Simone Biles

Simone Biles hangs on for U.S. gymnastics national title over Kyla Ross; McKayla Maroney impresses

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Simone Biles won silver on all four individual events at the U.S. gymnastics championships, but the tiny 16-year-old earned gold in the standings that mattered most.

Biles, of Spring, Texas, took the U.S. all-around crown over Olympian Kyla Ross by two tenths of a point, 120.45 to 120.25, after two days of competition. Biles stumbled on her final routine, uneven bars (14.2), but Ross bobbled on her finale, the balance beam (15.25), to keep the order the same as it was after the opening night Thursday.

Both Biles and Ross appear to be locks, as does Olympian McKayla Maroney, to make the four-woman team for the World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium, Sept. 30-Oct. 6. The roster will be chosen after a selection camp next month.

Biles won the biggest title, but Maroney and Ross split the individual event gold medals: Ross for uneven bars and balance beam and Maroney for vault and floor exercise, the only events she competed on at the XL Center.

Biles started with complete confidence on the beam Saturday, nailing a routine for a 15 that would increase her lead on Ross to over a point. She put on a performance clinic on floor (14.95) and a clean Amanar on vault (15.8).

Heading into the final rotation the only thing that could cost Biles her first senior national title was a major mistake. Part way through her uneven bars routine she made one. Biles lost her footing during a move on the high bar, ended up in a dead hang and had to take an extra swing, a mistake that nearly obliterated her 1.25-point lead over Ross. Biles handled the error like a veteran, quickly getting back on track and landing a solid dismount to capture the title in dramatic fashion.

“I wasn’t going to let go of that bar,” Biles laughed when asked about what she was thinking when she made the error.

Ross came out swinging on floor (14.5), defiantly landing the tumbling pass that tripped her up in night one. She continued with consistency, turning in nearly flawless vault (15.3) and uneven bars routines (14.95). Ross survived beam, but it wasn’t enough to surpass the dynamic Biles.

Maroney looked like she never took a break for training. She drove home an Amanar vault that delivered an execution score of 9.7, the highest of the entire competition … by a wide margin. She grabbed the floor title from Biles by one tenth.

“I know that I’m not just a one-event wonder.” said Maroney, the world champion and Olympic silver medalist on vault,

The fourth spot on the worlds team is up for grabs.

Brenna Dowell, third in the all-around with 116.55 points, continued to make her case to the selection committee, hitting with consistency and proving she can handle the pressure of big-time competition. Peyton Ernst (115.3) and Maggie Nichols (114.7) rounded out the top five.

Lexie Priessman, the 2012 U.S. junior national champion who withdrew with an Achilles injury before the competition, was added to the national team, but it appears her season is over.

“We don’t want to take risks that could cause more injury,” U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said.

Priessman will see a specialist next week to determine the extent of the injury.

Also added to the national team was Elizabeth Price, the Olympic alternate who bounced back Saturday after a weak opening night. Price competed on just two events, vault and uneven bars. Price could fill a void for the U.S. on uneven bars, but it will be tough for her to make the world team with Ross and Biles’ excellence there.

American Cup champion Katelyn Ohashi, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, did not compete at nationals and was not named to the national team at the conclusion of the competition. However, Ohashi can be placed on the national team at a training camp, but it also appears she will not be in contention for the World Championships team.

All-around
1. Simone Biles, Spring, Texas, 120.450
2. Kyla Ross, Aliso Viejo, Calif., 120.250
3. Brenna Dowell, Odessa, Mo., 116.550
4. Peyton Ernst, Coppell, Texas, 115.300
5. Maggie Nichols, Little Canada, Minn., 114.700

Vault
1. McKayla Maroney, Long Beach, Calif., 31.200
2. Simone Biles, Spring, Texas, 30.875
3. Mykayla Skinner, Gilbert, Ariz., 29.600

Uneven bars
1. Kyla Ross, Aliso Viejo, Calif., 30.950
2. Simone Biles, Spring, Texas, 28.950
3. Brenna Dowell, Odessa, Mo., 28.850
4. Peyton Ernst, Coppell, Texas, 28.450
5. Ariana Guerra, League City, Texas, 28.350

Balance beam
1. Kyla Ross, Aliso Viejo, Calif., 29.950
2. Simone Biles, Spring, Texas, 29.900
3. Kennedy Baker, Flower Mound, Texas, 28.950
4. Peyton Ernst, Coppell, Texas, 28.600
5. Maggie Nichols, Little Canada, Minn., 28.500

Floor exercise
1. McKayla Maroney, Long Beach, Calif., 30.100
2. Simone Biles, Spring, Texas, 30.000
3. Mykayla Skinner, Gilbert, Ariz., 29.750
4. Madison Desch, Lenexa, Kan., 29.300
5. Brenna Dowell, Odessa, Mo., 29.000

National team
Kennedy Baker, Flower Mound, Texas/Texas Dreams
Simone Biles, Spring, Texas/Bannon’s Gymnastix
Brenna Dowell, Odessa, Mo./GAGE
Peyton Ernst, Coppell, Texas/Texas Dreams
Madison Kocian, Dallas/WOGA
McKayla Maroney, Long Beach, Calif./All-Olympia
Maggie Nichols, Little Canada, Minn./Twin City Twisters
Elizabeth Price, Coopersburg, Pa./Parkettes
Lexie Priessman, Cincinnati, Ohio/Cincinnati Gymnastics
Kyla Ross, Aliso Viejo, Calif./Gym-Max
MyKayla Skinner, Gilbert, Ariz./Desert Lights

Video: Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman talk Rio 2016

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