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Six months out: 18 international athletes to watch for PyeongChang

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Eighteen of the most dominant and decorated international athletes with eyes on the PyeongChang Olympics in six months.

Marcel Hirscher, Austria, Alpine Skiing
The first man to win six World Cup overall titles, and he’s done it consecutively. Hirscher has won World Cup or world championships races in every discipline but downhill, but he’s set to end his career with a different distinction if he doesn’t deliver in PyeongChang — best skier never to win Olympic gold. Hirscher, a Sochi silver medalist, reportedly said he doesn’t plan to race to 2022.

Kaillie Humphries, Canada, Bobsled
Greatest female driver in history and two-time reigning Olympic champion. Humphries took a backseat to Americans Elana Meyers Taylor and Jamie Greubel Poser last season, ceding world championships and World Cup titles. Humphries’ collection of tattoos includes the date (2.24.10) of her first Olympic title on the side of her hand with the word “Believe.”

Mikael Kingsbury, Canada, Freestyle Skiing
The Québécois was the pre-Sochi favorite but took silver behind countryman Alexandre Bilodeau, who repeated as Olympic champion and then retired. Kingsbury, known to wear a lucky undershirt that states, “It’s Good to be the King,” took the defeat in stride, winning seven straight World Cup events in 2015 and 2016 and running his streak of World Cup season titles to six this year.

Mark McMorris, Canada, Snowboarding
The rare snowboarder from Saskatchewan earned the nickname “McRib” after breaking a rib in the 2014 Winter X Games, 12 days before Sochi, and losing his favorite status for slopestyle’s Olympic debut. He returned to capture a rewarding bronze medal. McMorris must come back from a life-threatening crash this time around. He suffered a broken jaw and left arm, ruptured spleen, stable pelvic fracture, rib fractures and a collapsed left lung in a backcountry snowboarding crash in March. In 2016, McMorris broke his right femur in a big air crash.

Marie-Philip Poulin, Canada, Hockey
The daughter of Quebec hospital workers was dubbed “the female Sidney Crosby” even before scoring both goals in the 2010 Olympic final against the U.S. Then she scored the golden goal in overtime of the 2014 Olympic final. In 2015, she was named captain of the national team at age 25.

Ester Ledecka, Czech Republic, Snowboarding/Skiing
Just 22 years old, poised to become the first athlete to qualify for an Olympics in both Alpine skiing and snowboarding. She won the World Cup Alpine snowboarding season title while also competing in Alpine skiing World Cup races with a best finish of 13th. Her grandfather won Olympic hockey silver and bronze for Czechoslovakia.

Martin Fourcade, France, Biathlon
The three-time Sochi medalist won 13 of the 19 individual World Cup events this season. Came within 2.8 seconds of sweeping all four individual events at the 2016 World Championships. Fourcade is also vocal, threatening to boycott events if the Russian doping problem isn’t adequately addressed.

Marie Martinod, France, Freestyle Skiing
Took silver in Sochi after coming out of a five-year retirement (including childbirth). Won three of four World Cups last season (after going 11 years between wins), plus the Winter X Games for the first time.

Laura Dahlmeier, Germany, Biathlon
Germany would easily top the PyeongChang Olympic medal standings if results from this past season’s world championships repeat. No single athlete is more responsible than Dahlmeier, who won five of the six events at the world championships in February.

Elise Christie, Great Britain, Short Track Speed Skating
The first European woman to win the world overall title, thanks to individual golds in the 1000m and 1500m. Last season marked the peak of a decade-long ascent for the two-time Olympian who was a figure skater until age 15. Christie was disqualified from all three of her Sochi Olympic events and was cyberbullied to the point of temporarily deactivating her Twitter account.

Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan, Figure Skating
The standard of excellence in the sport, when he’s on. In 2015, Hanyu shattered the record for total points in a competition by 27.13. Two weeks later, he scored another 8.03 points higher to win the prestigious Grand Prix Final by 37.48 points. Hanyu swept the two biggest events last season — the Grand Prix Final and world championships — but he was beaten by 17-year-old Nathan Chen at the Olympic test event in South Korea.

Sara Takanashi, Japan, Ski Jumping
Takanashi may be the most towering 100-pound athlete on the planet. She has won 27 of her 38 World Cup starts in the last two years. The only drawback is her record at the Olympics and World Championships — a shocking fourth in Sochi and no golds in four individual worlds starts.

Sven Kramer, Netherlands, Speed Skating
Kramer may be best known to Americans for stepping into the wrong lane during the 2010 Olympic 10,000m (at the direction of his coach) and being disqualified despite skating four seconds faster than the Olympic record. But to the Dutch he is simply a winner, perhaps the greatest skater of all time. He hasn’t lost a major international 5000m in five years and, last season, showed his versatility by winning his first World Cup 1500m in eight years.

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, Norway, Biathlon
The Biathlon King broke the record for career Winter Olympic medals in Sochi by reaching 13. He could break a tie for gold medals (eight) with retired Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie in PyeongChang, if he qualifies for a seventh Olympics at age 44. That appears likely, given he earned medals in three of four individual races at the 2016 Worlds and was the third-ranked Norwegian biathlete last season.

