Gabby Douglas wins American Cup, first title since 2012 Olympics

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NEWARK, N.J. — Just like four years ago, Gabby Douglas posted the highest all-around score at the American Cup. There was just one significant difference on Saturday.

“My scores counted!” Douglas said.

The Olympic all-around champion led wire to wire to win in her first meet of the Olympic year, her first all-around title since she the London 2012 Games.

In between, Douglas took 2 1/2 years off from meets, returning last March and competing four times in 2015 with a best all-around finish of second place.

On Saturday, Douglas, hoping this summer to become the first Olympic all-around gold medalist to compete in the following Games since Nadia Comaneci in 1980, made no major errors over four routines.

She totaled 60.165 points in a sparkling fuchsia and silver leotard, beating 2015 World Championships teammate Maggie Nichols by .466 at the Prudential Center. The packed crowd roared with every clean landing and high-flying flip at the biggest annual international meet in the U.S.

“I’m so thankful to have that clicking mode, when the cameras are there and when it counts,” Douglas said. “I kind of have that, switch it on, switch it off.”

DOUGLAS VIDEO: Balance Beam | Floor Exercise | Uneven Bars | Vault

The field did not include Simone Biles, the three-time reigning World all-around champion and Rio Olympic all-around super favorite expected to make her 2016 debut later this month.

Douglas broke through at this meet four years ago by posting the highest all-around score, despite being an unofficial competitor outside of the overall standings. She watched as Jordyn Wieber was awarded the trophy at Madison Square Garden.

“I’m not going to lie, I was a little sad,” Douglas recalled Saturday with a humorous pout. “Oh man, I kind of wanted the cup [trophy].”

Would this year’s Douglas have beaten the 2012 American Cup Douglas?

“You cannot speculate on these things because gymnastics is evolving every year and every year expectations are harder,” U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. “She’s definitely further ahead than last year.”

Douglas did speculate. In some ways, she’s ahead of her 2012 pace.

“The form needs to be there a little bit more, but overall I would have to say it’s kind of better than 2012 [American Cup],” said Douglas, who along with Olympic floor exercise champion Aly Raisman is trying to become the first U.S. woman to make back-to-back Olympic teams since 1996 and 2000. “I feel like my mental game is more there, and I feel more strong and more aggressive.”

Douglas said she’d probably give this first American Cup trophy to her mom to put in a case in their Los Angeles home.

The American Cup winners in 2004 (Carly Patterson) and 2008 (Nastia Liukin) bagged Olympic all-around gold later that year, with Douglas’ top score in 2012 adding to that trend.

That bodes well for Douglas’ hopes to become the first back-to-back Olympic women’s all-around champ since Věra Čáslavská in 1964 and 1968.

She’ll have to surpass Biles, who beat Douglas in all four of Douglas’ meets last year and relegated Douglas to silver by a comfortable 1.083 points at the World Championships on Oct. 29.

Also Saturday, American Donnell Whittenburg led the men’s competition going into the final rotation, when he fell on high bar and was passed by Japan’s Ryohei Kato for the title by .366.

Sam Mikulak, a 2012 U.S. Olympian, finished fourth on Saturday, falling off pommel horse and high bar and putting one hand down on his final floor exercise pass.

Mikulak is coming back from a partially torn left Achilles suffered in early October, which knocked him out of the World Championships.

The next notable meet is the Jesolo Trophy in Italy in two weeks, which could feature Biles and Raisman in their 2016 competition debuts.

The P&G Championships and Olympic trials are in June and July, after which the five-man and five-woman U.S. Olympic teams will be named.

“There’s more work to be done,” Douglas said. “I’m not going to let up.”

MORE: Mary Lou Retton recalls 1985 American Cup win after Olympics

World Figure Skating Championships women’s preview

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Ashley Wagner has not watched any of Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva‘s programs this season, but this much Wagner knows without looking:

“She is technically flawless, and if there is an athlete that we should be chasing, obviously it’s Yevgenia,” Wagner said.

Medvedeva, a 17-year-old from Moscow, is the biggest favorite across all four disciplines at next week’s world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

Wagner is the 2016 World silver medalist, the first U.S. woman on the podium in 10 years, but it would be shocking if she upgrades to gold next week. Realistically, she’s at best fighting for a silver or bronze along with Russians Anna Pogorilaya and Maria Sotskova, Canadians Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman, Italian Carolina Kostner and Japan’s Mai Mihara.

Medvedeva is in her own class.

Undefeated since November 2015. Winner of her last 11 events in her first two seasons at the senior level. She can become the first woman to repeat as world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

In fact, another gold would give Medvedeva the most dominant two-season stretch by a female skater since Katarina Witt‘s stronghold in the mid-1980s.

