Danell Leyva

What to watch at USA Gymnastics National Championships men’s competition

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The men’s gymnastics team that walked into the O2 Arena for the 2012 Olympics was arguably the best team the U.S. had fielded at a Games since 1984, the last time it had won gold. Expectations were high, and for the first time since ’84, a gold medal was a legitimate hope.

The U.S., atop the leaderboard after qualifying, stumbled to fifth in the team final.

There’s no way around it for Danell LeyvaJohn OrozcoJonathan HortonSam Mikulak and Jake Dalton. London was a disappointment. The U.S. men left with one medal overall, Leyva’s all-around bronze.

So it comes as no surprise that they’re all back for another Olympic cycle. Orozco, Leyva, Dalton and Mikulak are competing at the National Championships beginning Friday (8 p.m. Eastern time, NBC Sports Network and online here) and concluding Sunday (1 p.m. ET, NBC and online here).

Horton, 27, the only two-time Olympian from that group, is not ready to return competitively from shoulder surgery but is training for 2014.

Comebacks in gymnastics are not generally met with ease, but the men from 2012 have one major factor on their side: age. All but Horton are younger than 22, in a sport where men tend to peak in early-to-mid 20s.

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The Olympians are at nationals hoping to earn spots on the six-man squad for the World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium, Sept. 30-Oct. 6, where there will only be individual events, no team title.

Podium training for the men Wednesday was business as usual: camaraderie, high-flying skills and fresh Olympic rings tattoos. but there were also key takeaways, new gymnasts to watch and a preview of who will star this weekend.

This year has marked a breakout for Dalton, who took the American Cup title over Levya in March. He looked solid in training and ready to take aim at his first national all-around title. Barring major mistakes, it will be the others all chasing Dalton.

Levya and Orozco have been the most visible Americans the last few years, on and off the mats. Leyva, profiled by mainstream magazines such as GQ and Men’s Fitness is the 2011 U.S. champion with a trademark towel and boisterous stepfather. Orozco, the Bronx, N.Y., native who starred in the Gym Class Heroes music video for “The Fighter,” is the defending U.S. champion.

They’ve also got international clout with judges. Leyva is the reigning world champion on parallel bars, and Orozco was fifth in the all-around at the 2011 World Championships. Leyva is already looking ahead to Antwerp.

“I want to keep the p-bars title and win the all-around title and make finals on other events that people haven’t seen me make finals on before,” he said.

So far this year, things haven’t gone Leyva’s way. He wasn’t feeling well at the American Cup and finished sixth. He remains among the most talented, but podium training in Hartford wasn’t his best showing. Not surprising for the Cuban-born Floridian, who tends to bring it in high-pressure situations.

Orozco had his own frustrations since the Olympics and will not compete on all six events (no vault or floor exercise). After climbing back from a devastating Achilles injury to take the national title last year, he tore an ACL during the a post-Games tour. He’s once again on the comeback trail, but he doesn’t seem phased, nor is he worried about not being 100 percent.

“It’s a whole new competition and it’s a whole new year and my circumstances are a little different than usual, so I think that this championships will be really interesting,” he said. “So, I’m gonna take it slow and try to focus on the things that I can control.”

Sporting an American flag patterned knee brace, Orozco made it through training looking calm, unphased and on track to be at full strength soon. He’s not necessarily focused on the World Championships but the next three years leading to the Rio Games.

This could also prove to be a breakout year for Mikulak of the University of Michigan, the surprise member of the 2012 Olympic team. He turned in some seriously aggressive routines during training. When he landed his parallel bars routine with a gigantic stuck cold double pike dismount, you could hear his feet hitting the mat throughout the arena. He’s ready.

Keep an eye on Josh Dixon, 23, who boasts one of the highest start values on high bar, as well as clean lines and good form. He’s now more experienced after placing sixth in the event at Olympic trials.

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Kerri Walsh Jennings’ next partner is a familiar one

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Kerri Walsh Jennings is slated to play with with 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh this summer, after she and Olympic bronze medal teammate April Ross split last month.

Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion with Misty May-Treanor before that bronze in Rio, and Branagh, who made the Beijing Games quarterfinals with Elaine Youngs, are entered in an FIVB World Tour event in Croatia the last week of June.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are both 38 years old and briefly paired in 2010 when May-Treanor was uncertain about making a run for the London Olympics. When May-Treanor told Walsh Jennings she was all-in for London, Walsh Jennings split from Branagh.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are hoping to play together through the World Tour Finals in late August, according to Volleyball Magazine.

That includes the world championships in Vienna, Austria, in late July and early August.

It’s not known if they will have the combined ranking points to earn an outright worlds spot. They could also receive a wild card for worlds. Entries will be announced next month.

Walsh Jennings, a mother of three, has said she hopes to play in the 2020 Olympics at age 41, when she will be older than any previous Olympic beach or indoor volleyball player, according to Olympic historians.

Branagh returned to competition this year after a one-year break to have her second child. She has played few international events since 2012 and last won internationally in 2010 (with Walsh Jennings).

Ross, an Olympic silver and bronze medalist and 2009 World champion, is now partnered with Lauren Fendrick, who played with Brooke Sweat in Rio. Ross, 34, said she will figure out her long-term partner plans for Tokyo 2020 after this season.

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Catching up with Ross Powers

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Ross Powers, now 38 years old and 15 years removed from his Olympic snowboarding title, is still out with halfpipe riders on the snow five days per week.

The difference now is that Powers is coaching. He runs the snowboarding program at Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, where he graduated from in 1997.

Powers spoke with OlympicTalk before last season, reflecting on 20 years of snowboarding in the Olympics, Shaun White and how he likes coaching.

OlympicTalk: The PyeongChang Winter Games will mark 20 years since snowboarding’s debut in Nagano. What was it like competing in the first Olympic halfpipe?

Powers (who won bronze in Nagano at age 19): It seemed kind of like a regular World Cup. We were up in the mountains. At the time, it was a really good halfpipe, but we ended up competing in some bad weather, some rain. I didn’t realize until I left Japan and got home how big the Olympics were. But looking back, it was a special time. And I really learned from the ’98 Olympics, like if I get this chance again, I’m going to go there, I’m going to do it all. I’m going to go to Opening Ceremonies, Closing Ceremonies, watch as many events as I can and just make the most out of the Games.

OlympicTalk: The Nagano halfpipe was about half the size of today’s superpipes (394 feet long with 11 1/2-foot walls vs. 590 feet with 22-foot walls in Sochi). Could today’s snowboarders compete with you guys back in 1998?

Powers: It was so different. At the time, I want to say it was the biggest pipe we rode, but compared to today’s standards, it’s small. The weather was tricky. I think a lot of those guys [today] could ride it, but it’s so much different than today’s halfpipe for sure.

OlympicTalk: In 2002, when you led a U.S. men’s halfpipe medal sweep, the rider who just missed the Olympic team was a 15-year-old Shaun White. What do you remember about him?

Powers: You kind of knew he was going to be the next guy. Where he took our sport and certain tricks. One thing that really impressed me about him is he’ll train really hard for an event, show up, even if the conditions are bad, he’s planned this trick he wants to do, and he’ll try it no matter what. Most of the time he’ll give it a go and land it. That actually hurt him in Russia [White attempted but couldn’t perfect the YOLO Flip 1440 in Sochi] because he probably could have stepped down a notch, gotten a medal and maybe even won the event.

OlympicTalk: Did Shaun ever beat you before you retired?

Powers: I had my run from 1998, ’99, ’00, ’01, all those times that I was doing really well. I tried to make the 2006 Olympics in Italy. I was the alternate, so I just missed that. He was definitely beating me up through those times.

OlympicTalk: Did you travel to the Torino Olympics as an alternate?

Powers: I did, yeah. I traveled over there and actually watched my buddy [Seth] Wescott win the gold in boarder cross. That night, he was like, you should try boarder cross. That kind of got me into doing that my next few years after that.

[Editor’s Note: Powers almost made the 2010 Olympic team in snowboard cross, even finishing third in a December 2009 World Cup.]

OlympicTalk: Which is tougher, coaching or competing?

Powers: I would say it is tougher coaching than competing. You just have so many responsibilities and so much work. The nice thing about coaching, though, compared to competing, is you can kind of push yourself and have fun [riding] on certain days but then also sit back and really work with the athletes on all other days. So when you’re feeling it, you can push yourself. So it’s not like an athlete, where you have to push yourself.

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