Kamil Stoch, Poland, Ski Jumping
Swept both individual golds in Sochi while wearing a military-green helmet in honor of the Polish Air Force. Plummeted to 22nd in the World Cup standings two seasons ago. Re-emerged last season by winning the prestigious Four Hills Tournament for the first time and winning four straight World Cups in January.

Yevgenia Medvedeva, Russia, Figure Skating
Medvedeva, who started competing on the senior international level in 2015, hasn’t lost since November 2015 and is the biggest gold-medal favorite in figure skating. She could go into PyeongChang riding a streak of dominance not seen since Katarina Witt.

Alexander Ovechkin, Russia, Hockey
Ovechkin’s commitment to his national team may be unrivaled in men’s hockey. The three-time Hart Trophy winner has said he intends to play in PyeongChang despite the NHL deciding not to send players for the first time since Nagano 1998. Ovechkin has yet to win a medal in three Olympic appearances.

Javier Fernandez, Spain, Figure Skating
Fernandez has been so great that he’s kicked soccer off the front page of Spanish sports daily Marca with his conquests, including the last two world championships. He comes from a nation with maybe 20 ice rinks and was bullied growing up for being a figure skater. Now, Fernandez is tight with Real Madrid and receives letters from the Spanish royal family after victories. He could win Spain’s third-ever Winter Olympic medal and first since 1992.

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Yul Moldauer falls, still wins P&G Champs; world team named

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Yul Moldauer is a grease monkey at heart. There’s something about having a tool in his hands and a problem to solve that speaks to him, a hobby he picked up from his father while growing up in Colorado.

So when the pressure rises at a gymnastics meet, Moldauer goes to what he calls his “peace zone.” To get there he takes 10 to 15 deep breaths and lets his mind drift away to a garage or a highway somewhere.

The thing is, Moldauer’s current car is pretty reliable and doesn’t require a ton of work. Kind of like Moldauer’s gymnastics.

Staked to a 1.95-point lead heading into second and final day of the P&G Championships on Saturday night, Moldauer overcame a shaky start to hold off Oklahoma teammate Allan Bower and capture the all-around title.

The 20-year-old posted a two-day total of 171.6, a full point better than Bower and nearly two points clear of Olympic alternate Donnell Whittenburg. He leads the six-man team for October’s world championships in Montreal.

“I’m definitely still a little shocked,” Moldauer said.

Joining Moldauer on the world team is Whittenburg, plus Olympians Sam Mikulak and Alex Naddour and other world rookies Marvin Kimble and Eddie Penev.

There is no team event at worlds. Just individual all-around and apparatus finals.

P&G CHAMPS: TV Schedule | Final Five Updates | Results

Maybe he shouldn’t be. Moldauer, who in 2016 became the second freshman to win the NCAA all-around, began the year with an impressive win over Olympic all-around silver medalist Oleg Verniaiev at the AT&T American Cup on March 4. Now he finds himself at the forefront of the next wave for the Americans after most of the core of the national team at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics retired.

Not bad for a kid who was so lean when he arrived at Oklahoma that head coach Mark Williams worried Moldauer wouldn’t be strong enough to handle the increased difficulty at the NCAA and senior elite levels.

“It hasn’t been an issue,” Williams said. “This has been earned.”

Akash Modi, the reigning NCAA champion who has developed a friendly rivalry with Moldauer during their collegiate careers, began the night with the best chance at chasing down Moldauer but ended up fourth thanks to significant form breaks on pommel horse and high bar.

“I wouldn’t say it was a terrible day,” said Modi, who professed his love for Taco Bell on NBCSN cameras after routines. “I just wasn’t really ‘on.’ I didn’t attack.”

Naddour, the Olympic pommel horse bronze medalist, locked up a world spot with a 15.25 on pommels. Naddour made an “I see you” gesture after nailing his dismount on pommels, a nod to the rest of the field that awaits in Montreal.

“Wanted to let them know I’m coming for them,” Naddour said. “It’s not going to be easy this year.”

Whittenburg went through another uneven night but finished with a flourish, posting 14.85 on still rings and a 15 on vault to surge past Modi into third. The importance of reaching the all-around podium wasn’t lost on Whittenburg, who was the top U.S. all-arounder at 2015 Worlds but then missed the five-man Rio squad. He’s finally ready to put the disappointment behind him.

“I definitely feel the confidence and the energy going up for me,” Whittenburg said.

Mikulak, recovering from an Achilles tear in February, finished second on pommel horse and third on high bar to make a compelling case to high-performance director Brett McClure that he’s healthy enough to contribute to the world team.

Mikulak’s injury, however, prevented him from competing in the all-around after winning the last four national titles. Mikulak ceded the stage to Moldauer and Modi.

Moldauer talked about the need to just focus on the little picture and not the big one after taking a substantial lead on the first night of competition Thursday. Maybe, but he appeared jittery during the start of finals. He sailed off the high bar on his first event, scoring a 12.8 that briefly opened the door for the rest of the field.

“I told myself it’s one event,” said Moldauer, whose lead dropped to .65. “I have five other events I can make points on.”

