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.

Jackie Chan endorses finalist sport for 2020 vote

AVP set to start season without Kerri Walsh Jennings

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BOSTON (AP) — The AVP said it has reached an agreement with “practically all the players” on a contract that will carry it through the 2020 Summer Games, even as a holdout by five-time Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings threatens to deprive the domestic beach volleyball tour of its biggest name.

“I respect her decisions, and I wish her well,” AVP owner Donald Sun told The Associated Press. “But in the meantime, we’re just geared up. All the athletes that are signed are fired up to play Huntington Beach next weekend.”

Walsh Jennings did not immediately respond to a text message seeking comment. But she told the AP in March that negotiations were “a work in progress” and that the two sides were “pretty far off.”

She also boycotted an AVP event last summer over experimental rules that she said weren’t discussed with the athletes.

Each of the other seven Americans who went to the 2016 Olympics has signed, Sun said, except for Brooke Sweat. Sweat, who failed to make it out of group play in Rio de Janeiro with teammate Lauren Fendrick, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Sun told the AP that the tour has “a four-year agreement with practically all the players, which is awesome.” The deal includes a minimum of eight events per season and prize money minimums that will increase by at least 50 percent over the term of the deal, he said.

“It was a few months of process, discussing with individual players, groups of players, discussing what concerns they had,” Sun said. “We all made it. I think we’re all pretty happy.”

Well, not everyone.

The rift with Walsh, a three-time gold medalist who won bronze with April Ross in 2016, was exposed when the tour released its 2017 schedule in March and her name wasn’t among the list of those expected to participate.

Sun told the AP this week that the tour is prepared to proceed without Walsh Jennings, who has missed events previous summers because of injury, childbirth or to play on the international tour that determines Olympic qualification.

“It didn’t seem to affect attendance, TV ratings, or viewership on line,” Sun said. “The AVP is not just one person or one athlete; if it was, it would be a very challenging business model.”

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Anthony Joshua TKOs Wladimir Klitschko in battle of Olympic champs

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LONDON (AP) — Anthony Joshua wasn’t wrong when he raised his hands in victory after knocking Wladimir Klitschko down in the fifth round of what looked like a one-sided heavyweight title fight. He was just celebrating too early.

The rookie mistake allowed Klitschko to rally, nearly taking the lead as the two 6-foot-6 men went to the 11th round — four rounds longer than any Joshua fight had ever gone.

That’s when Joshua unleashed a brutal uppercut that spun Klitschko around, leading to a win that set off British celebrations in Wembley Stadium and beyond Saturday night and cemented the 27-year-old as boxing’s new superstar.

Rounds 5 and 6 featured some of the best heavyweight action since Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis — the latter two sitting ringside — ruled the division.

The two men in the ring were both Olympic super heavyweight champions. Joshua took gold for Great Britain in 2012, and Klitschko won for Ukraine in 1996.

Klitschko, who had barely thrown any power punches before the knockdown, came back to make the end of the fifth round interesting and knocked Joshua down in the next round.

With an entire country screaming for him, Joshua — who had knocked all his previous opponents out by the end of the seventh round — looked tired. But he saved his best for the late rounds, particularly the uppercut that will be a YouTube moment for decades.

Klitschko didn’t fall down after the uppercut, but Joshua was all over the stunned former champ and dropped him with a left hook. Klitschko got up only to take even more punishment. Joshua knocked Klitschko down again and was landing punches to his head on the ropes when referee David Fields moved in to stop the bout late in the 11th round.

“When you go to the trenches, that’s when you find out who you really are,” Joshua said. “In this small little ring here, there’s nowhere to hide.”

The biggest heavyweight title fight in more than a decade had a little something for everyone, and Joshua finished off in style.

“As I said from the get-go, it will be a boxing classic and the best man will win,” Joshua said.

Klitschko’s rally was inspiring, starting soon after he was knocked down in the fifth. By the end of the round, it was Klitschko pummeling a tired Joshua.

Joshua was still feeling the effect of those punches when he was dropped by a right hand in the sixth round. Klitschko began piling up rounds and it seemed like the savvy Ukrainian would quiet the hometown fans, until Joshua turned things around with that vicious right uppercut.

“If you don’t take part, you’re going to fail,” Joshua said. “Just give it a go and you never know the outcome.”

Joshua was up 96-93 and 95-93 on two scorecards, while Klitschko was ahead 95-93 on the third going into the final round. The Associated Press had it 94-94.

Klitschko, who reigned over the heavyweight division for a decade, was fighting both Joshua and Father Time at the age of 41. He looked to be overmatched in the early rounds, but fought his best after he was knocked down.

It was anyone’s fight when Joshua landed the uppercut that proved decisive, much to the delight of his countrymen who packed England’s national stadium for the highly anticipated bout.

“As I said I’m not perfect but I’m trying,” said Joshua, who was fighting for only the 19th time as a pro.

Joshua had never been beyond seven rounds, and it looked like he might be running out of gas as he tried to find his legs following the knockdown in the sixth. Klitschko, in his 29th world title fight, seemed to be taking the advantage in the later rounds, until the uppercut sent him spinning across the ring.

“It was really sad I didn’t make it tonight,” Klitschko said. “I was planning to do it. It didn’t work. But all respect to Anthony.”

Joshua defended his heavyweight titles and his undefeated record in a bout that lived up to its billing as the best matchup after a long drought in the heavyweight division. Already a hero in his native England, he may become one worldwide.

Joshua said before the bout that it was just two men in the ring, and nothing more than that. But it was clear by the crowd’s reaction as he came back to win that it was a lot more to many fans.

It was a battle of massive heavyweights, with both standing 6-foot-6. Joshua weighed 250.1 pounds to 240.5 for Klitschko.

Klitschko fell to 64-5 in a long career that began in 1996 after he won the Olympic gold in Atlanta. It may have been his last fight.

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