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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Sage Kotsenburg will not defend Olympic slopestyle title

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Sage Kotsenburg, the first Olympic snowboard slopestyle champion, will not defend his title in PyeongChang and is finished with contest riding.

Kotsenburg, 23, said he chose to devote the rest of his career to filming snowboarding movies rather than competing. It’s a common transition in the sport, but an unusual one for a reigning Olympic gold medalist.

“It had been on my mind since literally the day I won in Sochi,” said Kotsenburg, who last competed in early 2016. “I had my heart set on stopping competing after the Olympics, and then winning puts you in such a different mindset. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do anymore. I was on a high, so pumped on competing. I would get to the contests [after Sochi], and I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t have the edge to try this new trick anymore. All the time, I’m looking at [social media] posts from other people riding in Switzerland and Whistler [Canada] filming backcountry. I thought, I want to be there right now.

“I finally said to myself, I’ve got to do what makes me happy. Competing doesn’t make me happy right now.”

Kotsenburg said relief flooded over him after telling sponsors — including Oakley, Monster, GoPro and Stance socks — he would not ride in competition anymore. He wanted to know if they would stick with him during his filming career, but he understood if they felt otherwise.

“Each one of them said we’re happy to have you on board and keep it going,” he said. “After I told them, it was so much pressure off my chest. I knew I could just go snowboarding again.”

Growing up in Park City, Kotsenburg was fixated more on snowboarding movies than following contests. Though he’ll never forget watching the U.S. sweep the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic men’s halfpipe and then meeting Ross PowersDanny Kass and J.J. Thomas as an 8-year-old.

Kotsenburg was truly a surprise Olympic champion in 2014, taking gold after going into his first Winter Games with a goal to “make snowboarding look cool.” The Park City native later said President Obama told him, “Sage, this guy was like the favorite moment of the Games.”

“Looking back on it in 30 or 40 years, I’ll remember all the hard work and stress and craziness that went into it,” Kotsenburg said. “It was so worth it in the end. It’s something that’s made me who I am today. I think about it every day.”

Kotsenburg was at best inconsistent at the Winter X Games before and after his Sochi breakout — fifth in 2010, 10th in 2011, second in 2012, 13th in 2013, 15th in 2014, fifth in 2015 and 10th in 2016. Kotsenburg’s win at the last U.S. Olympic qualifier in January 2014 marked his first trip to the top of a slopestyle podium in about nine years.

In Sochi, Kotsenburg took gold by landing a cab double cork 1260 with a Kotsenburg-invented Holy Crail grab and a back 1620 Japan Air, trying the latter trick for the first time in his life (he hasn’t tried it since). The rider known as “Second-Run Sage” did it on his first run, scoring 93.5 points.

After the Olympics, Kotsenburg capitalized on his gold. He ate a bacon gold medal given to him by Conan O’Brien, listened to Obama call him “sick and chill” and took his gold medal out of a white sock on “Mad Money” with Jim Cramer.

“Being backstage on Letterman, I was tripping,” he said. “Craziest one was definitely going to the White House and meeting Obama was insane. He said he watched the Olympics, and I had the chillest and most relaxed interview he had ever seen.”

Kotsenburg said he still needs to get a proper box to store his medal. He joked he might rather buy a manikin and hang it around its neck along with some cool outerwear.

Before what would have been the last contest of his career, Kotsenburg essentially suffered a concussion at Fenway Park in training at a big air event in February 2016. Kotsenburg said the head injury was very minor and that it did not factor into his retirement decision.

Kotsenburg spent all last winter riding in Alaska, Wyoming, Lake Tahoe, Utah and Whistler for a Snowboarder Magazine film called “Pepper.”

He plans to ride more this winter for his own film project and possibly attend the Olympics in a non-competitive capacity. 

The top slopestyle snowboarders going into PyeongChang are Canadians Mark McMorrisMax Parrot and Tyler Nicholson, Norwegians Marcus Kleveland and Stale Sandbech and American Red Gerard.

Gerard, 16, has known Kotsenburg for several years and once wore the Sochi gold medal.

“I hope [Gerard] comes home with a medal, even gold,” Kotsenburg said. “He’s got such awesome style and really respects the background of snowboarding. He’s been filming, too, and really respects that type of snowboarding. Which I respect a lot.”

