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 eyes history at Grand Prix Final after ‘disaster’ in Japan

Ashley Wagner
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Ashley Wagner can next week become the first U.S. singles skater to make four straight Grand Prix Final podiums, but not if she performs like she did last weekend at NHK Trophy in Japan.

“NHK was a disaster,” the three-time U.S. champion said Tuesday, “but that was kind of a one-time deal.”

Wagner backed into the Grand Prix Final as the sixth and final women’s qualifier by finishing fourth at NHK Trophy on Saturday, snapping her streak of 10 straight podium finishes in Grand Prix events. She had won Skate Canada four weeks earlier.

The Grand Prix Final is the most prestigious annual figure skating competition outside of the World Championships and an event that Wagner calls a preview for Worlds (in Boston in late March/early April).

In Japan, Wagner had trouble cleanly landing and fully rotating jumps in both programs, and though she didn’t fall, her mental state was clearly shaken even before the free skate Saturday.

Japanese legend Mao Asada (one of three women to make four straight Grand Prix Final podiums, along with Irina Slutskaya and Michelle Kwan) skated immediately before Wagner.

The home crowd was at its loudest after Asada rebounded from her own poor short to move into the lead (temporarily, Asada finished third).

“I didn’t know how Mao had skated,” said Wagner, who was in third after the short program. “I figured I needed to at least get on the podium [to definitely make the Grand Prix Final], and I knew that I could probably afford a fourth place [to still make the Final]. I think that is where I went wrong. I should have just put my head down, started fresh and gone into that long program not focusing on, OK, well, I can get as low as this and I’ll make it to the [Grand Prix] Final. I think that didn’t really get me into the fighting spirit that I’m so used to competing with. When I focus on the results and not how I’m going to get there, it usually doesn’t go so well for me. It was a rookie mistake.

“I think I was playing it safe and trying to avoid making a mistake, and of course that’s exactly what I ended up doing.”

Wagner placed fifth in the free skate and fourth overall. She actually could have finished sixth overall and still made the Barcelona Grand Prix Final.

So she goes into next weekend’s competition as an underdog to Russians Yevgenia Medvedeva and Yelena Radionova, the last two World Junior champions. Plus countrywoman Gracie Gold and Asada.

Wagner’s confidence that the NHK hiccup won’t repeat could be bolstered by last season, when she was also the last qualifier into the Grand Prix Final (before Gold withdrew), was in last place after the Final short program but starred in the free skate to grab bronze.

“I like it when I have something not go so well,” she said. “When things are too perfect for too long, in a way it kind of freaks me out a little bit.”

Wagner called the women’s field in Barcelona “wide open.” It may be, given six different women won the six qualifying events, the first time nobody doubled up since 2006.

However, Wagner tapped Asada when asked to name her biggest competition. Wagner, 24, and Asada, 25, are the only women’s Grand Prix Final qualifiers older than 20.

“When she’s on, [Asada] has the whole package,” Wagner said of the three-time World champion who took last season off from competition. “She knows how to put on a performance. The audience loves her. Technically, she’s very strong. I think that If I had to pinpoint someone, Mao Asada on one of her good days, is definitely going to be one of the top girls.”

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Travis Ganong on the rise, leads U.S. men into Beaver Creek

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) — Before checking into his Colorado hotel, Travis Ganong made a quick pit stop with his doctor to get the stitches removed from his surgically repaired right thumb.

The digit remains extremely swollen even two weeks after a training crash. So much so that he can barely push out of the starting gate.

Not that anyone could tell in Lake Louise, Alberta, last weekend, when Ganong finished third in a downhill race and came within a wisp of another podium spot in the super-G.

Stitches removed and confidence soaring, Ganong’s eager to take on the demanding course in Beaver Creek over the weekend. This is a place where last February he earned a breakthrough silver medal in the downhill at World Championships (video here).

”It’s really nice to have these solid results so early in the season. It takes the edge off,” Ganong said. ”Before you have the first result, you’re always questioning yourself. Now I can relax and that’s when the really good skiing comes.”

The 27-year-old from Squaw Valley, California, has been a rising force on the U.S. speed team since a fifth-place finish at the 2014 Sochi Games.

In such a fast sport, though, he’s taken a gradual approach to his development – never racing outside his comfort zone until he was good and ready. That was all part of his calculated plan, which came to fruition last season as he won his first World Cup downhill race in Italy and earned his first medal at Worlds.

”I was always building, building, building, getting better and better incrementally,” Ganong said. ”Last year I was like, ‘OK, my time is now. I need to try something new.’

”Bam, I won a race. But then I would have a horrible race. … Now this year it’s all about bringing that consistency back to the top, top level.”

Growing up in Squaw Valley, Ganong could always be found somewhere on the mountain, whether it was skiing powder in the back-country with his father, cross-country skiing (he was good, too), snowboarding (yep, he tried that), going over moguls or training with his team.

”We had this two- or three-inch rule where if it snowed that much, we didn’t worry about setting up gates. We’d go freeskiing and chase each other around the mountain,” Ganong said. ”That’s the No. 1 reason why so many good skiers come out of there.”

Like longtime U.S. skiing great Daron Rahlves, one of Ganong’s idols as a kid. The two talk all the time about ways Ganong can uncover more speed.

”I really excel on the steeper, more gnarly courses,” Ganong said. ”I need to try to figure out a way to bring that same intensity to the easier hills that are a little flatter and not my strong suit. Daron and I, that’s all we talk about when we talk about ski racing.”

Ganong broke through last weekend in Lake Louise, which is more of a glider’s course.

Not bad considering his recent wipeout. He tumbled during an early morning training session in Vail when he didn’t pick up a roll in the terrain. He needed surgery to fix a torn tendon and ligaments. He also bruised his left knee.

So he didn’t have all that high of expectations going into Lake Louise.

”For me to have that kind of speed on that kind of hill, yeah, that was a little surprising,” Ganong said. ”I skied really relaxed and just kind of within myself.”

No one could catch Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, though, who came away with wins on both days as he returns to the World Cup circuit after tearing his Achilles tendon last season while juggling a soccer ball.

”Aksel just knows how to let the skis go,” Ganong said. ”But Beaver Creek? It’s a different hill.”

Ganong’s kind of hill.

”Beaver Creek is way more my style of skiing and my style of hill,” said Ganong, who was fifth last December in a World Cup downhill at Birds of Prey. ”I’m trying to not think too much about it, just keep working hard, and keep thinking I’m an underdog and have something to prove.

”Hopefully, that’s a good mentality to keep me fired up.”

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