“I really appreciate her in the sport because she is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said.

What sets Medvedeva apart is that she has been polished, from her triple-triple jump combinations and spins to her performance quality, since turning 16 in her senior debut season a year ago.

And her consistency. All other recent Russian stars — 2014 Olympic champions Adelina Sotnikova and Yulia Lipnitskaya and 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva — simply could not put together two straight world-class seasons at the senior level.

Given that history, Wagner is not fully sold on Medvedeva.

“Time will tell,” said Wagner, who has joked that she needs to skate like “a robot” to compete with Medvedeva. “She is not part of this normal cycle of Russian athletes. I feel like they have one or two seasons of dominance, and then they kind of disappear. So we will see what happens to her, but she seems to be going very strong.”

Medvedeva, whose mom was a skater, started in the sport at age 3, inspired like many by the great Yevgeny Plushenko.

Figure skating is popular and storied in Russia, but Medvedeva is rarely recognized back home, where she still spends weekends watching cartoons. She does have more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, though.

Medvedeva’s scores from her four international competitions this season are the four highest scores in the world, all above 220 points. This despite falling at one competition, having one jump called under-rotated at another and stepping out of a landing at another.

Nobody else in next week’s field has cracked 217 points — in their careers.

At December’s Russian Championships, Medvedeva added a second triple toe loop onto a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination, knowing she would get zero points for the superfluous jump. She did it three minutes into her free skate (with controversial music from a film about Sept. 11, 2001), when most skaters would be tired.

Medvedeva has shown disappointment when not breaking records and talked about adding a quadruple Salchow to her arsenal. She speaks some English in interviews, even though she hasn’t taken English classes in two years, according to Icenetwork.

“Sometimes I feel like I am two people: the grown-up and the kid,” she said in the fall, according to Icenetwork. “The first one is able to understand and execute difficult programs, while the other one is just like … watching cartoons all the time!”

Medvedeva was last outscored in the short program at last year’s world championships in Boston. She placed third behind Gracie Gold and Pogorilaya, with Wagner in fourth.

In the free skate, Medvedeva and Wagner climbed to gold and silver, respectively. Wagner tallied personal bests for both programs at the 2016 Worlds, yet still finished 7.47 points behind Medvedeva.

Wagner has been unable to replicate those kinds of skates this season. In two international events, her best total is 196.44 points, which seeds her eighth going into worlds. She was also beaten by surprise Karen Chen at the U.S. Championships in January.

“This year is not the year I’m planning on peaking,” Wagner said. “Next year is the year that I am like in it to kill. … This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year and even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me. I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

As noted, the pressure is on Wagner to lead an inexperienced U.S. team of three women in Helsinki. She’ll be joined by training partner Mariah Bell and Chen. The two worlds rookies have been less impressive than Wagner internationally this season. They’re seeded 10th and 16th.

The two best results out of Wagner, Chen and Bell must add up to no more than 13, or else the U.S. will only get two women’s spots at the Olympics for the second time in the last six Winter Games.

There is an outside chance of a Russian sweep, given the second-best skater this season, Japan’s Satoko Miyahara, withdrew due to injury. Pogorilaya, the 2016 World bronze medalist, has the next two highest scores this season after Medvedeva and Miyahara.

Russia also has Sotskova, the most impressive of the first-year senior skaters.

The experienced category is led by Osmond, having her best results since debuting as a senior in 2012, and Kostner, the six-time world medalist back after two years off. They’re seeded third and fourth.

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U.S. women’s hockey players show solildarity in portraits

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The U.S. women’s hockey team is … family, powerful, united, strong, brave, together, limitless, fierce, bold, historic, ambitious, resilient, fearless and devoted.

All 23 players on the U.S. roster planning to boycott the world championship that starts in one week posted portraits on Twitter on Friday morning. Each player held a paper with a one-word descriptor.

The players plan to boycott the world championship tournament in Plymouth, Mich., unless their wage dispute with USA Hockey is settled.

The players believed they reached an agreement with USA Hockey in a 10-hour-plus meeting Monday, but USA Hockey’s later counter offer “didn’t reflect the progress of the negotiations,” according to the players’ representatives.

USA Hockey said Thursday that it will start reaching out to potential replacement players, but it still hopes to come to an agreement to field its original team in Plymouth.

“As we have maintained from the beginning, this issue is about more than the compensation of the current team: it’s about equitable treatment for female players now and in the future,” the players said in a statement Thursday. “A forward-looking agreement will benefit the next generation of players even more than the current players. For that reason, and the fact that the younger players identify with us, we are confident that they [potential replacement players] would choose not to play.”

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