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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Galen Rupp, Meb Keflezighi lead U.S. Olympic marathon team

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Galen Rupp and Meb Keflezighi shared nothing in marathon running before the U.S. Olympic trials on Saturday, but the two men from vastly different backgrounds were together, alone, leading the race with five miles left.

Rupp, 29, pulled away to win in 2:11:12 on the streets of Los Angeles. The former Oregon Catholic high school prodigy became the first American to make an Olympic marathon team in his 26.2-mile debut since 1968.

Keflezighi, a 40-year-old born in war-torn Eritrea who moved to the U.S. in 1987, crossed the finish line 68 seconds later in second place. He will become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time in Rio in August.

Rupp and Keflezighi, the only U.S. men to make an Olympic podium in distances longer than 1500m since 1984, were so close to each other in their three-mile leading stretch that their Olympic silver medals could have clanked against each other had they been wearing them.

Keflezighi, in his 23rd marathon and in front of Rupp at the time, didn’t take kindly to the six-inches-taller marathon rookie breathing on him. He let Rupp know about it on the streets of LA.

“It’s not a track, the road is open,” Keflezighi recalled in a press conference, shortly before exchanging a laughter-inducing glance with Rupp, who fittingly walked in to sit on a stool to Keflezighi’s immediate right mid-answer. “It was not a very friendly conversation.”

Now Rupp and Keflezighi are U.S. Olympic marathon teammates. Along with Jared Ward, who finished third Saturday, 1:47 behind Rupp, to make his first Olympics.

Full results are here.

In the women’s race, Amy CraggDesi Linden and Shalane Flanagan were the top three, all returning to the Olympics, with Flanagan collapsing at the finish line. Full recap here.

Rupp and Keflezighi broke away on their own around the 20th mile. Rupp then dropped Keflezighi in the 23rd mile. The reigning Olympic 10,000m silver medalist fist pumped crossing the finish line.

“It was a bit of a change running the marathon, but there’s no bigger honor than being able to represent your country at the Olympics,” Rupp then told Lewis Johnson on NBC.

Dathan Ritzenhein, a three-time Olympian and a pre-race favorite with Keflezighi and Rupp, dropped out of the race around mile 20 in the hottest U.S. Olympic marathon trials of all time. The temperature at the men’s start at 10:06 a.m. local time was 66 degrees.

The Rio Olympic men’s marathon will be on Aug. 21, the final day of the Games. Keflezighi’s 2004 silver is the only U.S. men’s marathon medal since Frank Shorter took gold in 1972 and silver in 1976.

Rupp has said he prefers the 10,000m and might not race the marathon at the Olympics. If he doesn’t, the fourth-place trials finisher, Luke Puskedra, will move onto the team.

“I think [Rupp] is a 2:05 [marathon] guy, someday,” Rupp’s coach, three-time New York City Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, told media after Saturday’s race. (The fastest American marathoner of all time, Ryan Hall, clocked a best of 2:04:58 at the 2011 Boston Marathon.)

Rupp could contest two races in Rio, the 10,000m (Aug. 13 final) and the marathon, or the 10,000m and the 5000m (Aug. 20). Rupp finished seventh in the 5000m in London.

“I would say that the 10k is still my primary focus,” said Rupp, who would have to make the Olympic track team at those trials in Eugene, Ore., from July 1-10, in a USATF interview published Jan. 28. “Really, it just comes down to what I think I have a better chance in as a second event, whether that’s the 5k or the marathon.”

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Amy Cragg wins marathon trials; Shalane Flanagan collapses at finish

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No doubt Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan bonded as training partners en route to the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, escaping a black bear the clearest example.

They couldn’t have been closer after finishing first and third to make the Olympic team Saturday.

Flanagan collapsed in Cragg’s arms two strides after the finish line at the hottest U.S. Olympic marathon trials ever in Los Angeles. She was then helped into a wheelchair.

Cragg won the race in 2:28:20, redeeming after she finished fourth to miss the team by one spot at the 2012 trials. Flanagan came in third Saturday to make her fourth Olympic team, 25 seconds behind second-place Desi Linden and 58 seconds behind Cragg.

Full results are here.

Cragg, 32, waited for Flanagan at the finish line, holding an American flag, hugging Flanagan and then, suddenly, keeping the 2008 Olympic 10,000m bronze medalist from falling onto the pavement.

Flanagan, the 2012 trials winner and a pre-race favorite, said there was a point in the 26.2 miles where she thought she was “done.”

Cragg talked her through it. They spent most of the final half of the race alone in the lead.

“Sweet baby Jesus, I’m so thankful for [Cragg],” Flanagan, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner ever, said minutes after finishing, with an ice pack over her shoulders, clutching a water bottle in her right hand and holding onto Cragg’s right shoulder with her left hand.

Cragg held up Flanagan during the interview and then helped her back into the wheelchair.

The temperature at the start of the men’s race at 10:06 a.m. local time was 66 degrees, hottest ever at a marathon trials (the first trials were in 1968). The women began 16 minutes later.

Cragg finished fourth at the 2012 marathon trials, then made that Olympic team in the 10,000m on the track and finished 11th in London in her Olympic debut. She moved from Providence, R.I., to Portland, Ore., in the fall to join Flanagan’s training group.

“Finishing fourth, looking back on it now, was so good for me,” Cragg told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “It made me more determined than ever as an athlete. I’ve worked really hard the last four years, basically, to move up one spot.

“I just knew, training with Shalane, would give me all the confidence I need.”

Cragg dropped Flanagan in the final two miles. Before that, she said she asked Flanagan if she was OK. Flanagan replied, no, I’m not.

“She seemed like she was even struggling a little bit just to say that,” Cragg said. “Before the last water stop, I kind of looked at her, and she was turning bright red. I knew the heat was getting to her. I told her, I’m going to get you a water bottle, dump the whole thing on your head.”

Linden, arguably the pre-race co-favorite with Flanagan, repeated her 2012 trials finish of second place, surging in the final mile past Flanagan.

At the London Olympics, Linden pulled out 2.2 miles into the race with right hip pain, what would later be diagnosed as a femoral stress fracture.

“It’s been this Sisyphean task where I get to the top, and then the rock crumbles down,” Linden said Saturday. “I want to do it better this time.”

Two-time Olympian Kara Goucher was fourth. She plans to compete at the track trials in July in Eugene, Ore., to go for Rio.

Goucher finished 65 seconds behind Flanagan, her former training partner, and said she missed workouts last week while sick. The 37-year-old said she may have picked up an illness from her 5-year-old son, Colt.

“I kept asking myself if I was doing all that I could, and I was,” Goucher told media, in tears. “They were just better. … I didn’t fight this hard to just fold right now, so yeah, I’ll be trying to make the 10k team [at track trials in July].”

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