Blaine Wilson

Catching up with Blaine Wilson

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This three-time Olympic men’s gymnast once described himself as a cross between Dennis Rodman and Michael Jordan.

Blaine Wilson had a one-of-a-kind personality and a performance record rivaled by few others in USA Gymnastics history. The pierced, tattooed and motorcycle-riding Ohioan preceded the Hamm twins, Jonathan Horton and Danell Leyva and John Orozco as the rock of U.S. men’s gymnastics.

He won five straight U.S. all-around titles from 1996 through 2000, a record he shares with George Wheeler. The 1936 Olympian Wheeler won his titles when the floor exercise was called “calisthenics” and ended his career to go into the Navy for World War II.

Back to Wilson. He competed in three Olympics, winning his sole medal in his final Games in 2004 as part of the U.S. team that bagged silver.

OlympicTalk recently caught up with Wilson to reflect on his career and discuss his current work.

OlympicTalk: Let’s talk about your Olympic experiences, beginning with 1996 [the U.S. men finished fifth; Wilson 10th in the all-around].

Wilson: I was young [21 years old] and just in awe of everything. You don’t realize how much of a big stage you’re on. I didn’t realize it until we actually walked out for our first day of competition. The curtain swung open, and 45,000 people in the Georgia Dome were chanting U-S-A. Wet behind the ears is all I can say.

OlympicTalk: In 2000, you were the leader, but it’s been said you overtrained [U.S. men were fifth; Wilson sixth in the all-around].

Wilson: I think we did overtrain just a little bit too much. I expected a whole lot of things to happen and was pushing to make things happen. I got a lot of media. I think I let a lot of that get to me. Instead of focusing on what I had to do, I believed it had already happened. Before I knew it, the Games were over. I should have done so many different things.

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OlympicTalk: In 2004, you finally got that Olympic silver medal as a team veteran.

Wilson: I was only fortunate enough to compete in two of six events in the team final — parallel bars and still rings [solid 9.712 and 9.637 scores]. I would have liked to do the all-around, but we had guys much more equipped to get higher scores [Paul Hamm and Brett McClure].

I remember getting to the last event, and I had to watch my teammates on high bar. Something I had worked my entire career for, a team medal, knowing it was completely out of my hands, I couldn’t watch it. I sat with my back to the high bar. All I did was cheer based on how my teammates were reacting. It made me sick and happy at the same time.

OlympicTalk: Who was your favorite fellow competitor?

Wilson: My idol was John Roethlisberger [1992, 1996, 2000 Olympian]. Still to this day. He taught me a lot about being passionate and wearing the American flag on your heart.

Internationally, I looked forward to competing against everybody. I hated competing against Russia, but I respected them. China, they were always smiling at us, unless things were really going south and they were sour. Japan never really showed any emotion.

OlympicTalk: What about competing against Russian legend Aleksey Nemov [12-time Olympic medalist]?

Wilson: If you didn’t know him, people would say he’s a real jerk. But I got a chance to go on tour with him, and he was a whole different cat. Between him and [Belarusian] Ivan Ivankov and others, there were a lot of guys I had the utmost respect for. Watching Nemov in his heyday, there was nobody touching him. He was phenomenal.

source: Getty Images
Blaine Wilson hugs Paul Hamm after the U.S. clinched team silver at the 2004 Olympics, Wilson’s first and only Olympic medal. (Getty Images)

OlympicTalk: What was it like being a part of U.S. men’s gymnastics as it evolved into one of the best teams in the world?

Wilson: I’ll never forget watching shows [early in my career] calling it the “dark days of U.S. men’s gymnastics” [laughs]. I was fortunate to come up in that time.

I loved being in the limelight. I loved being on TV, being different. It helped USA Gymnastics. You either liked me or you hated me.

We were close in 1996 and close with some problems in 2000 and then finally got it done in 2004. The only thing that really got to me was that John Roethlisberger retired before I could win a medal with him.

OlympicTalk: What are you doing now?

Wilson: I’m part owner of Integrity Gymnastics in Plain City, Ohio, 20 minutes outside of Columbus [where Wilson attended Ohio State].

I enjoy watching the kids attain a goal or get a new skill, do well at meets. It’s almost worse for me now [than when I competed] because I’m watching and I can’t control what they do at meets.

I also have three kids and a lovely wife [1996 U.S. Olympic rhythmic gymnast Aliane Baquerot]. Jackson, my 4-year-old, takes some gymnastics classes. My younger son, Bodhi, will be 2 on June 1st. He’s definitely not a gymnast. My daughter, Wakaya, is 11 and 5 feet tall, so gymnastics is definitely out of the question. Maybe golf or basketball.

OlympicTalk: Tell me about a current U.S. senior gymnast you like.

Wilson: I love Sam Mikulak. I was coaching the girls at SCATS Gymnastics [in Southern California] when he was there, in 2006 I think. I had a chance to help him out.

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OlympicTalk: What would you like to see changed in gymnastics?

Wilson: I’m really not a fan of the open-ended scoring. It’s terrible for the fan base. You have a lot of people watching the sport who don’t have a dang clue what’s going on. The 10.0 system is the way to go, and you have to find a way to bring it back.

Also the state of men’s college gymnastics. The fact is we only have 16 or 17 teams left. Temple should be ashamed of themselves for dropping the men’s program. Cal was in danger of losing their program. Air Force is in danger of losing their program, and there’s nothing they can do about it because it’s a government program.

If you look at the amount of guys on any U.S. Olympic Team, the majority of people came from college programs. I know USA Gymnastics is doing as much as they can, but that’s only one avenue.

OlympicTalk: Where do you keep the Olympic silver medal?

Wilson: It’s downstairs on a shelf with the rest of my wife’s memorabilia from the 1996 Games.

U.S. women sweep Pacific Rim team, all-around titles

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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