McKayla Maroney

What to watch at USA Gymnastics National Championships women’s competition

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The larger commentary surrounding this week’s U.S. Gymnastics National Championships may center on the lead up to Rio 2016, but in the year directly following an Olympic Games, the World Gymnastics Championships are comprised of individual events only, no team final, and the uniqueness of an individual world championships makes the gymnastics season following the London Games largely stand alone.

Take this bit of history: not a single woman on the 2009 World Championship squad made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. That included all-around champion Bridget Sloan and silver medalist Rebecca Bross.

This year is all about table setting for Team USA and identifying the potential (but surely not certain) foundation of the next Olympic team. Four women will be sent to Antwerp, Belgium, for worlds Sept. 30-Oct. 6. That makes room for two all-around gymnasts and two event specialists.

Podium training at the XL Center on Wednesday gave a peak into which gymnasts that team may be made up of. The women’s competition begins Thursday (8 p.m. Eastern time, NBC Sports Network and online here) and concludes Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC and online here).

The old guard came on strong with Olympian Kyla Ross, 16, assuming her new role as seasoned veteran. She looked even across all four events, showcasing her steady skills and her impeccable execution. Ross won last month’s U.S. Classic, a qualifier for this meet, and barring injury she should punch her ticket to Antwerp as an all-arounder by the end of the weekend.

Olympic teammate McKayla Maroney should join her. There wasn’t an “unimpressed face” to be found in her first competition since the Olympics at the U.S. Classic last month. There weren’t any Wednesday, either. Maroney doesn’t look like an athlete coming back from two leg surgeries in the last year. She is stronger than ever, showing improved power on floor exercise, in particular her double Arabian tumbling pass, which has caused her trouble in the past.

“It’s just been a lot of hard work, after coming back from the surgeries I had to do so much conditioning, more than I’ve ever done in my life to get where I need to be really fast,” said Maroney, the reigning world champion on vault.

Maroney trained all four events Wednesday but is competing only vault and floor to make the worlds team as a specialist with the goal of defending that vault title from Tokyo in 2011.

There were some surprises Wednesday. Lexie Priessman, the 2012 U.S. junior all-around champion, pulled out at the last minute due to an Achilles strain after looking great in early training sessions. This will effectively end Priessman’s debut senior year and open up the door for others to challenge Ross.

Like Peyton Ernst, 16, who won balance beam gold and all-around and floor silver at the U.S. Classic. The Kim Zmeskal protege showed up with even more difficult routines this week and plans to compete in the all-around.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Elizabeth Price. The 2012 Olympic team alternate was white-hot after the Games, winning back-to-back World Cup titles to round out her year. She fell off the radar after pulling out of the American Cup with a hip injury. Wednesday, however, she effectively “won” podium training, looking phenomenal on all four events.

Nonetheless, Price, who trains with legendary coaches Bill and Donna Strauss at Parkettes in Allentown, Pa., said she’s only been back training 2 1/2 weeks and will compete on only two events, vault and uneven bars (where the U.S. is weak). She plans on being able to do the all-around before the final selection camp for the World Championship team in three weeks.

One of the most anticipated performances Thursday will come from tiny dynamo Simone Biles. Biles, 16, burst onto the scene this year with her big, energetic smile and even bigger gymnastics.

A fan favorite, Biles boasts the difficulty to contend for a world all-around title and then some, however, she has yet to put it all together in high-pressure situations, falling at the American Cup and counting three falls before scratching the last event at the U.S. Classic.

Biles was clear in her goals for Hartford and Antwerp.

“To hopefully be top three here, to make the world team and be top three at worlds,” she said.

To get to Belgium, Biles must prove that she can hit her routines consistently over two sessions in Hartford.

Dark-horse contenders this weekend will be steady all-arounder Brenna Dowell of Odessa, Mo., and mega trickster Mykayla Skinner of Gilbert, Ariz., who is one of two women in the world currently performing a double twisting double layout on floor.

Even with all the new faces, the 2012 Olympians are poised to take the spotlight in Hartford, which they’ve grown accustomed to after walking red carpets, attending award shows, appearing on TV and penning books.

The Fierce Five will reunite Friday to be inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

All but Ross have turned professional, picking up agents and endorsements. Her focus remains on competition and retaining her NCAA eligibility — at least for now. The rising California high school junior may be the center of attention come Saturday, should she take the all-around title.

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Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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TIMELINE: Russia’s recent history of sports doping