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Oleg Verniaiev: I can beat Kohei Uchimura

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MONTREAL — Those 100 seconds in Rio had to be agonizing for Oleg Verniaiev.

The Ukrainian gymnast, after taking a critical step on his high bar dismount, waited and waited as judges tabulated his score for the final event of the Olympic all-around last year.

The crowd could have chewed nails wondering if Verniaiev would end Kohei Uchimura‘s seven-year reign atop the sport.

Turns out, Verniaiev wasn’t as optimistic.

“I knew that I will be the second [place], but still I had hope,” Verniaiev remembered in an interview Monday, via translator. “I was hoping.”

When Verniaiev’s score came up, Uchimura’s mom fainted in the stands.

Uchimura, who trailed Verniaiev by .901 going into the final rotation, outscored the leader by a full point. The Nagasaki native won by .099 to become the first gymnast to repeat as Olympic all-around champion in 44 years.

A year later, Verniaiev gets another shot at Uchimura at the world championships at the 1976 Olympic Stadium.

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Verniaiev was shaky in qualifying Monday. Out of bounds on floor exercise. A gigantic hop on his high bar landing.

Verniaiev didn’t even have the top qualifying score in his group. Cuban Manrique Larduet, the 2015 World silver medalist, was 1.268 points better.

“In principle, I thought that it could be worse,” said Verniaiev, who wished he had more competitions this season before worlds to work into peak shape. “But at the end of the day it’s not that bad.”

Verniaiev also said that he was better prepared for the Rio Olympics (and in better form) than any other competition in his life.

Still, he’s not ceding anything to Uchimura, who goes through qualifying Monday night ahead of Thursday’s final.

Uchimura, 28, is trying to become the oldest Olympic or world all-around champion in more than 50 years.

“If I accomplish my program so that my coach says everything is ideal, I know that I can beat him,” Verniaiev said. “If I will make mistakes, then it’s life.”

In Rio, Verniaiev could have joined some who cried foul over the scoring. Instead, he praised Uchimura in the post-event press conference, calling him the Michael Phelps of gymnastics.

The Ukrainian began doing gymnastics in kindergarten, sent to the sport by his parents as an outlet for overwhelming energy.

It wasn’t always easy in Ukraine. As recently as a month before 2015 Worlds, national team members didn’t have proper equipment to train floor exercise.

Verniaiev, who turned 23 on Friday, seemingly has plenty more opportunities for all-around gold. But few against the aging Uchimura, who may give up the all-around before the Tokyo Olympics to focus on one or two individual events.

Given that, how much would it mean for Verniaiev to end Uchimura’s reign in Montreal?

“To win this gold medal means, to me, to become a legend,” he said. “Kohei, of course, is a legend. There are not many such gymnasts in the world, but I’ll try to do something and be the first one.”

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Wladimir Klitschko recalls seeing Muhammad Ali at Atlanta Olympics

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Wladimir Klitschko, the former world heavyweight boxing champion who retired Thursday, smiled when asked to recall his 1996 Atlanta Games experience, saying “the Olympics have changed my life.”

Before going 64-5 as a pro, Klitschko won super heavyweight gold at age 20 at Ukraine’s first Summer Olympics as an independent country. Friday is the 21st anniversary of the gold-medal bout.

“I have great memories,” Klitschko said in an interview two years ago at Madison Square Garden. “Meeting Muhammad Ali. … He was visiting the [athletes’] village, gathering a lot of people. I was one of them. It was exciting to see him in person. I didn’t get a chance to shake his hand.”

Klitschko said that was the first time he was close to Ali. The two Olympic champions met several more times before Ali died June 3, 2016.

Klitschko’s second memory of the Atlanta Games was of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing on July 27.

“One of the memories is the bombing of the disco, where my friends went to, and I was there before,” Klitschko said. “But I left, because I have to be in the schedule and sleep. When I heard the next morning, which was right on the other side of the campus where we were staying, it was really sad. Thankfully, nobody from my team got injured, but they were there.”

Klitschko auctioned his gold medal in 2012 for $1 million, all of which went to his and older brother Vitali Klitschko‘s charity. In a gracious gesture, the buyer reportedly immediately returned the medal back to the Klitschko family after the sale.

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VIDEO: Ali lights 1996 Olympic cauldron

Wladimir Klitschko, former heavyweight boxing champ, retires

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BERLIN (AP) — Former heavyweight world champion Wladimir Klitschko announced his immediate retirement from boxing on Thursday.

The 41-year-old Klitschko dominated the heavyweight scene for a decade but lost to Britain’s Anthony Joshua in April after a technical knockout in the 11th round. He had been expected to face Joshua in a rematch in November.

In a statement released by his management on Thursday, Klitschko said: “As an amateur and a professional boxer, I have achieved everything I dreamed of, and now I want to start my second career after sports.”

He said that he had deliberately taken a few weeks to reach a decision “to make sure I had enough distance from the (first Joshua) fight at Wembley Stadium.”

Klitschko was 64-5 in a career that began in 1996 after he won the Olympic gold in Atlanta.

The Ukrainian racked up notable wins over the likes of David Haye and Ruslan Chagaev, but lost his titles to British fighter Tyson Fury in 2015 and was unable to reclaim the WBA and IBF belts against Joshua.

Klitschko followed his older brother Vitali Klitschko into boxing. Both found immediate success in the professional ring, and held all of the main heavyweight titles between them when Vitali Klitschko retired in 2013.

They never fought each other, saying that would break a promise to their mother.

The Klitschko brothers’ hard-hitting style inside the ring and relaxed, multilingual approach outside it made them famous beyond boxing. Wladimir Klitschko even made a cameo appearance in a 2007 romantic comedy movie in the brothers’ adopted home of Germany.

He also followed his older brother into politics, addressing crowds alongside his fiancee, the U.S. actress Hayden Panettiere, during anti-government protests in Ukraine in 2013. Vitali Klitschko has since become mayor of the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

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MORE: Klitschko on meeting Ali at 1996 Olympics