Surging Abbott sets U.S. record, skates into first at U.S. Championships

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BOSTON — In a program that was giving Jeremy Abbott nightmares, he delivered a dream come true on Friday night.

The three-time national champion was waking up in a cold sweat in the nights leading up to the U.S. Championships in Boston, but skated to a 99.86 at TD Garden to not only set a new U.S. record, but also launch himself into first place in an Olympic year.

“I was having these nightmares where I was in seventh place and too far out to make the Olympic team,” Abbott explained. “I would wake up crying; it was horrifying. Every single night I had this dream where I imploded in the short program.”

Abbott broke a record that 22-year-old Richard Dornbush set earlier in the night, the California-based skater electrifying the crowd with a 92.04. Teenager Jason Brown, just 19, was third, scoring a 87.47.

Abbott had made it public that this would be his final U.S. Championships, the Nationals winner in 2009, 2010 and 2012 saying that he would hang up his skates after this season – Sochi or not.

Davis/White skate closer to historic sixth U.S. title

“This whole week has been really special for me,” the 28-year-old Abbott told reporters. “I just wanted to live in it because it’s never happening again.”

But his program will happen again and again online in the digital archive, where fans will see that he started off with a monstrous quadruple Salchow-triple toe combination that sent the crowd into roars.

Abbott, who flopped at the Vancouver Games to a ninth-place finish, has been known to slip up – literally – when he gets his big elements under his belt. But he didn’t do that in Boston, the veteran hitting a triple Lutz and then later a triple Axel, skating with a kind of vigor and energy that only a record-setting performance can contain.

“I’ll never forget this performance,” Abbott said plainly.

Nor will Dornbush his. Second in 2011, Dornbush has been up and down for the last two seasons, placing a dismal 13th in 2012 and sixth a year ago. But he delivered a career-best as just the second skater of the night, sending a “top-that” message to his competitors with a landed quadruple Salchow and then a triple-triple combination.

“I’m not really a New Year’s resolution person, but I just said, ‘You know what? I want to land more quadruple Salchows in competition,'” Dornbush told reporters.

Abbott adores the ‘underdog’ status

Crowd favorite Brown, who was beaming after his short, doesn’t have a quad in his reportoire but that didn’t seem to matter, the Chicago native saving a triple Axel early and then drawing in an admiring Boston crowd.

“Being such a crowd favorite can be such a blessing and a curse,” Brown’s coach Kori Ade told NBCOlympics.com. “This has all come so quickly this year, having this much fan support where he’s stepping onto the ice and there’s more pressure on him.”

The pressure seemed to hurt Olympic hopefuls Max Aaron, the reigning U.S. champion, and a resurgent Adam Rippon, who placed fourth and sixth, respectively.

Only two American men will be placed on the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, presumably the top two skaters at these Championships. But the U.S. Figure Skating Association will not name its team until Sunday night, following the men’s free skate, utilizing its international panel to select the two skaters.

“That was just fun,” Abbott said, breaking into a smile. “But I still have four and a half minutes to skate, eight more triples.”

And perhaps – if he can execute it – one more dream performance.

Ragan Smith, after watching in Rio, leads P&G Championships

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Ragan Smith could do nothing more than watch in Rio as the Final Five dominated. The roles reversed at the P&G Championships on Friday night.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate, easily topped the all-around standings on the first of two nights of competition that will determine national champions.

Oh, and Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez were among those in the Honda Center crowd in Anaheim.

It’s the beginning of a new era for U.S. women’s gymnastics. None of the Rio Olympians are competing this weekend, but all five could come back for a Tokyo 2020 run.

For now, the spotlight is on Smith.

“It’s kind of nice, like, having a new generation coming up,” Smith, who is coached by 1992 Olympic bronze medalist Kim Zmeskal Burdette, said on NBCSN. “I think it’s a little less pressure, but I still kind of feel like it’s the same because I had no idea what was going to happen last year.”

The 17-year-old Texan leads by 1.3 points over Riley McCusker going into the final day Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app). Full scores are here. A four-woman team for October’s world championships will be named after a camp later this summer.

Smith overcame minor flaws on her first routine — uneven bars — and more significant ones on her next — balance beam. A solid floor exercise and vault gave her a first-day lead six tenths shy of Biles’ average margin from 2013 through 2016.

The second- and third-highest scores Friday actually came from the earlier junior division. With no team event at this year’s worlds, senior depth is less necessary.

Smith, after just missing the Rio Olympic team in her first year as a senior gymnast, won the AT&T American Cup on March 4 despite a beam fall. That made her the favorite this week.

The rest of the field — with no Olympians for the first time since 2008 — could not keep pace Friday. Smith’s top challengers coming in were McCusker and Morgan Hurd.

McCusker, who shares a coach with Hernandez, reeled back some difficulty. She was on crutches with a cast on her wrist in early July.

Hurd, a first-year senior who competes in glasses, took two out-of-bounds steps and sat down on back-to-back floor exercise passes.

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P&G CHAMPS: Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview
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Simone Biles says she’s back in the gym (video)

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Simone Biles is back in the gym.

In between giggles, Biles said she returned to the gym two weeks ago in an NBCSN interview at the P&G Championships in Anaheim on Friday night.

“I actually started, like, two Fridays ago,” Biles said. “I’m weak. But I’m coming back. I’m just doing conditioning and basics right now.”

Biles last competed at the Rio Olympics, winning five medals, including four golds, for the greatest single-Games medal haul by a female gymnast in nearly three decades. That came after Biles swept every U.S. and world all-around title in that four-year Olympic cycle.

The 20-year-old said late last year and early this year that she planned to return to training in late 2017 or early 2018 with an eye on Tokyo 2020.

“It’s OK to sit out one [year],” Biles said. “I can’t imagine being out on the floor now.”

Biles has not set a return to competition. Her longtime coach, Aimee Boorman, moved from Texas to Florida after Rio.

If Biles makes the Tokyo 2020 team, she can attempt to become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion since the late Czech Věra Čáslavská in 1964 and 1968.

Gabby Douglas attempted this feat in Rio but did not qualify for the all-around final.

Douglas said earlier this month that she has not decided whether she will return to competition.

Aly Raisman said in September that she plans to return to training after taking 2017 off. Laurie Hernandez said she hopes to go for 2020 but has not set a return to training.

Madison Kocian is the lone member of the Olympic team who has competed since Rio, but it wasn’t on the elite stage. The Texan did a full freshman season for UCLA with a torn labrum and partially torn rotator cuff in her shoulder.

Kocian said in June that she has not decided if she will return to elite gymnastics.

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P&G CHAMPS: Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview
TV Schedule | Final Five Updates