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, April Ross beat top-ranked Brazilians for first time

Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross
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Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross beat Brazil’s best beach volleyball team for the first time and extended the longest winning streak of their partnership in winning the Moscow Grand Slam on Sunday.

“That just shows our growth,” Ross said. “We’re still on the up and up.”

Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion, and Ross, an Olympic silver medalist, beat Olympic qualifying top seed Larissa and Talita 22-20, 21-17 in the final for their third straight international title.

Walsh Jennings and Ross have now won 22 straight FIVB World Tour matches, the best run of their three-year parternship. Walsh Jennings last reached a streak this long from 2007 to 2010, when she won 78 straight international matches with Misty May-Treanor and Nicole Branagh, according to BVBInfo.com

The Americans had lost all three of their previous matches (one a one-set exhibition) versus Larissa and Talita:

Feb. 27, 2015 — 26-24 in Rio de Janeiro
Aug. 23, 2015 — 21-18, 21-16 in Long Beach, Calif.
March 20, 2016 — 22-20, 21-19 in Vitoria, Brazil

“You know what makes me happy? This is done. Now we’ve done it, we’ve beaten them and put it to rest,” Walsh Jennings said, according to USA Volleyball.

Larissa and Talita, seeking to become Brazil’s first Olympic women’s beach volleyball champions in 20 years, have won 12 of their 20 international tournaments since pairing in July 2014.

The FIVB World Tour continues in Hamburg, Germany, next week, the final event in Olympic qualifying. Walsh Jennings and Ross are expected to play there.

Walsh Jennings and Ross and Larissa and Talita are already qualified for the Rio Games.

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Star goalie Ashleigh Johnson set to make U.S. Olympic water polo history

Ashleigh Johnson
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LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — Donna Johnson just wanted her five children to be safe around the pool at her Miami home. That was it, really, the first step in Ashleigh Johnson‘s path from prodigy to USA water polo.

Swim lessons turned into meets when their instructor told Donna Johnson her children were so good she had nothing left to teach them. When Ashleigh and her siblings continued to show athletic potential as they got older, Donna Johnson, a single mother and nurse from Jamaica, delivered a simple message to them.

“For everything that they do, it’s not about pressure, it’s about maximizing your potential,” she said.

Now her oldest daughter is about to make history this summer. Ashleigh, a goaltender blessed with jaw-dropping athleticism, is a lock for Rio de Janeiro, putting her on track to become the first black woman to play water polo for the U.S. Olympic team.

While this is just the fifth Games for the women’s tournament, Johnson’s ascension to elite goaltender is a welcome development for a sport looking for more diversity and growth outside of water polo-crazy Southern California.

Each of Johnson’s teammates is from the Golden State, and the same three Pac-12 schools — UCLA, Southern California and Stanford — dominate the roster. Seventy-five percent of USA Water Polo’s roughly 42,000 members live in California.

After starring at Ransom Everglades High School in Florida, Johnson opted for Princeton instead of USC.

“I think Ashleigh Johnson’s the future of our sport in the U.S.,” USA Water Polo CEO Christopher Ramsey said. “She’s an out-of-California athlete who grew up in Florida. She went to Princeton, high academic achiever from a different background than a lot of traditional water polo families are from.”

Just a short while ago, Johnson, 21, wasn’t interested in that future, at least with the national team. The thought of moving away from her tight-knit family and joining a new team in California wasn’t appealing to her, but several conversations with coach Adam Krikorian helped change her mind.

“I didn’t really know that the Olympics was a possibility for me,” Johnson said. “I thought it was just like coming and training like I had been doing for years, but just living out here, and he made me realize that the Olympics was a great opportunity and a possibility for me.”

Krikorian first heard of Johnson about 10 years ago when he was the head coach at UCLA. Nicolle Payne, one of his assistants with the Bruins and a former national team goaltender, was working a camp in Miami when she sent an email to Krikorian about America’s next great goaltender.

“She said, ‘Adam, keep this name in your mind,’ and she told me her name — Ashleigh Johnson,” Krikorian said. “‘She is the most amazing goalie I have ever seen.”‘

It’s easy to see what got Payne’s attention.

The 6-foot-1 Johnson has long arms, perfect for firing outlet passes for U.S. counterattacks and guarding the top parts of the goal, and she cuts through the water with impressive ease. Sick of swimming in high school, she was offered an out by her mother and coach if she won the 50-meter freestyle at states as a sophomore. So she won and walked away.

She collected 54 saves while helping the United States qualify for the Olympics at a tournament in the Netherlands in March, including 10 stops in an 11-6 victory over Italy in the final, capping an 8-0 performance for the Americans. But that gifted sprinter is still inside her.

At a recent practice, assistant coach Chris Oeding gave the team a chance to cut short the swimming portion of training if the players could assemble a sub-1:40 200-yard freestyle relay team. Krikorian and assistant coach Dan Klatt offered a nodding Johnson as a candidate, but four different players were chosen.

They made the time, but Johnson stole the show by swimming the second leg alongside the relay, leaving Krikorian and Klatt shaking their heads as she churned through the pool like a motorboat.

“She’s a freak,” Princeton coach Luis Nicolao said. “She’s just athletic. I often joke she could probably start for our basketball team, track team, swim team, she just has that natural ability to succeed at anything she does.”

Johnson and her sister, Chelsea, play for Nicolao with the Tigers. They have two older brothers, Blake and William, and one younger brother, Julius.

Their parents got divorced when Ashleigh was little, and Donna Johnson raised the kids mostly on her own. It’s a challenging juggling act not lost on her children.

“I mean she’s such a hard-working, loving and determined woman,” Ashleigh said, “and she’s taught me that hard work ethic and just to try my best at everything and love what I do.”

Chelsea Johnson, who joked that she followed her sister to Princeton because she didn’t want to play against her, said she sees similarities between Ashleigh and their mother.

“I think the biggest thing from her, she and Ashleigh, is that she’s always smiling, no matter what,” she said. “Like her and Ashleigh, not matter what they’re doing, no matter how hard the thing is, they’re always smiling and trying to make everyone around them feel better about whatever’s happening.”

VIDEO: Ashleigh Johnson stands out on U.S. water polo team