And he did, putting up a 14.95 on floor exercise that equaled the best of the night and put him firmly back in control. Needing only to avoid a total collapse on parallel bars to win, he could hear his teammates clapping as he neared his dismount. Moldauer nearly shorted it, his left leg hitting one of the bars on the way down. When his feet hit the mat and stuck, he raced to embrace Williams and celebrate a title that should make him a force in the program as he enters his prime.

While Williams, the Olympic team coach last summer, knows there’s another level for Moldauer to reach. A national championship is an important step in the process.

“He’s got a certain amount of cockiness,” Williams said. “He wants to show people he’s a performer and he can do really good gymnastics.”

The P&G Championships conclude Sunday with the final day of women’s competition (7 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

MORE: Danell Leyva on why he’s retiring

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Aly Raisman speaks out about USA Gymnastics scandal

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Aly Raisman is ready to talk about “the elephant in the room.” And the six-time Olympic medalist thinks it’s time USA Gymnastics joins in a conversation she feels is long overdue.

The 23-year-old is calling for sweeping change in the organization in the wake of dozens of allegations of sexual abuse against former national team doctor Larry Nassar, a scandal that has left one of the U.S. Olympic movement’s marquee programs scrambling and Raisman shaken.

Nassar spent nearly 30 years as an osteopath with the USA Gymnastics program and is now in prison in Michigan after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography. Nassar is still awaiting trial on separate criminal sexual conduct charges in addition to being sued by over 125 women in civil court who claim he sexually assaulted them under the guise of treatment.

Nassar has pleaded not guilty to the assault charges and the dozens of civil suits filed in Michigan are currently in mediation.

Raisman, who was around Nassar regularly at the team’s training facility in Texas and at meets around the globe, declined to talk about whether she was treated improperly by Nassar. She did agree to speak more generally and called Nassar “a monster” and blames USA Gymnastics for failing to stop him and spending too much of the fallout attempting to “sweep it under the rug.”

“I feel like there’s a lot of articles about it, but nobody has said, ‘This is horrible, this is what we’re doing to change,’” Raisman said Saturday after she and other Final Five members were inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

Raisman served as a captain for both the Final Five and the Fierce Five that won gold in London in 2012. While several alleged Nassar victims have come forward, including 2000 Olympic bronze medalist Jamie Dantzscher, Raisman is the highest profile athlete yet to publicly reprimand the organization. Raisman said she kept quiet waiting after the initial allegations surfaced last summer, waiting for USA Gymnastics to own up to its mistakes.

While it is taking steps toward creating a safer environment for its athletes, she doesn’t believe it is doing nearly enough openly enough, adding she feels USA Gymnastics is trying to get on with business as usual.

“What people don’t realize is that this doctor was a doctor for 29 years,” Raisman. “Whether or not he did it to a gymnast, they still knew him. Even if he didn’t do it to you, it’s still the trauma and the anxiety of wondering what could have happened. I think that needs to be addressed. These girls, they should be comfortable going to USA Gymnastics and saying ‘I need help, I want therapy. I need this.’

USA Gymnastics launched an independent review of its policies in the wake of the allegations against Nassar and reporting by the Indianapolis Star that highlighted chronic mishandling of abuse allegations against coaches and staff at some of its over 3,500 clubs across the country.

In June, the federation immediately adopted 70 recommendations proffered by Deborah Daniels, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw the review. The new guidelines require member gyms to go to authorities immediately, with Daniels suggesting USA Gymnastics consider withholding membership from clubs who decline to do so.

The organization also named Toby Stark, a child welfare advocate, as its director of SafeSport. Part of Stark’s mandate is educating members on rules, educational programs, reporting and adjudication services.

Daniels said repeatedly that her review wasn’t designed to adjudicate the past, something that doesn’t fly with Raisman. She pointed to the reported $1 million severance package given to former president Steve Penny after he resigned under pressure in March as proof that the organization just doesn’t get it.

“I thought, ‘Wow, why couldn’t they create a program?’” Raisman said. “A million dollars is a lot of money. They could do a lot of things to create change. They could create a program. They could even contact all the families that have come forward and say ‘Can we help your kid with therapy?’”

Lynn Raisman, Aly’s mother, said USA gymnastics needs to “get rid of the people who knew and looked the other way.”

Raisman has used her celebrity and extensive social media reach as a platform to promote positive body image and anti-bullying. She’s currently living in Needham, Mass., working on her autobiography out in November while weighing whether to take a shot at the 2020 Games. (Raisman said last September that she planned to go for Tokyo 2020 after taking a year off from training)

Either way, she wants USA Gymnastics to evolve and stressed there’s a difference between her criticism of USA Gymnastics and the sport as a whole.

The sport is fine. It’s part of the fabric of her life. It’s the organization that needs to change. And she’s clear on the message she wants it to send.

“Everyone is important,” Raisman said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the Olympic champion or you’re an 8-year-old that goes to gymnastics in Ohio, or wherever you are in the U.S. Every single kid is important and I want USA Gymnastics to do a better job with that.”

P&G CHAMPS: TV Schedule | Final Five Updates | Results

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