Martha Karolyi gives updates on Gabby Douglas, more after training camp

Martha Karolyi, Gabby Douglas

Gabby Douglas is gradually picking up her old skills, said USA Gymnastics National Team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who would like to see the Olympic all-around champion compete twice to be considered for October’s World Championships team.

Douglas attended a U.S. camp last week at the Karolyi ranch for the first time since winning two gold medals at the London Games.

Karolyi said at the end of the five-day camp that she was pleasantly surprised with Douglas’ fitness and the gymnast had a reasonable chance to get back into full shape before the World Championships in China that begin Oct. 3.

“I didn’t know what to expect because I did not see Gabby for two years,” Karolyi said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Every camp we start with verification of physical abilities, and I just saw her doing everything just like she did before.”

That doesn’t mean Douglas is in competition shape, though. Karolyi said Douglas’ intention is to prepare to compete in August. The National Team coordinator wants to see Douglas at the next National Team camp in three weeks and in competition at the Secret U.S. Classic on Aug. 2 in Hoffman Estates, Ill., and the P&G Championships from Aug. 21-24 in Pittsburgh.

“It was pretty nice to see that most of her skills are back, not connected in her routines, but separately,” Karolyi said. “Everything will depend on how much she will be focusing in her training, just like she trained before the Olympics, if she will be able to get ready and compete successfully.”

Douglas must compete at the P&G Championships to be eligible for the World Championships, but since she has not competed since the Olympics, she is not automatically eligible for the P&G Championships yet. Competing at the Secret U.S. Classic could qualify her into the U.S. Championships, or she skip it and petition her way to Pittsburgh.

Karolyi also provided updates on other U.S. gymnasts who have been away from action.

World all-around champion Simone Biles withdrew from April’s Pacific Rim Championships with a shoulder injury. She participated at last week’s camp.

“This training camp, her training on bars was a little bit behind, but the other events, they were looking very good,” Karolyi said. “So she’s on her way to get back in shape just in the right time to compete in [the Secret U.S.] Classic and [P&G] Championships.”

World vault champion McKayla Maroney had knee surgery in March and did not attend last week’s camp.

“I know that she was just released from her therapy, after the surgery,” Karolyi said. “She did strong recuperation. I think she will resume her training, in my opinion, in a very short time.”

Olympic floor exercise champion Aly Raisman is still in training. Raisman, who hasn’t competed since the London Games, has said she wants to return for her first National Team camp after the World Championships in October.

“She is working hard and getting also back her skills,” Karolyi said. “She definitely has aspirations to come back. She even wanted me to listen to some music for her new floor routine. I’m hoping that definitely next year it will be happening.”

Another Olympian, Jordyn Wieber, finishes her freshman year at UCLA this week, but she, too, has not competed since the Olympics.

“I really don’t know anything about Jordyn,” Karolyi said. “I don’t know absolutely anything about her training.”

Karolyi mentioned two other gymnasts when asked to name strong performers at last week’s camp.

“[Olympian] Kyla Ross has always [been] a great role model of very consistent work, and she is doing great, and she is an absolutely beautiful gymnast. I’m very much basing on her contribution to the World team,” Karolyi said. “Another name, which probably nobody has this name in their mind, is MyKayla Skinner. She is one of the gymnasts who came to our camps for several years but never was strong enough to be considered, but at this time her skill level is very high, and she improved her execution, which is also very important, her presentation and execution. That improved a lot. She has an excellent shot to be important at this World Championship.”

One more gymnast gaining attention is McKenna Kelley, the 17-year-old daughter of 1984 Olympic all-around champion Mary Lou Retton.

Kelley is in the process of moving into the U.S. elite program from the lower Junior Olympic program, but likely won’t improve quickly enough to be considered for this year’s World Championships, Karolyi said.

“She certainly is almost as bouncy as Mary Lou was,” said Karolyi, who coached Retton with her husband, Bela, three decades ago. “She would need a little bit more time, but she shows great potential. … She will be in the elite program, but it’s just the beginning, and it takes time to move up to a higher level.”

Olympic silver medalist signs with Chicago White Sox

Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt

One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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IOC recommends how Russia, Belarus athletes can return as neutrals

Thomas Bach

The IOC updated its recommendations to international sports federations regarding Russian and Belarusian athletes, advising that they can return to competitions outside of the Olympics as neutral athletes in individual events and only if they do not actively support the war in Ukraine. Now, it’s up to those federations to decide if and how they will reinstate the athletes as 2024 Olympic qualifying heats up.

The IOC has not made a decision on the participation of Russian or Belarusian athletes for the Paris Games and will do so “at the appropriate time,” IOC President Thomas Bach said Tuesday.

Most international sports federations for Olympic sports banned Russian and Belarusian athletes last year following IOC recommendations to do so after the invasion of Ukraine.

Bach was asked Tuesday what has changed in the last 13 months that led to the IOC updating its recommendations.

He reiterated previous comments that, after the invasion and before the initial February 2022 recommendations, some governments refused to issue visas for Russians and Belarusians to compete, and other governments threatened withdrawing funding from athletes who competed against Russians and Belarusians. He also said the safety of Russians and Belarusians at competitions was at risk at the time.

Bach said that Russians and Belarusians have been competing in sports including tennis, the NHL and soccer (while not representing their countries) and that “it’s already working.”

“The question, which has been discussed in many of these consultations, is why should what is possible in all these sports not be possible in swimming, table tennis, wrestling or any other sport?” Bach said.

Bach then read a section of remarks that a United Nations cultural rights appointee made last week.

“We have to start from agreeing that these states [Russia and Belarus] are going to be excluded,” Bach read, in part. “The issue is what happens with individuals. … The blanket prohibition of Russian and Belarusian athletes and artists cannot continue. It is a flagrant violation of human rights. The idea is not that we are going to recognize human rights to people who are like us and with whom we agree on their actions and on their behavior. The idea is that anyone has the right not to be discriminated on the basis of their passport.”

The IOC’s Tuesday recommendations included not allowing “teams of athletes” from Russia and Belarus to return.

If Russia continues to be excluded from team sports and team events, it could further impact 2024 Olympic qualification.

The international basketball federation (FIBA) recently set an April 28 deadline to decide whether to allow Russia to compete in an Olympic men’s qualifying tournament. For women’s basketball, the draw for a European Olympic qualifying tournament has already been made without Russia.

In gymnastics, the ban has already extended long enough that, under current rules, Russian gymnasts cannot qualify for men’s and women’s team events at the Paris Games, but can still qualify for individual events if the ban is lifted.

Gymnasts from Russia swept the men’s and women’s team titles in Tokyo, where Russians in all sports competed for the Russian Olympic Committee rather than for Russia due to punishment for the nation’s doping violations. There were no Russian flags or anthems, conditions that the IOC also recommends for any return from the current ban for the war in Ukraine.

Seb Coe, the president of World Athletics, said last week that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned from track and field for the “foreseeable future.”

World Aquatics, the international governing body for swimming, diving and water polo, said after the IOC’s updated recommendations that it will continue to “consider developments impacting the situation” of Russian and Belarusian athletes and that “further updates will be provided when appropriate.”

The IOC’s sanctions against Russia and Belarus and their governments remain in place, including disallowing international competitions to be held in those countries.

On Monday, Ukraine’s sports minister said in a statement that Ukraine “strongly urges” that Russian and Belarusian athletes remain banned.

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