McKayla Maroney

What to watch at USA Gymnastics National Championships women’s competition

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The larger commentary surrounding this week’s U.S. Gymnastics National Championships may center on the lead up to Rio 2016, but in the year directly following an Olympic Games, the World Gymnastics Championships are comprised of individual events only, no team final, and the uniqueness of an individual world championships makes the gymnastics season following the London Games largely stand alone.

Take this bit of history: not a single woman on the 2009 World Championship squad made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. That included all-around champion Bridget Sloan and silver medalist Rebecca Bross.

This year is all about table setting for Team USA and identifying the potential (but surely not certain) foundation of the next Olympic team. Four women will be sent to Antwerp, Belgium, for worlds Sept. 30-Oct. 6. That makes room for two all-around gymnasts and two event specialists.

Podium training at the XL Center on Wednesday gave a peak into which gymnasts that team may be made up of. The women’s competition begins Thursday (8 p.m. Eastern time, NBC Sports Network and online here) and concludes Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC and online here).

The old guard came on strong with Olympian Kyla Ross, 16, assuming her new role as seasoned veteran. She looked even across all four events, showcasing her steady skills and her impeccable execution. Ross won last month’s U.S. Classic, a qualifier for this meet, and barring injury she should punch her ticket to Antwerp as an all-arounder by the end of the weekend.

Olympic teammate McKayla Maroney should join her. There wasn’t an “unimpressed face” to be found in her first competition since the Olympics at the U.S. Classic last month. There weren’t any Wednesday, either. Maroney doesn’t look like an athlete coming back from two leg surgeries in the last year. She is stronger than ever, showing improved power on floor exercise, in particular her double Arabian tumbling pass, which has caused her trouble in the past.

“It’s just been a lot of hard work, after coming back from the surgeries I had to do so much conditioning, more than I’ve ever done in my life to get where I need to be really fast,” said Maroney, the reigning world champion on vault.

Maroney trained all four events Wednesday but is competing only vault and floor to make the worlds team as a specialist with the goal of defending that vault title from Tokyo in 2011.

There were some surprises Wednesday. Lexie Priessman, the 2012 U.S. junior all-around champion, pulled out at the last minute due to an Achilles strain after looking great in early training sessions. This will effectively end Priessman’s debut senior year and open up the door for others to challenge Ross.

Like Peyton Ernst, 16, who won balance beam gold and all-around and floor silver at the U.S. Classic. The Kim Zmeskal protege showed up with even more difficult routines this week and plans to compete in the all-around.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Elizabeth Price. The 2012 Olympic team alternate was white-hot after the Games, winning back-to-back World Cup titles to round out her year. She fell off the radar after pulling out of the American Cup with a hip injury. Wednesday, however, she effectively “won” podium training, looking phenomenal on all four events.

Nonetheless, Price, who trains with legendary coaches Bill and Donna Strauss at Parkettes in Allentown, Pa., said she’s only been back training 2 1/2 weeks and will compete on only two events, vault and uneven bars (where the U.S. is weak). She plans on being able to do the all-around before the final selection camp for the World Championship team in three weeks.

One of the most anticipated performances Thursday will come from tiny dynamo Simone Biles. Biles, 16, burst onto the scene this year with her big, energetic smile and even bigger gymnastics.

A fan favorite, Biles boasts the difficulty to contend for a world all-around title and then some, however, she has yet to put it all together in high-pressure situations, falling at the American Cup and counting three falls before scratching the last event at the U.S. Classic.

Biles was clear in her goals for Hartford and Antwerp.

“To hopefully be top three here, to make the world team and be top three at worlds,” she said.

To get to Belgium, Biles must prove that she can hit her routines consistently over two sessions in Hartford.

Dark-horse contenders this weekend will be steady all-arounder Brenna Dowell of Odessa, Mo., and mega trickster Mykayla Skinner of Gilbert, Ariz., who is one of two women in the world currently performing a double twisting double layout on floor.

Even with all the new faces, the 2012 Olympians are poised to take the spotlight in Hartford, which they’ve grown accustomed to after walking red carpets, attending award shows, appearing on TV and penning books.

The Fierce Five will reunite Friday to be inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

All but Ross have turned professional, picking up agents and endorsements. Her focus remains on competition and retaining her NCAA eligibility — at least for now. The rising California high school junior may be the center of attention come Saturday, should she take the all-around title.

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Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin meet to discuss rivalry

Lindsey Vonn, MIkaela Shiffrin
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ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Over hot chocolate, Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin recently had their first real heart-to-heart chat.

Among the topics discussed in a New Zealand coffee shop were family, friends, “girl stuff” — as Shiffrin put it — and, of course, ski racing.

Throughout the season, these two American teammates could very well be at the top of the overall standings. Might come down to the very end, too.

No bitterness, they maintain. No nastiness, either. Just a robust rivalry.

“How will it be going head-to-head? It’s exciting to find out,” said the 20-year-old Shiffrin, who will be a big favorite in a World Cup giant slalom race Friday (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Live Extra) on home snow, along with two slalom events over the weekend. “If we were to go head-to-head, I have a feeling it could be one of those things where she’s not going to give it to me and I’m sure as heck not going to give it to her.”

