Martha Karolyi on Simone Biles’ dominance, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman returns

Martha Karolyi, Gabby Douglas
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It’s an exciting time for U.S. women’s gymnastics, with Simone Biles winning competitions in record fashion and the comebacks of London Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman.

The woman at the helm of the program is longtime national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who spoke with OlympicTalk following the AT&T American Cup on Saturday (won by Biles) and ahead of the Jesolo Trophy in Italy in two weeks.

Here are highlights from the conversation:

OlympicTalk: What did you think of the performances from winner Simone Biles and second-place MyKayla Skinner at the AT&T American Cup?

Karolyi: I was pleased with what the girls did, and again they proved their confidence level based on very consistent training and preparation before the competition. Certainly, this is the beginning of the season. We will have to do more detail work and more refining the things in coming even closer to perfection. The performance was a good one.

OlympicTalk: Separately, what would you like to see Biles and Skinner work on the most?

Karolyi: Simone, I think she basically, at this moment, doesn’t have any of the apparatuses which I would say are weak, but on every apparatus she can be more precise. That’s the goal. In gymnastics, we’re permanently training to come as close as possible to perfection. That’s what we have to work on. Every single landing to be solid. Every single movement exactly as it’s supposed to be. No small wobbles or small mistakes.

MyKayla is known for her high difficulty of her start values, and we have to work even more on the execution, on presentation and flexibility.  But I think she is a good competitor and has a great difficulty level for her start value. That’s a good base to start with.

OlympicTalk: Mary Lou Retton and Nastia Liukin have said Simone Biles is pretty much unbeatable. How would you compare or rank Biles among all the gymnasts you have seen?

Karolyi: She is one of the most talented ones. I, personally, don’t like to make statements like “unbeatable.” I especially even commented this to Simone that there’s no such thing as unbeatable. We never can stop our training and never can stop our desire to become even better than we are. Also, we’re competing pretty much against ourselves, not against anything that is out there besides us. I don’t want them to think that they achieved what has to be achieved and we are there, we arrived, and we are safe on that position.

She is probably like Mary Lou was for her time, or Nadia Comaneci was for her time, but these are different times.

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OlympicTalk: How many gymnasts will you send to the Jesolo Trophy in Italy (March 28-29)?

Karolyi: Maybe nine seniors and seven juniors. We want to give the opportunity to the seniors to start them out and for them to test themselves out. This competition is a very good training competition. It gives us an opportunity to learn more about these gymnasts in a competition setting.

(Editor’s Note: The USA Gymnastics nominative list for Jesolo Trophy is reported to include these nine seniors, including Douglas and Raisman, who haven’t competed since the London Olympics. The official team is expected to be announced after next week’s national team camp.)

OlympicTalk: Who are you looking forward to seeing compete at Jesolo for the first time this season?

Karolyi: It’s important that we take the girls who potentially will be in the World Championships (in Glasgow, Scotland, in October) and use that as a team bonding competition, but certainly from the gymnasts who are coming back after three years of break, after the Olympics, there is Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. I’m looking forward to what they look like. If everything goes fine like it did in the last camp, they will be traveling to this meet. It will be like the first comeback competition, just like in anything you have to start a little bit lower scale in order to be able to get back to the competition mode and certainly just see where you are standing.

OlympicTalk: How have Douglas and Raisman looked in recent camps? Did anything surprise you?

Karolyi: They came back very normal. It wasn’t nothing bad, and step by step they improved from one camp to the other. Both of them showed very good work ethic. That’s one of the most important ingredients to understand. Yes you are Olympians, but expectations are the same as everybody else. Their approach was completely right. Step by step, they’re building up back their skill level. I think if everything is on the right track, we’ll be going this way all the way to the World Championships. We’ll most likely be taking those two girls also (to Jesolo), because they will most likely be players for the World Championships (team).

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OlympicTalk: Which first-year senior gymnasts have impressed you this year?

Karolyi: We don’t have so many. I think probably (2013 P&G junior all-around champion) Bailie Key is one of the upcoming girls, and there is another new one, Emily Schild (Key is the only first-year senior on the reported Jesolo nominative roster, while Schild is technically not a first-year senior but has never represented the U.S. at a top senior international meet*). These are the younger ones who this year will have the age and possibly will be players by the fall when it comes to the selections for World Championships. Nia Dennis (who trains with Douglas in Columbus, Ohio) is also a strong gymnast, but this year in training camps, unfortunately, always has some small nagging injuries. So she really could not prove herself. Nia won’t go to Italy.

OlympicTalk: We haven’t heard from McKayla Maroney since August, and she recently said in a video that she’s not training due to injury. What do you know about her status?

Karolyi: I honestly don’t know too much. I last met her last year during the Championships (Maroney was at the Secret U.S. Classic the first weekend of August). She said her intention was to train and come back. That’s really the last time I heard from her. I am not 100 percent sure. Certainly if everything goes fine for her and she wants to train, I would be very happy to have her back. This decision that they take is based on a lot of considerations, and the desire has to be there to perform with the same passion like they did before.

