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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U.S. Olympic marathon trials men’s preview, contenders

Galen Rupp
AP
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The U.S. Olympic men’s marathon trials picture shook in the last month with the retirement of fastest-ever American marathoner Ryan Hall, the withdrawal of four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman and the addition of Olympic 10,000m silver medalist Galen Rupp.

What’s left is one man from the three-man 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon team — Meb Keflezighi — who turns 41 on May 5 and looks to become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time (an Olympic medalist in the women’s race is attempting the same feat).

Keflezighi, the defending trials champion, appears the safest pick to finish in the top three to make the Rio Olympic team, but several others, such as Rupp, could surprise in Los Angeles on Saturday (1-4 p.m. ET, NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra).

The top contenders:

Meb Keflezighi
Age: 40
PR: 2:08:37 (Boston 2014)
2014 Boston Marathon champion
2012 Olympics — fourth place
2009 New York City Marathon champion
2004 Olympics — silver medal
2000 Olympics — 12th place (10,000m)

In 2012, Keflezighi became the oldest U.S. Olympic marathon trials winner. This year, he can become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time.

Keflezighi’s only 26.2-mile hiccup in the last four years came in 2013, when he placed 23rd at the New York City Marathon (fifth among Americans). But Keflezighi silenced the doubters five months later in Boston, becoming the first American man to win the world’s oldest annual 26.2-mile race since 1983.

He followed that up with a fourth at the 2014 NYC Marathon (top American), eighth at the 2015 Boston Marathon (No. 2 American) and seventh at the 2015 NYC Marathon (top American).

Dathan Ritzenhein
Age: 33
PR: 2:07:47 (Chicago 2012)
2012 Olympics — 13th place (10,000m)
2008 Olympics — ninth place
2004 Olympics — DNF (10,000m)

Ritzenhein has the fastest personal best in the field and ranked No. 2 among all Americans for 2015 (2:11:20 in Boston). For all his talent, Ritzenhein endured health problems throughout his career. In November, hip bursitis reportedly slowed him for about one month.

He last raced Oct. 4 and last raced a marathon April 20 (his last marathon before that was Oct. 13, 2013).

At the 2012 trials, Ritzenhein was in the lead pack of four from miles two through 19 until he fell off the pace and watched Keflezighi, Hall and Abdirahman pull away to secure Olympic berths. Ritzenhein nearly caught Abdirahman at the end, making up 17 seconds in the last 1.2 miles but coming up eight seconds short in Houston.

“Maybe I’m not made for the marathon,” Ritzenhein said that day, hanging his head while answering reporters’ questions.

Ritzenhein later made the 2012 Olympic team in the 10,000m and, two months after the London Games, ran that 2:07:47 in Chicago to become the third-fastest U.S. marathoner of all time. That’s 50 seconds faster than any other U.S. man since 2011.

Galen Rupp
Age: 29
PR: None
2012 Olympics — silver medal (10,000m)
2012 Olympics — seventh place (5000m)
2008 Olympics — 13th place (10,000m)

Rupp makes his much-anticipated marathon debut. The only U.S. man or woman to qualify for the Olympic marathon at trials in his or her 26.2-mile debut was George Young in 1968, the first year trials were held.

The lack of experience (Rupp’s longest race was a half marathon, which he’s done once in the last four and a half years) makes him a bit of a wild card. But there’s no doubting his talent. Rupp, one of the world’s best at 10,000m, is coached by three-time NYC Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, and may prove the strongest runner in the field.

Rupp was a late qualifier for the trials by posting a half marathon qualifying time of 1:01:20 on Dec. 13 in Portland, Ore., against a field that included a man dressed as an elf and another in the bunny suit from “A Christmas Story.” That time ranked second among U.S. men for 13.1 miles last year.

Rupp’s fastest half marathon, 1:00:30 from 2011, ranks second in the field behind Ritzenhein.