For years, Shiffrin was touted as the next Vonn. Well, Shiffrin’s fulfilled those lofty expectations, capturing the slalom title at the 2013 world championships, Olympic gold in the slalom at the 2014 Sochi Games and then defending her world title last February in Beaver Creek, Colorado.

This season, Shiffrin ventures into Vonn’s territory by adding some speed events, beginning next week with a super-G at Lake Louise, Alberta.

MORE: FIS World Cup TV and live streaming schedule

Among those who believe Shiffrin’s ready for the jump to speed is Vonn.

“She’s just a great skier and she’s obviously extremely talented,” said the 31-year-old Vonn, who’s healed from breaking her left ankle three months ago in training and a bite on her right thumb that required stitches after breaking up a fight between her dogs. “She has such a great touch on snow and such a solid technique.

“I’m sure she’s going to do phenomenal in speed as well.”

High praise from Vonn, the four-time overall champion. Then again, she doesn’t see this rivalry as anything but healthy.

Being a decade older than Shiffrin, Vonn wants to be a “resource” for her young compatriot.

“We both have a lot of respect for each other,” said Vonn, the all-time winningest female World Cup racer who will compete only in the GS this weekend. “We’ll see how the season shapes up. It would be really great for ski racing if two Americans were fighting for the overall.”

The paths of Shiffrin and Vonn haven’t crossed all that much over the years. That’s partly because of Vonn’s serious knee injury, which kept her out of the Sochi Games. And when Vonn has been back, they’ve traveled in different circles since Shiffrin works so closely with the technical side.

That’s why Vonn invited Shiffrin out for cocoa during training over the summer. A chance to get better acquainted.

Vonn’s take on their meeting: “It was a really nice conversation. It wasn’t anything in particular. Just kind of a nice, easy conversation.”

Shiffrin was flattered a skier she’s long considered one of her idols wanted to sit down with her.

“Lindsey’s made more sacrifices than anybody else in order to get the job done,” Shiffrin said. “I respect that a lot.”

With defending overall champion Anna Fenninger sidelined by a knee injury and Tina Maze taking a break, that opens the door for a Vonn-Shiffrin showdown.

“If she beats me for the overall, you know what, cheers to that,” Shiffrin said. “It’s like, ‘You’re a really good ski racer and a really good athlete and there’s a reason you’re winning.’ Hopefully, I’ll be able to give her some good competition.”

Off to a great start. Shiffrin finished second in the giant slalom last month in Soelden, Austria. Valuable points, especially with Vonn skipping it to give her ankle more time to mend.

Shiffrin believes she can be on the podium in all three races this weekend. No American has finished in the top three during a World Cup race at Aspen since Julia Mancuso was third in 2011. What’s more, no American has won at this venue since Tamara McKinney in 1981.

“The podium is definitely a possibility. Maybe more than a possibility,” Shiffrin said. “But things have to line up.”

WATCH: Yuzuru Hanyu sets short program record; Wagner in medal territory at NHK Trophy

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Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu set the new short program world record – raising his own world record by about five points from when he set it in Sochi – to lead the men’s field at the NHK Trophy in Nagano, Japan.

The 20-year-old landed two clean quads, one in combination, and a triple Axel in front of a home crowd. In his other Grand Prix appearance, two of those three jumps received zero points.

China’s Jin Boyang and Hanyu’s countryman Takahito Mura sit in second and third place, respectively, though Hanyu has built a 10-point lead heading into tonight’s free program. Jin landed two quads and a triple Axel cleanly, a program that surely would lead in any other field, while Mura was clean, too.

By holding off the competition, which seems likely, Hanyu can clinch a berth into the Grand Prix Final, where he is reigning champion.

Richard Dornbush and Grant Hochstein are the only U.S. men in the competition, as Jason Brown withdrew due to a back sprain. Dornbush is seventh and Hochstein is eighth before tonight’s free program.

2015 Worlds silver medalist Satoko Miyahara of Japan leads the ladies’ field after the short program over the other Japanese skater highlighting the field, Mao Asada (currently fourth), and two of the U.S.’ skaters. Courtney Hicks is second while Ashley Wagner is third. Vancouver Olympian Mirai Nagasu is fifth.



Miyahara landed three triples in her short program, compared to Hicks and Wagner, who both turned out of their planned triple-triple combinations. Nagasu was relatively clean in her short program. Asada fell on her signature triple Axel attempt and singled her planned triple Lutz.

Asada made her return to competition this season after winning the 2014 World title but skipping the subsequent season. Both Asada and Wagner can clinch berths to the Grand Prix Final by winning medals of any color in tonight’s free program. More on that process here.



It seems it is impossible to discuss figure skating results without mentioning the Russian dominance in the ladies’ field; however, in the short program, their competitors sat a lackluster seventh, ninth, and 11th in a field of 11. Russia’s Maria Artemieva, Alena Leonova and Anna Pogorilaya each had at least one fall in their short programs.

Canadian pairs team Meaghan Duhamel and Eric Radford are in the hunt for their ninth straight international win and a Grand Prix Final berth – a feat made a lot easier after the withdrawl of Olympic pairs champs Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov of Russia. The Canadian pair leads over Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim of the United States, currently second, also looking for a berth with a medal in Japan.

Men’s free skate — Saturday, 2:30 a.m. ET (start order here)
Women’s free skate — Saturday, 5:35 a.m. ET (start order here)