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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14 Olympic silver medalists with best chances for gold in Rio

Silver medalists
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The difference between winning and losing can be minuscule. Olympic gold could have easily been silver if not for an inch here or another second there.

While some athletes can seemingly win gold every time they step into competition, other Olympians are left collecting silver. They’re still remarkable athletes, but gold eludes them.

Some of the world’s best have another shot (for some, their last) at claiming the cherished Olympic gold medal over the next few weeks in Rio. Here are 14 such athletes to watch, in no particular order:

Tony Azevedo, United States, water polo
He’ll become the first five-time Olympian in U.S. water polo history, and he was born in and resides in Rio. It’d be a great place for Azevedo to win his first Olympic gold medal. The U.S. won silver in 2008 before a disappointing eighth-place result four years ago. The American men aren’t favored for gold like their female counterparts, but after taking second in the 2016 FINA World League, they’ve got a shot. Maybe Azevedo’s last shot.

Jordan Larson, United States, volleyball
The third-leading scorer for the U.S. women in 2012 as they fell to Brazil in the second consecutive Olympic gold-medal match, Larson will be just one of four women in Rio from that silver-medal squad. They’re favored to win the first Olympic gold for U.S. women’s indoor volleyball, being the top-ranked team in the world and reigning world champions. But to get that gold, Larson and the U.S. will likely need to take down Brazil in front of their raucous home crowd.

April Ross, United States, beach volleyball
She took silver at the London Games with partner Jen Kessy, losing to compatriots Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings in the final. But Ross is now teamed up with Walsh Jennings, who’s looking for her fourth straight Olympic gold medal. They’ll be the No. 3 seed in Rio –behind two Brazilian teams who, again, will have a boisterous crowd on their side.

Sarah Hammer, United States, cycling
She left London four years ago with two silver medals, but heads to Rio with two chances to grab gold. Hammer placed second the omnium and was on the women’s team pursuit unit that placed runner-up to Great Britain. But Hammer and three new teammates are the reigning team pursuit world champions. She also took bronze at the 2016 Worlds in omnium, so gold in that event in Rio wouldn’t be out of the question either.

Neymar, Brazil, soccer
He was supposed to get his gold in London, but the star-studded Brazilian side was shocked by Mexico, 2-1, in the final. So Neymar is back, competing as one of his team’s three over-23 players, seeking Brazil’s first Olympic gold in soccer (men or women). He was second on the squad with three goals in London; more in Rio would help his nation end the drought.

Marta, Brazil, soccer
A five-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Marta is a two-time Olympic silver medalist. She helped Brazil to runner-up status in 2004 and ’08, before struggling to sixth in 2012. The U.S. won each of those gold medals, as well as the 2015 World Cup (where Brazil was eliminated in the round of 16), leaving it as the decided favorite for Rio. But Brazil seeks its first Olympic soccer gold medal, playing the country’s most popular sport in front of the world’s most passionate fans, so Marta and Brazil certainly have a shot.

Alison Cerutti, Brazil, beach volleyball
He nearly had gold in London with beach legend Emmanuel Rego, but the Brazilians fell in the third set in the final to a German pair. Now, Alison has Bruno Oscar Schmidt by his side and the reigning world champions will be the No. 1 men’s seed on home sand at Copacabana Beach.

Yohan Blake, Jamaica, track and field
The runner-up to compatriot Usain Bolt in both the 100m and 200m four years ago, Blake did win a gold medal with Bolt on his team in the 4x100m relay. But he’s never won individual Olympic gold. He owns world championship gold, as Blake took the 100m at the 2011 Worlds after Bolt was disqualified for a false start. But Bolt may be at his most vulnerable in his Olympic career, so Blake, three years younger, hopes to capitalize.

Anita Włodarczyk, Poland, track and field
She’s the world record holder in hammer throw and favored for gold as the reigning world champion, especially considering the defending Olympic champion is Russian and won’t be present in Rio. Tatyana Lysenko won gold in London after defeating Wlodarczyk by .58 of a meter, but her country’s doping scandal will keep her home.

Caster Semenya, South Africa, track and field
Known for a gender-testing controversy that has followed her since 2009, Semenya is the favorite in the women’s 800m, and she could race the 400m too. She took silver in the 800m at the London Games, finishing behind Russian Mariya Savinova and ahead of Russian Ekaterina Poistogova. Neither of those women will be in Rio due to Russia’s doping scandal. Semenya owns three of the four fastest 800m times this year.

Laszlo Cseh, Hungary, swimming
Were it not for a guy named Michael Phelps, Cseh would’ve won three gold medals at the 2008 Games. Instead, he owns five career Olympic medals (three silver, two bronze) all in races won by Phelps. But Phelps enters his final Olympics not nearly as intense as in years past. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, but Cseh has a shot at knocking off Phelps in the 100m and 200m butterfly. Phelps holds the best time in the 100m since 2013 (50.45) while Cseh is third (50.86); Cseh owns the best time in the 200m since 2013 (1:52.91) while Phelps is second (1:52.94).

Qiu Bo, China, diving
Of the eight diving events at the Olympics, China won gold in six at the 2012 Games and claimed silver in the other two. Qiu Bo was one of the two to take second, as he was edged by American David Boudia in the 10m platform. Qiu has since earned gold at the 2013 and 2015 Worlds, relegating Boudia to silver both times. The two should do battle again in Rio.

Pau Gasol, Spain, basketball
Gasol’s chances of obtaining gold are slim considering the U.S. men’s dominance in international hoops, but Spain’s chances of cracking Team USA are better than anyone else’s. Spain has met the U.S. in the past two Olympic finals and actually stayed with the Americans until the fourth quarter both times. The 2016 U.S. team is thought to be its weakest since 2004, though it’s still heavily favored.

Lee Chong Wei, Malaysia, badminton
Lee owns two silver medals after losing in the 2008 and ’12 Olympic finals. He also holds three silver medals from world championships, falling in the final at the past three such competitions (2011, ’13 and ’15). Lee was knocked off by China’s Lin Dan in four of those events, including both Olympics, and by China’s Chen Long at the 2015 Worlds. But his hope for Olympic breakthrough comes from these rivals’ most recent meeting at the 2016 Asian Championships – Lee took out Lin in the semis and defeated Chen in the final. Lee will be the No. 1 seed in Rio.

MORE: Rio Olympics schedule highlights, daily events to watch

Anderson Varejao will miss Olympics

Anderson Varejao
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One of Brazil’s most recognizable Olympians (to a U.S. audience, at least) will miss the Rio Games.

Golden State Warriors big man Anderson Varejao will miss the Olympics due to a back injury, the NBA team said Wednesday.

The Brazil men’s basketball team is now down two of its top four scorers from the 2012 Olympics.

The team was already without Atlanta Hawks big man Tiago Splitter, who underwent NBA season-ending hip surgery in February.

Splitter and Varejao were the third- and fourth-leading scorers on Brazil’s 2012 Olympic team that was eliminated in the quarterfinals after not qualifying for the Games in 2000, 2004 and 2008.

Brazil’s Olympic roster includes four other NBA players — Leandro Barbosa, Marcelo HuertasNenê and Raul Neto.

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