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North Korea can qualify for Olympics this week

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North Korea’s first bona fide chance to qualify athletes for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics is this week.

Pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik compete at Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying event for the sport.

Ryom and Kim must finish in the top five among pairs from nations not already qualified for the Olympics. Based on scores from the last year, they are favored to do so.

Their choreographer, Canadian Julie Marcotte, agrees.

“That’s all that matters to them right now is to qualify for the Olympics,” she said. “That’s all they want.”

Last season, the North Koreans asked Marcotte’s brother, Bruno, who coaches pairs, if they could train under him in Montreal in the summer. And if Julie could choreograph one of their programs.

There was no hesitation in accepting them. The North Koreans had previously trained in Toronto.

Ryom, 18, and Kim, 25, were expected in Quebec in June but due to a travel delay arrived in July. They shared the ice with the likes of two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford.

“They were already very good, but they improved at the speed of light,” Marcotte said. “They were very receptive, very hard-working, and not the attitude people would expect, actually. It was mind-blowing. The story is actually that they were extremely joyful, extremely generous with their thankfulness, with their appreciation.”

The North Koreans speak no English, so most of the communication with Marcotte was non-verbal. They came with two North Korean coaches, one of whom spoke some English.

“[Ryom and Kim] are the sweetest people you’ve ever met,” said Marcotte, whose time spent with all of her skaters is wholly at practices. “It was so uplifting to have the chance to get to know them and work with them. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a great surprise.”

Ryom and Kim competed at the Quebec Summer Championships in August and scored 12 points higher than their personal best.

“They were out-of-this-world fabulous,” Marcotte said. “They’ve really come a long way. … I know they were crying, they were so excited. I think with their skating this summer it gave them hope they could qualify for the Olympics.”

This week’s event also includes pairs from Canada, Germany, Russia and the U.S., but they already clinched Olympic spots last season.

The North Koreans’ competition for Olympic spots on Thursday and Friday comes from the Czech Republic, Austria, Israel, Japan and Australia.

Ryom and Kim placed 15th at last season’s world championships, where they spoke briefly to The Associated Press through a translator.

They’re seeded second in the field of pairs eyeing Olympic qualification, granted these point totals won’t help them this week:

  1. Duskova/Bidar (CZE) — 189.09
  2. Ryom/Kim (PRK) — 169.65
  3. Ziegler/Kiefer (AUT) — 165.63
  4. Conners/Krasnopolski (ISR) — 165.38
  5. Suto/Boudreau-Audet (JPN) — 164.96
  6. Alexandrovskaya/Windsor (AUS) — 164.10

They’re performing to The Beatles in the short program for a second straight season. Their free skate is new, performed to Montreal singer Ginette Reno.

Despite winning at least four medals at every Summer Games since boycotting Seoul 1988, North Korea didn’t have any athletes at the Sochi Olympics and just two at Vancouver 2010.

North and South Korea have shown solidarity at recent Games.

The nations marched together under one flag at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Sydney and Athens. In Rio, North and South Korean gymnasts posed for a selfie together. And North Korea did compete in the two Asian Games hosted by South Korea in the last 30 years, in 2002 and 2014.

Four years ago, a different North Korean pair missed qualifying a Sochi Olympic quota spot by .99 of a point at Nebelhorn Trophy.

If Ryom and Kim do not finish in the top five, North Korea could still qualify Alpine or cross-country skiers closer to the Winter Games.

There have also been reports that North Korean athletes could be granted special invitations without having to qualify.

Ryom and Kim have finished their Montreal training and will spend the lead-up to PyeongChang back in North Korea. Marcotte doesn’t expect to see them again before the Olympics. She has no plans to be in PyeongChang, either.

“They deserve to do well this week,” she said. “I wish it for them just for the people that they are.”

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MORE: Yuzuru Hanyu falters at Olympic season opener

*Addition: France announced it is giving up one of its two Olympic pairs sports, meaning five spots are available at Nebelhorn instead of four.

USA Gymnastics closes Karolyi Ranch

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USA Gymnastics said it will no longer use the Karolyi Ranch in Texas as its training center, where athletes said Larry Nassar sexually abused gymnasts.

“USA Gymnastics has terminated its agreement with the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas,” USA Gymnastics CEO and president Kerry Perry said in a press release Thursday. “It will no longer serve as the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center.