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Review: USA Gymnastics needs ‘culture change’ to stop abuse

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USA Gymnastics needs a “complete cultural change” to better protect athletes from sexual abuse, according to an independent review of the embattled organization’s practices.

The 44-page report released Tuesday by former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels recommends that all USA Gymnastics members be required to immediately report suspected sexual misconduct to legal authorities and the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

Daniels also suggested that USA Gymnastics prohibit adults from being alone with minor gymnasts “at all times” and bar unrelated adults from sharing or being alone in a sleeping room with gymnasts. She also recommended preventing adult members from having “out of program” contact with gymnasts through email, text or social media.

USA Gymnastics ordered the review last fall following a series of civil lawsuits filed against the organization and a former team doctor by a pair of gymnasts who claim the physician sexually abused them during their time on the U.S. national team. USA Gymnastics has denied wrongdoing.

The organization stated it went to authorities quickly in the summer of 2015 after hearing claims of abuse against Dr. Larry Nassar but later amended the timeline following a Wall Street Journal report, saying it conducted a five-week internal review before going to the FBI.

“A delay is impermissible,” Daniels said.

A Michigan judge on Friday ordered Nassar to stand trial on charges of sexually assaulting six young gymnasts who said he molested them while they were seeking treatment for various injuries. It is one of four criminal cases against Nassar in the state.

Daniels said USA Gymnastics “inadvertently suppressed” reporting of abuse because of several factors, including that athletes are taught to follow instructions and obey coaches and trainers.

“Athletes sometimes aren’t aware of where the boundaries are, so they’re not trained in that regard,” Daniels said. “Parents aren’t real sure (either).”

Daniels said the organization needs to more closely monitor member clubs to make sure its bylaws are followed. She suggested stripping membership from clubs that fail to report claims of child abuse, plus periodic random audits to see if updated policies are being obeyed.

“USA Gymnastics has never felt it had the ability to exert influence over the club,” Daniels said. “You can use membership to enforce the policies.”

The USA Gymnastics Board of Directors unanimously voted to develop a plan to implement many of Daniels’ 70 recommendations.

“We’re confident it will make us a better organization to develop a culture that had safe sport as a top priority,” said chief operating officer Ron Galimore.

Daniels said the process USA Gymnastics had for investigating claims of abuse was “cumbersome” and “somewhat mysterious.” She suggested a more proactive approach.

“There needs to be a very clear protocol for how these reviews are conducted, there needs to be a clear timeline,” she said. “Frankly they need to be kept in a database. We’ve recommended that the board have oversight of that entire process.”

While also taking the role of the USA Gymnastics president out of the equation. Former president Steve Penny resigned in March under intensifying pressure for the way the organization handled charges of sexual abuse. Daniels wants USA Gymnastics to remove the president from determining the disposition of allegations. USA Gymnastics is in the process of finding Penny’s replacement and hopes to have a successor in place by September.

Whoever is hired will have plenty of work to do.

Many of the recommendations fall in line with policies put forward by the U.S. Center for Safesport. The organization operates independently from the U.S. Olympic Committee and organizations governing Olympic sports. The USOC and the 47 national governing bodies (including USA Gymnastics) help fund the center — about $13.3 million over five years — but do not have any say over how it operates or the cases it investigates.

Paul Parilla, chairman of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors, said the organization needs to “clearly articulate” that the safety of the athletes is “paramount.”

Galimore said it is a priority to make sure “everyone is aware and educated on everything from bullying to anything that would take away from having a safe environment.”

Daniels spoke to more than 160 people at all levels of USA Gymnastics over six months, attended five competitions and visited the national team’s training center at the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas, to produce the 144 page report. She said the number of gymnasts abused nationwide over the years is “far higher” than what has been reported based on her experience as a federal prosecutor but stressed “my recommendations are forward looking and not in relation to anything that may have happened in the past.”

She also believes third parties should be allowed to report suspected abuse. The previous method of looking into alleged wrongdoing — a “grievance process” which required a written complaint from the aggrieved party or the parents of the aggrieved party if the athlete was a minor — was not well suited for reporting abuse, the report said.

“Young athletes (in their teens or younger) and their parents are highly unlikely to report ongoing abuse to the authority that has so much power over the athlete’s success in the sport,” Daniels wrote.

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