If Rupp finishes in the top three to make the Olympic team, he could still drop out to focus on the 10,000m and/or 5000m on the track, should he make the team in those events at the July 1-10 trials in Eugene, Ore. In that case, the fourth-place finisher on Saturday would be elevated onto the U.S. Olympic team.

Luke Puskedra
Age: 25
PR: 2:10:24 (Chicago 2015)

The former University of Oregon distance runner surprised at the Chicago Marathon by running the fastest time by an American for all of 2015. It was his third marathon. His previous two were 2014 NYC (2:28:54) and the 2015 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. (2:15:27)

The label “fastest American in 2015” means a little less when it’s combined with the fact no American broke 2:10 in the marathon in a calendar year for the first time since 2003.

Still, Puskedra is so young that he may not be near his peak. The top four at the 2012 Olympic trials all went sub-2:10, so Puskedra may need another personal best to make his first Olympic team. Then again, Keflezighi and Ritzenhein are the only men in the field who have broken 2:10, so he might not need it.

Elkanah Kibet
Age: 32
PR: 2:11:31

A Kenya native, Kibet went to Auburn, enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a U.S. citizen in 2013. He was deployed in Kuwait and Iraq from June 2014 to March 2015 and then made his marathon debut in Chicago on Oct. 11.

His 2:11:31 ranked No. 3 among U.S. men last year behind Puskedra and Ritzenhein.

Diego Estrada
Age: 26
PR: None

Estrada is the reigning U.S. champion in the half marathon, his 1:00:51 being the fastest by an American since Rupp in 2011. There’s little else to go on with Estrada, who like Rupp is making his 26.2-mile debut.

He also finished eighth in the 10,000m and 15th in the 5000m at the 2015 U.S. Outdoor Championships. In 2012, he placed 21st in the Olympic 10,000m for Mexico.

Sam Chelanga
Age: 30
PR: None

Chelanga is a native Kenyan who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in August. He owns a half-marathon personal best of 1:01:04 from 2013 and has the second-fastest 10,000m personal best in the field behind Rupp.

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U.S. Olympic marathon trials women’s preview, contenders

Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, Desi Linden
AP
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In a contrast from the men’s race, the U.S. Olympic women’s marathon trials outlook is not all that different from four years ago.

In 2012, Shalane Flanagan and Desi Linden (then Davila) entered as favorites to make the three-woman Olympic team and delivered a one-two finish in Houston.

Kara Goucher was certainly in the mix for an Olympic place as well, arguably a favorite to join Flanagan and Linden in the top three, and she did just that, taking third.

The younger Amy Cragg (then Hastings) and the older Deena Kastor (American record holder set in 2006) just missed, placing fourth and sixth, respectively.

Going into Saturday’s trials (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 1-4 p.m. ET), the four U.S. women who have clocked sub-2:28 since Jan. 1, 2014:

  1. Shalane Flanagan — 2:21:14 (Berlin 2014)
  2. Desi Linden — 2:23:54 (Boston 2014)
  3. Amy Cragg — 2:27:03 (Chicago 2014)
  4. Deena Kastor — 2:27:47 (Chicago 2015)

The biggest question again is who is favored to finish third. Six top contenders, including five Olympians, are outlined below:

Shalane Flanagan
Age: 34
PR: 2:21:14 (Berlin 2014)
2014 Berlin Marathon — third place
2012 Olympics — 10th place
2012 Olympic marathon trials champion
2010 NYC Marathon — second place
2008 Olympics — bronze medal (10,000m)
2008 Olympics — 10th place (5000m)
2004 Olympics — first round (5000m)

Four years ago, Flanagan entered the trials with one marathon (a 2:28:40) under her belt (plus that decorated track career). She pulled away from Linden in the final two miles in Houston to win the trials by 17 seconds.

Now, Flanagan enters as the second-fastest U.S. woman ever, following a 2:22:02 with a 2:21:14, both in 2014. Linden is the only American within five minutes of those times in the last two years.

