has taken her to the Olympics in South Korea.

Wright, a 23-year-old junior on the UAA ski team, is doing what she dreamed about as a little girl — competing at the Olympics.

Wright will compete in cross-country skiing for Australia, a place better known for swimmers and surfers.

"Despite what people may think, Australia actually gets snow, although only in the South East of the Country (where I am from)," said Wright, who was born in Alexandra and grew up in Melbourne.

"I started skiing as soon as I started walking."

Wright is one of four Olympians on Alaska's Team Asterisk — athletes with strong ties to Alaska but who weren't raised here or haven't established full-time residency here.

All of them came to Alaska to attend UAA. Wright is a current Seawolf and the other three are former Seawolves — hockey players Mat Robinson and Luka Vidmar and alpine skier Dave Duncan, who is making his third Olympic appearance in skicross.

Robinson, who played from 2005-09 and was a team captain, is on Canada's team. Vidmar, who played from 2007-11, is on Slovenia's team.

Robinson, who plays professionally in Russia, and Vidmar, who plays in Norway, benefited from the NHL's decision to not participate in the Olympics this year. Canada's gold-medal team from 2014 was an NHL all-star team.

Wright has a decent amount of international experience and has raced at two World Junior Championships and one U-23 World Championship. She qualified for the NCAA championships as a freshman and sophomore, posting a career-best 14th-place finish in last year's classic race.

And now, the Olympics.

"It's a goal I've been wanting to achieve ever since I was a little kid in any sport I had available to me," she said. "So to achieve it is just mind-blowing."

Adam Verrier, a 1994 Olympic cross-country skier and a volunteer coach for UAA, calls Wright "Skippy," a nickname inspired by the old "Skippy the Bush Kangaroo" TV show. Last month he blogged about the endless winters Wright has experienced as a skier from Australia:

"Growing up in the Yarra Valley, known mostly for its chardonnay, it was a long drive for skiing with the family on weekends during Australia's relatively short winters. Eventually she got to the point where she knew that if she was going to really improve, she would need to leave home and follow the snow — in the northern hemisphere for our winters and then returning to Australia for their own winters. By Skippy's account, she had strung together eight straight winters without a summer by the time she joined us here in Alaska a couple years ago and enjoyed a little warm summer weather for a change."

Wright, Robinson and Vidmar join a growing list of UAA athletes who have competed at the Olympics.

Headlining the list is Hansi Gnad, UAA's great basketball center from 1983-87 who was the captain of Germany's team at the 1992 Summer Olympics — the Olympics of the original Dream Team.

The 6-foot-11 Gnad guarded 7-foot Patrick Ewing during Germany's 111-68 loss to the star-studded U.S. team, which won every game by more than 40 points. Germany didn't win a medal, but Gnad met his wife, a member of Germany's handball team, at the Barcelona Games.

Other UAA athletes who have competed at the Olympics include cross-country skiers Lars Flora (2002, 2006) and siblings Sadie and Erik Bjornsen (2014, 2018) who were both All-Americans in cross-country skiing for UAA before joining Alaska Pacific's nordic ski team; and alpine skiers Anna Berecz (2010 and 2014, Hungary), Daniela Anguita (2006, Chile) and Martins Onskulis, a redshirt on this year's team who joined the Seawolves after representing Latvia at the 2014 Sochi Games.

Additionally, a couple of Olympians coached at UAA after completing their international careers — Bill Spencer, a cross-country skier at the 1988 Winter Olympics, and Sara Studebaker, a biathlete at the 2010 and 2014 Winters Olympics.

And there's at least two former UAA cross-country skiers who are coaching at the Olympics this year — Erik Flora, the head of APU's program, and Andy Liebner of Soldotna, a coach for Mexico.

Social networking

Reactions, insights and puns shared on social media by Alaska Olympians:

— Snowboarder Rosie Mancari: "Photos couldn't begin to capture the unbelievable opening ceremonies experience, but we tried our best. Tonight really put the Olympic journey into perspective and I couldn't be more humbled and inspired to make the most out of being here."

— Cross-country skier Sadie Bjornsen: "My first ever opening ceremonies was pretty amazing! What a feeling to celebrate the world putting all their differences aside and walking together for the next 15 days."

— Cross-country skier Kikkan Randall: "Got my first try at these #pyeongchang2018 Olympic courses and they are tough! Skiathlon was a mixed bag for me but a best-ever US Women's finish for our favorite sparkle chipmunk @jessiediggins in 5th!"

— Cross-country skier Tyler Kornfield, who turned 27 on the day of the Opening Ceremonies: "Best birthday party ever!"

— Cross-country skier Reese Hanneman, who stopped in Seoul on his way to Pyeongchang: "running twice a day is good for the seoul."

Where’s Keegan Messing?

Girdwood's Keegan Messing didn't compete in figure skating when competition began Thursday, but never fear.

Messing will compete in next week's men's singles short and long programs. What's happening this week is the team competition, which was introduced at the 2014 Olympics.

In team competition, each country enters one man, one woman and one pairs team, and their results are combined into a team score. Canada opted to enter national champion and 2014 Olympic silver medalist Patrick Chan, who beat Messing at the Canadian national championships last month.

Both men will compete in the short program on Thursday, Feb. 15, and the long program on Friday, Feb. 16.

The best of Johnny Weir

NBC's coverage is never better than when Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski are providing commentary.

So many skaters use the theme song from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" as their music that it has become something of a cliché, as Weir noted Thursday when a pairs team from China skated to it.

"The first 'Swan Lake' of the 2018 Olympics," he sighed.

But because this is Johnny Weir, there was more: The swan, he told viewers, is the city bird of Gangneung, where the figure skating competition is happening.

Which made us wonder. The ptarmigan is Alaska's state bird, but are there any towns or villages here that have city birds? Does Chicken have a city bird?

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