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OlympicTalk: The International Gymnastics Federation is considering reducing team sizes going into the 2020 Olympics. What do you think about that?

Karolyi: I heard about that, and I think that’s absurd, really. It will hurt the spectacle, what the gymnasts can provide for the whole world, and would eliminate some of the strongest gymnasts just in our country. Even when the team was six (in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics; it is now five) we had to leave home some strong ones. I totally don’t feel like I am really happy about that, but decisions will be taken, and we will be with any kind of decision. That’s what we did in the past, even if something doesn’t seem like very smart or very good, but once the rules are set for us, we will go with it.

(Editor’s Note: An International Gymnastics Federation spokesperson said they could not provide more information on the proposal last week. It will be discussed at a May 15-16 meeting.)
 

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Schild as a first-year senior.

Shoma Uno tops Grand Prix Final short program; Ilia Malinin 5th

Shoma Uno
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World champion Shoma Uno of Japan leads after the short program at the Grand Prix Final, the biggest figure skating competition of the fall. Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old American, is fifth out of six skaters after struggling on jumps on Thursday.

Uno, bidding for his first Final title after two silvers and two bronzes, landed a quadruple flip and quad toe loop-double toe combination en route to 99.99 points at the Palavela, the 2006 Olympic venue in Turin, Italy.

He takes a 5.13-point lead over countryman Sota Yamamoto going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin is fifth, 19.89 points behind, after stepping out of the landing on the back end of a quad toe-triple toe combination and spinning out of a triple Axel landing, putting a hand on the ice.

“It was a performance that I wasn’t really expecting,” said Malinin, who did not mention a left foot injury that affected him at his last competition (a win) two weeks ago. “We put a lot of effort trying to perfect all these movements in the program with all these jumps. The jumps didn’t go so well, but I think that my performance and my spins definitely have improved. … I just have to stay confident and look forward to the free skate.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Malinin rallied from smaller short program deficits to win his first three competitions in his first full senior season, becoming the first skater to land a quad Axel in September and repeating it in October and November.

Uno, the world’s top returning skater after Yuzuru Hanyu retired and Nathan Chen went back to Yale, didn’t compete against Malinin at those earlier events.

“It wasn’t up to the levels of my best performance,” Uno said of Thursday’s short program, according to a translation. “But I think I was able to show what I’ve done this season up until this competition. I’m genuinely happy.”

The quad Axel is not a point-scoring element in short programs, but it is in free skates.

Malinin, the son of Olympic skaters from Uzbekistan, was second at last January’s U.S. Championships but left off the three-man Olympic team due to his relative inexperience. He went to senior worlds in March and finished ninth, then won the world junior title in April.

The Grand Prix Final, which takes the top six per discipline from the six-event Grand Prix Series, is the most exclusive figure skating competition. It was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier, Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara topped the pairs’ short program with 78.08 points, edging world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier by 43 hundredths of a point.

Miura and Kihara, ranked No. 1 in the world this season, are bidding to win the biggest title ever for a Japanese pair.

Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, recorded a personal best score with their first clean program since those worlds. Frazier put his hand on the ice on their side-by-side triple toe landings, but judges still barely graded it positively.

“We’ve made a big improvement from our [fall] Grand Prix [starts],” Knierim said. “I am elated with the outcome.”

Pairs experienced the biggest change of the four figure skating disciplines since the Olympics with none of the top five teams from the Winter Games competing internationally this fall. Russian pairs, traditionally the best in the world as a group, are ineligible due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including gold medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t skate in the Grand Prix Series.

The Grand Prix Final continues Friday with the pairs’ free skate, rhythm dance and women’s short program, all live on Peacock.

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Katie Ledecky talks swimming legacy and life in Gainesville

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OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.

What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.

Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.

Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?

Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.

What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?

Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!

How often do you get to see your family?

Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.

I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?

Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.

There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?

Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.

To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations? 

Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”

I just want to read you a few tweets… 

You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?

Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.

Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?

Ledecky:  Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.

Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.

OLY-2012-SWIM

2016 Rio Olympics.

Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.

Tokyo Games.

Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.

You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?

Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.

I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.

Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?

Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.

Rapid-fire questions. Race day hype song? 

Ledecky: “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.

Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?

Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.

Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?

Ledecky: Well, USA Swimming did carpool karaoke in 2016 before the Olympics. My car did “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which is a great karaoke song because it’s like 10 minutes long so maybe I would choose that just as a fun memory. We also did “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012. Those are two fun songs with some fond memories.

Post-workout meal?

Ledecky: After morning practice, eggs and toast or veggies and eggs. I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast food for all three meals and I’d be satisfied.

Cheat meal? 

Ledecky: Either pizza or a burger.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Ledecky: Probably hockey. I’m not good on skates, but it’s my favorite sport to watch.

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