Her last marathon, Boston 2015, was not as fast — 2:27:47 — finishing as the second American behind Linden. Plus, she’s dealt with “a lot of hiccups” in training, specifically back and Achilles pain, according to Runner’s World.

Desi Linden
Age: 32
PR: 2:22:38 (Boston 2011)
2012 Olympics — DNF
2011 Boston Marathon — second place

Linden was second at the 2012 trials but pulled out of her Olympic debut 2.2 miles into the race with right hip pain that had affected her training, what would later be diagnosed as a femoral stress fracture.

It took more than one year to return to her top form after the London injury. Linden made it, finishing as the No. 1 American in her last two marathons — Boston 2015 (over Flanagan and Cragg) and New York City 2014 (over Kastor and Goucher).

Kara Goucher
Age: 37
PR: 2:24:52 (Boston 2011)
2012 Olympics — 11th place
2009 Boston Marathon — third place
2008 NYC Marathon — third place
2008 Olympics — 10th place (10,000m)
2007 World Championships — bronze medal (10,000m)
2004 Olympics — ninth place (5000m)

By qualifying times, Goucher enters the trials seeded No. 43 overall. The qualifying window was Aug. 1, 2013, through Jan. 17, 2016. Goucher’s only marathon in that stretch was a wall-smacking 2:37:03 at cold-and-windy New York City 2014, her slowest career marathon.

But in her previous two marathons before 2013 and 2014 injuries, she finished in 2:26:07 at the Olympics (16 seconds behind Flanagan) and 2:28:11 at Boston 2013 (63 seconds behind Flanagan).

After the London Games, Goucher changed coaches, training locations and sponsors and underwent knee surgery. Optimism finally returned in November and December, when she won half marathons in 1:11:13 and 1:11:10, her fastest since 2012.

“This is literally a last chance for me,” Goucher wrote on a Jan. 12 blog.

Amy Cragg
Age: 32
PR: 2:27:03 (Houston 2011, Chicago 2014)
2012 Olympics — 11th place (10,000m)

At the 2012 trials, Cragg (then Hastings) was part of the four-woman lead pack through 19 miles before fading and finishing 71 seconds behind third-place Goucher, just missing the Olympic team. Not bad for her second career marathon.

“I cried every day for a month,” Cragg said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Like Dathan Ritzenhein, she dusted herself off to make the Olympic team on the track in the 10,000m six months later.

Cragg failed to finish her 2015 marathon, in Boston, dropping out in the 22nd mile with leg cramps, her then-coach said, according to LetsRun.com. Unlike (her new training partner) Flanagan, Goucher and Linden, she has only one strong marathon finish since the 2012 trials (Chicago 2014),

Deena Kastor
Age: 42
PR: 2:19:36 (London 2006)
2008 Olympics — DNF
2008 Olympic marathon trials champion
2006 London Marathon champion
2005 Chicago Marathon champion
2004 Olympics — bronze medal
2000 Olympics — first round (10,000m)

The American record holder and last woman to earn an Olympic marathon medal was thought to be done contending in elite marathons. Until Oct. 11, when Kastor clocked 2:27:47 in Chicago.

That made Kastor the second-fastest U.S. woman for the year (behind Linden). It was her first time breaking 2:30 in six years and her fastest time since her American record in 2006.

If Kastor can follow that up with a top three in Los Angeles (one day before her 43rd birthday), she will become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time.

Misiker Demissie
Age: 29
PR: 2:25:45 (Ottawa 2013)

The former Ethiopian runner has the best PR of the remaining field, though it came three years ago. Her qualifying marathon was a 2:29:03 in Shanghai in 2014. She also clocked an uninspiring 1:13:38 half marathon on Jan. 17.

“She’s more of a long shot than what her PRs are,” Scott Simmons, a coach in Demissie’s training group, said, according to Runner’s World.

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