Simone Biles

Simone Biles a tall favorite at P&G Championships; women’s preview

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PITTSBURGH — Simone Biles flinched and froze at a startling sight before walking out of Pittsburgh International Airport on Monday.

“Yeah, you’re on the wall,” Biles’ coach, Aimee Boorman, said about a large sign promoting the P&G Championships. “And you’re 30 feet tall in the arena.”

The real Biles’ feet don’t touch the floor in sitdown interviews, but everything about the Texan is bigger in and around the site of the P&G Championships.

Look up, and she’s a banner above a bridge crossing one of the three rivers. Look down, and she’s sidewalk art directing downtown foot traffic to the Consol Energy Center for the meet. The women’s competition at the P&G Championships starts Thursday and wraps Saturday (8 p.m. ET, live on NBC).

“It’s really weird seeing my face everywhere,” Biles said.

She said she isn’t immune to nerves, but Biles feels the same as last year in Hartford, where she entered P&Gs as a relative unknown and won the all-around title.

Biles, who is printed on room keys at one downtown hotel, is favored to successfully defend her crown. (Biles’ family, which is not staying at that hotel, made sure to take a key as a souvenir.)

“I find it a little weird,” Boorman said, “because she’s just Simone. She’s not a star at home.”

Biles stopped again walking into the arena Monday. Fans were waiting for her outside the athlete entrance. One gave her a card.

“It freaks her out,” Boorman said, “because she’s very humble.”

And very accomplished.

The home-schooled Biles became the third American woman to win four medals at a single World Championships last October, including the most coveted, all-around gold. She’s been compared to Shawn Johnson for her powerful, athletic skills and strengths on floor exercise, balance beam and vault.

Biles bought a belly ring and lost her braces after Worlds, went back to driving her little sister to school and returned to competition at the Secret Classic on Aug. 2 and ran away with the all-around title.

That cemented her ultra-favorite status for Pittsburgh, though she modestly said her goal this week is top three in the all-around. Perhaps only 2012 Olympian Kyla Ross, often Biles’ roommate at camps and competitions, could challenge her this week.

If Biles makes the six-woman team for the World Championships in Nanning, China, in October (chosen not in Pittsburgh but after a later selection camp), she will attempt to end a trend.

In the last 10 years, 10 different women have been the top American all-around finisher at the year’s biggest competition — Worlds or the Olympics.

Speaking of the Olympics, Biles may currently be the world’s greatest gymnast, but that is no guarantee she will wear red, white and blue in Rio de Janeiro in two years.

The best U.S. gymnast in 2010 was Rebecca Bross, who didn’t make the London Olympic team in 2012. Biles will turn 19 before the Rio Games in 2016. The oldest member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team that won gold was 18.

“Not only getting to the top is important, but staying on the top is sometimes even harder,” U.S. National Team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. “In order to stay up there and repeat, you have to keep the discipline, the lifestyle the same. … It takes some sacrifices.”

Karolyi spoke of the sport’s rapid turnover rate after the 2013 World Championships when she said there were “several 13-year-olds gearing up for Rio.”

They aren’t ready to challenge Biles yet. The 2011, 2012 and 2013 U.S. junior all-around champions are all out of this week’s competition with injuries (an indication of another reason why it won’t be easy for Biles to sustain the next two years.)

Eight senior women are scheduled to compete on all four events on Thursday and Saturday, the lowest number since at least 1986, USA Gymnastics said. Thirteen in total are in the field.

One would think such a small pool to select from would hurt the overall U.S. team going into Worlds, but Karolyi doesn’t see it that way.

Only three routines per apparatus are needed in Nanning.

Biles and Ross were the world’s two best all-around gymnasts last year, and Karolyi pointed to others competing in Pittsburgh who could fill in the gaps — mentioning Brenna Dowell (strong on uneven bars), MyKayla Skinner (vault) and Madison Kocian (also bars) by name.

“I think, at this moment, we’re still standing pretty good in that direction,” Karolyi said. “We have the pieces that we need.”

U.S. gymnast wins all-around bronze at Youth Olympics

U.S. figure skating could have its best world team since 2006

Nathan Chen performs during the men's free skate competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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KANSAS CITY — U.S. figure skating has a shot at medals in three of four disciplines at the world championships in Helsinki in two months, which hasn’t happened in 11 years.