“It has been my intent to terminate this agreement since I began as president and CEO in December. Our most important priority is our athletes, and their training environment must reflect this. We are committed to a culture that empowers and supports our athletes.

“We have cancelled next week’s training camp for the U.S. Women’s National Team. We are exploring alternative sites to host training activities and camps until a permanent location is determined. We thank all those in the gymnastics community assisting in these efforts.”

MORE: Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

World champions Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols said that Nassar sexually abused gymnasts at the ranch.

“When I was 15 I started to have back problems while at a National Team Camp at the Karolyi Ranch,” Nichols wrote in a victim impact statement read at one of Nassar’s sentencing hearings on Wednesday and published last week. “This is when the changes in his medical treatments occurred.

“I trusted what he was doing at first, but then he started touching me in places I really didn’t think he should. He didn’t have gloves on and he didn’t tell me what he was doing. There was no one else in the room and I accepted what he was doing because I was told by adults that he was the best doctor and he could help relieve my pain.

“He did this ‘treatment’ on me, on numerous occasions.”

Raisman, a three-time Olympic champion, urged USA Gymnastics to close the ranch in a Tuesday interview on ESPN.

“I hope USA Gymnastics listens because they haven’t listened to us so far,” she said. “I hope they listen, and I hope they don’t make any of the girls go back to the ranch. No one should have to go back there after, you know, so many of us were abused there.”

Simone Biles did not specifically name the Karolyi Ranch in her Monday statement, but Raisman said Tuesday that Biles was referring to that site.

“It is impossibly difficult to relive these experiences and it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing at Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused,” was posted on Biles’ social media.

Jamie Dantzscher, a 2000 Olympian, said Nassar was alone with her in her bed at the ranch.

“There was no one else sent with him,” she said on CBS last year. “The treatment was in the bed, in my bed that I slept on at the ranch.”

USA Gymnastics said in July 2016 that it reached an agreement with former national team coordinators Bela and Martha Karolyi to purchase the training facility the couple owned.

The national governing body backed out of the purchase in May “for a variety of reasons” but continued under its current lease agreement while exploring alternative locations for camps. It held national team camps there in September and November.

The Karolyis established the ranch in 1983 after defecting from Romania. It had been a national team training center since 2001.

Larry Nassar calls hearing ‘media circus’ as Olympic gymnasts testify

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A statement from McKayla Maroney read Thursday repeated that sexual assault by Larry Nassar “left scars” in her mind that may never fade as a judge heard a third day of testimony from victims.

Nassar could be sentenced Friday in Lansing. Since Tuesday, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has been listening to dozens of young women who were molested after seeking his help for injuries.

Aquilina started the hearing Thursday by saying Nassar had written a letter fearing that his mental health wasn’t strong enough to sit and listen to a parade of victims. He called the hearing “a media circus.”

The judge dismissed it as “mumbo jumbo.”

“Spending four or five days listening to them is minor, considering the hours of pleasure you’ve had at their expense, ruining their lives,” Aquilina said.

Nassar, 54, faces a minimum sentence of 25 to 40 years in prison for molesting girls as a doctor for Michigan State University and at his home.

He also was a team doctor at USA Gymnastics for nearly two decades. He’s already been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for child pornography crimes.

“Dr. Nassar was not a doctor,” Maroney said in a statement read by a prosecutor (Maroney’s statement was previously posted in the fall). “He left scars on my psyche that may never go away.”

USA Gymnastics in 2016 reached a financial settlement with Maroney that barred her from making disparaging remarks. But the organization this week said it would not seek any money for her “brave statements.”

A 2000 Olympian, Jamie Dantzscher, looked at Nassar and said, “How dare you ask any of us for forgiveness.”

“Your days of manipulation are over,” she said. “We have a voice. We have the power now.”

Nassar wasn’t the only target. Victims also criticized Michigan State and USA Gymnastics.

Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon attended part of the session Wednesday. The school is being sued by dozens of women, who say campus officials wrote off complaints about the popular doctor.

“Guess what? You’re a coward, too,” current student and former gymnast Lindsey Lemke said Thursday, referring to Simon.

The judge has been praising each speaker and criticizing Nassar.

It’s “about their control over other human beings and feeling like God and they can do anything,” Aquilina said of sex offenders.

On Jan. 31, Nassar will get another sentence for sexual assaults at a Lansing-area gymnastics club in a different county.