Sam Mikulak, John Orozco, Jacob Dalton

Analyzing the U.S. gymnastics men’s World Championships team

Leave a comment

PITTSBURGH — The U.S. gymnastics roster for the World Championships includes four of the five men from the 2012 U.S. Olympic team who will be looking to make up for London disappointment.

Olympians Sam MikulakJohn OrozcoJacob Dalton and Danell Leyva were chosen for the team after the P&G Championships finished Sunday. The team also includes two-time World Championships veteran Alex Naddour and a rookie, Donnell Whittenburg.

The most notable omission was Jonathan Horton, a two-time 2008 Olympic medalist who came back from injury to compete for the first time since the London Olympics at the P&G Championships. Horton, 28 with a wife and baby boy, admitted he wasn’t at full strength this week, finishing eighth in the all-around, and made the Pan American Championships team.

The chosen men will head to Nanning, China, in about five weeks for the first World Championships with a team event since the London Olympics. Remember, the U.S. went into London with medal hopes and finished a forgettable fifth.

This quintet will be underdogs to host China and Japan, the reigning Olympic and World gold and silver medalists.

But the Americans regained confidence at last year’s World Championships, where only individual medals were at stake. Four different U.S. men won medals on four different events. Only Japan won more medals.

The best U.S. gymnast, Sam Mikulak, was not one of the four medal winners at last year’s Worlds. He rallied to win his second straight P&G Championships all-around title Sunday.

Mikulak’s comeback: ‘This was his toughest climb’

Mikulak will take aim at an all-around medal in Nanning after a high bar error cost him a place on the podium in Antwerp last year. Japan’s Kohei Uchimura is the overwhelming favorite to win his fifth straight World all-around title (he’s already the only male or female gymnast to win four).

Here’s a look at the U.S. team and each gymnast’s credentials:

Sam Mikulak: 2012 Olympian, 2013 Worlds veteran. Mikulak is the two-time reigning U.S. all-around champion who finished sixth in the all-around at the 2013 World Championships. He also finished fifth on vault at the Olympics and fourth on high bar at the World Championships. He’ll be counted on in several events in the team final.

John Orozco: 2012 Olympian, 2011/2013 Worlds veteran. Orozco, the 2012 U.S. all-around champion, finished second to Mikulak this year. In 2011, he was second to Uchimura in Worlds all-around qualifying and finished fifth. He qualified fourth in London and finished eighth. Orozco is also the 2013 World bronze medalist on parallel bars and made the 2011 Worlds high bar final.

Jacob Dalton: 2012 Olympian, 2011/2013 Worlds veteran. Dalton was third in the P&G Championships all-around. In Nanning, he’ll be counted on to deliver a big score on floor exercise. He’s the reigning World silver medalist there and finished fifth at the Olympics.

Donnell Whittenburg: The 20-year-old from Baltimore is the only member of the team with no Worlds experience as well as the youngest. He was fourth in the all-around at the P&G Championships. He also won vault and placed second on still rings, so he could be a medal threat in both in Nanning. Whittenburg outscored Orozco and Leyva in the all-around at both the 2014 Winter Cup and National Qualifier in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Danell Leyva: 2012 Olympian, 2011 Worlds veteran. Leyva has the top international credentials on the team, but the last two years have been a struggle. He was questionable to make last year’s Worlds team, then was named but pulled out with a shoulder injury. Leyva won the 2011 U.S. all-around title and Olympic all-around bronze in 2012, as well as World gold on parallel bars in 2011. He was fifth in the all-around this week and is an asset on high bar and parallel bars when at his best.

Alex Naddour: 2011/2013 Worlds veteran. Naddour, second in the all-around at last year’s P&G Championships, was sixth this year. But he earned his spot on the team, as he has before, with his pommel horse routine. The U.S. is historically weak on the apparatus, but Naddour has finished first or second on pommel horse at the last four U.S. Championships.

Simone Biles awes judges, U.S. legend to repeat at P&G Championships

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

AP
Leave a comment

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.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

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.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Athletes warily embrace progress as USA Gymnastics evolves

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

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Nosferatu is golf’s Olympic rankings guru. Who is he?