Before this year, the U.S. men and U.S. women hadn’t boasted simultaneous medal contenders in a decade. Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek spent the 2010 Olympic cycle in the world elite, while the U.S. women faded. After they stopped competing, Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold moved into the women’s medal field while the U.S. searched for a new leading man.

He’s arrived. Nathan Chen confirmed he is one of the world’s best male skaters by landing a record seven quadruple jumps between two programs at Sprint Center this past week.

The 17-year-old already made the podium in an event that featured the world’s best, earning silver at the Grand Prix Final in December. Chen struggled with his short-program jumps at the Grand Prix Final and attempted one fewer quad overall yet still outscored everybody but Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

Of all of the U.S. medal hopes at worlds, Chen may face the stiffest trio of challengers. Not only is there Hanyu, but also two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, plus Japan’s Shoma Uno, all of whom rank higher than Chen in best total scores in international competition this season.

MORE: Chen believes Olympic gold is possible after U.S. title

Wagner, who shares a coach with Chen, did not have her best nationals. She finished second to surprise winner Karen Chen (no relation to Nathan), who has yet to factor internationally.

But Wagner said before and after the U.S. Championships that her focus was to peak for the world championships. The goal for nationals was to make the world team, which required not winning but finishing in the top three. Mission accomplished.

The concern with Wagner is that she hasn’t produced a world medal-caliber result yet this season. Her best score from the fall ranks her sixth among women going to worlds. But Wagner has shown in the last few seasons that she can pull it together for major events. There’s her 2016 World Championships silver medal, plus her three straight Grand Prix Final medals from 2012-14.

At worlds, Wagner will have to deal with a Russian trio capable of sweeping the podium, three strong Japanese skaters, plus the revelation of this season, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond.

VIDEO: Wagner passed Puffs in emotional press conference moment

The U.S.’ strongest discipline continues to be ice dance. Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock and Evan Bates finished second and third at the 2016 World Championships. They went one-two at the U.S. Championships this past week.

But two ice dance medals don’t appear to be in the cards in Helsinki. That’s because Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who earned gold and silver at the last two Olympics, came back this season after a two-year break.

Virtue and Moir broke international scoring records in the fall, sweeping their four starts. The two-time reigning world champions, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, also beat the U.S. couples at the Grand Prix Final.

The Shibutani siblings and Chock and Bates have never finished ahead of Virtue and Moir in competition. Neither has bettered the French since the December 2014 Grand Prix Final, either.

But all it takes is one dance medal, plus Chen and Wagner at their best in Helsinki, and the U.S. could go into the Olympic year in its best place since 2006.

MORE: Gracie Gold comments on split from coach Frank Carroll

Laurie Hernandez discusses life after Rio, new book on TODAY (video)

Laurie Hernandez
TODAY
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Laurie Hernandez‘s book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” is out Tuesday, and the Olympic champion gymnast stopped by TODAY on Monday to discuss its contents and life post-Rio.

An excerpt on Hernandez’s experience in Rio and the story of her floor-exercise wink to judges, is here.

On TODAY, Hernandez discussed another interesting anecdote from the book about tissues.

“Before Olympic Trials, we went out to eat, and I had a little breakdown because practice was really rough, and my routines weren’t coming the way I wanted them to,” she said. “This poor waitress kept bringing me over piles of tissues. … We were leaving, and my sister [Jelysa] told my dad, I’m going to save these tissues. I’m going to give them to her when she makes the team. I’m thinking to myself, you guys are crazy, this is not going to happen.”

Hernandez went on to finish second to Simone Biles at the Olympic Trials and make the five-woman Olympic team as the first U.S. female Olympian born in the 2000s.

The family celebrated the achievement, where Jelysa handed the tissues to Hernandez in a bag.

“Even when you fell, you couldn’t believe in yourself, we were there for you,” Jelysa told her.

“So it was a really defining moment,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez is away from gymnastics while promoting her book and touring with “Dancing with the Stars,” but she is expected to return to the sport at some point.

MORE: Hernandez explains 2017 goals: First date, driver’s license, Law & Order