Simone Biles

USA Gymnastics’ future bright with Rio 2016 on horizon

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Martha Karolyi certainly wasn’t lacking confidence after the U.S. women won more than half of the medals at the World Gymnastics Championships.

“We are ready to go for Rio,” she said, according to The Associated Press. “We have some more reserves.”

Start with the stars. There’s Simone Biles, in her first year as a senior gymnast, who won the all-around title in Antwerp, Belgium, last week.

“You can see that fire in her eyes,” 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin said at the Diana Nyad Swim for Relief event in New York on Wednesday. “Her skills are just through the roof. It’s not just her skills, but it’s the way that she executes them. It’s the Amanar on vault. She got a skill named after her on floor (exercise).”

There’s also Kyla Ross, the youngest member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic champion team, who won three silvers, including in the all-around. Both Biles and Ross are 16.

McKayla Maroney, 17, again showed she’s the best vaulter in the world by defending her title on the high-flying event.

The reserves that Karolyi referred to? Well, there are two sets.

Olympians Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman all took time off after the London Games but expressed interest in returning to training at some point. Raisman is already back in her Massachusetts gym.

Nobody has made back-to-back U.S. Olympic teams since 2000, so perhaps the more noteworthy reserves are juniors.

Karolyi “insisted she has several 13-year-olds already gearing up for Rio,” according to the AP.

The top two finishers at the U.S. Junior Championships are too young to compete at the senior level next year. Bailie Key is 14, and Laurie Hernandez is 13.

If history is any indication, they could very well pass Biles and everyone else as the top U.S. all-around hopes by the 2016 Olympics. In the last 10 years, 10 different women have been the top U.S. finisher at the year’s biggest competition.

Look at the last Olympic cycle. In 2009, Bridget Sloan won the World Championship. In 2010, Rebecca Bross was the world bronze medalist. In 2011, Wieber won the World Championship. In 2012, Douglas won the Olympic title.

Neither Sloan nor Bross made the 2012 Olympic team. Neither Wieber nor Douglas was old enough for senior events in 2009 or 2010.

“The turnover is so high,” Liukin said. “I think it is important to take it one year at a time. It’s so hard now to do so when the Olympics has gotten so much more attention, I feel like, in the past few Olympics.”

Liukin would know. She was too young for the 2004 Olympics, entering senior competition in 2005. She took the silver medal behind U.S. teammate Chellsie Memmel by .001 of a point at the 2005 World Championships.

Liukin had to keep her form for three more years before the Beijing Games, while her biggest competition come 2008, Shawn Johnson, was 10th in the junior all-around at the 2005 U.S. Championships. Liukin, then 16, had no idea that a 13-year-old would eventually rival her.

“In ’05, I would say I wasn’t aware,” Liukin said. “It was my first year on the senior rankings, and I was so excited to be there (at worlds). I remember it was in Rod Laver Arena in Australia, in Melbourne. I remember walking into that arena, and it was like 20,000 people, and I just looked at my dad with huge eyes.”

Liukin, now a freshman at New York University, knew better in 2009. She pulled out of the 2009 World Championships before the team was named because she didn’t feel she could compete at her best. She was also well-versed in the U.S. gymnastics landscape, with rising stars such as Bross, who also trained under Liukin’s dad, inspired by Liukin’s performance in Beijing.

“I knew there was a whole new generation of girls wanting to push me out,” Liukin said. “That’s the way I feel like these young girls are. They’re so ambitious.”

Italian gymnast apologizes for comment about Biles

Ashley Wagner ‘sick’ of hearing about her age

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KANSAS CITY — Ashley Wagner can become the oldest U.S. women’s figure skating champion in 90 years, but it would not be wise to tell her that.

“I think that this sport focuses on age way too much,” the three-time U.S. champion Wagner, 25, said in a press conference after Thursday night’s short program at Sprint Center (recap, videos here). “I’m so sick of hearing about my age. I’m so sick of it guys. If anybody asks me one more question about my age, I’ll just stop talking. It’s ridiculous.”

Wagner placed third in the short program, 1.88 points behind leader Karen Chen, who is 17 years old. She’ll try to surpass Chen in the free skate Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Chen sat in Thursday’s press conference between Wagner and second-place Mirai Nagasu, a 23-year-old who won the U.S. title way back in 2008.

“They’re my role models,” Chen said. “I watched them skate for years and years.”

Wagner then interjected before the next question.

“You just made both of us feel so old,” Wagner said, drawing laughter.

Truth is, Wagner is often asked about her age, her experience, her highs and lows, and answers respectfully and with wisdom. She did again after competing Thursday night for the first time in nearly two months, under the pressure as U.S. Championships favorite.

“I choose to view the word ‘veteran’ as experienced, and experience is never a bad thing, because I’ve gone through the good experiences and the brutally terrible awful experiences,” said Wagner, who last season earned world championships silver, ending a 10-year U.S. women’s drought.

NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski was surprised to learn Wagner wasn’t particularly interested in questions about her age.

“Age is definitely a factor,” Lipinski said Friday. “You can pretend it’s not, but it is. I tried to pretend that it wasn’t, but it was. It was talked about a lot. I was too young [winning the Olympics at age 15]. Whether it’s the opposite [age] range, age is a factor.”

Wagner competes in a sport where, in other top countries, crops of teens are replaced by the next crop of teens. At last month’s Japanese and Russian Championships, the oldest women’s podium finisher was 18 years old.

Wagner may be past the usual prime years for skaters, but Lipinski pointed out that being (very) young has its disadvantages.

“I felt that I didn’t have a lot to draw on,” said Lipinski, who at 14 became the youngest U.S. women’s champion in 1997. “I didn’t have a lot of outside perspectives. Skating was my life. So any small mistake took me so down, and it was very hard for me to put this sport in perspective.”

Wagner was asked if she worried she may have peaked with that 2016 World Championships silver medal.

“If I peaked,” she said, “I would have retired.”

If Wagner makes the PyeongChang Winter Games, she would become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928. Which would actually be an incredible accomplishment in a teen-dominated sport.

That sort of statistic was probably furthest from her mind in Thursday’s press conference.

“We definitely need a new crop of girls to come in,” Wagner said, cracking a smile, “because I will die one day.”

MORE: U.S. Figure Skating head says Russia shouldn’t be in PyeongChang

How to watch U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Friday

FILE - In this Dec. 8, 2016, file photo, Nathan Chen of the United States, competes in the men's short program at the Grand Prix of Figure Skating final in Marseille, southern France. The 17-year-old's revelatory performance at last month's Grand Prix final in France has made him American figure skating's bright new star. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)
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U.S. Figure Skating Championships coverage continues Friday, live on NBCSN, Universal HD and streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app, starting at 6 p.m. ET.

The short dance and men’s short programs are scheduled in Kansas City.

The NBC Sports All-Access page will provide live scoring and more all week.

Short dance
6-8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app
STREAM LINK | SKATE ORDER | PREVIEW

Men’s short program
8:30 p.m.-midnight ET, Universal HD
SKATE ORDER | PREVIEW

In dance, defending champions Maia and Alex Shibutani take on two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. They’re heavy favorites for the three world championships berths.

Nathan Chen leads the men’s field, seeking to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion since 1966. He faces past champions Jason Brown and Max Aaron with two worlds berths at stake this weekend

The free dance will be Saturday and the men’s free skate Sunday, both on NBC and streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. A full broadcast schedule is here.

MORE: U.S. Figure Skating boss says Russia shouldn’t be in PyeongChang