Martha Karolyi, Gabby Douglas

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

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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.

Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

Yuzuru Hanyu
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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

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Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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Steven Nyman, top U.S. downhiller, faces another obstacle

Steven Nyman
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Steven Nyman, the active U.S. leader in World Cup downhill wins, tore his right Achilles in a training crash and had surgery earlier this week in Mt. Hood, Ore.

“I am moving forward,” was posted on Nyman’s social media. “I’ve been through this before and have full intention to comeback [sic] and compete through the next Olympics.”

Nyman raced in three Olympics and owns three World Cup downhill victories.

He turns 40 during the next Winter Games in Beijing in 2022, when he will be three and a half years older than any previous U.S. Olympic Alpine skier.

Nyman missed the PyeongChang Olympics after a pair of major injuries: blowing out his left knee in a January 2017 downhill race crash and tearing his right ACL in downhill training in January 2018. He also tore his left Achilles in 2011.

He raced the last two seasons with a best World Cup finish of fifth in Val Gardena, Italy, site of all of his World Cup wins in 2006, 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. men’s program is in the midst of its longest World Cup downhill victory and podium droughts this millennium — none since Travis Ganong‘s win in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Jan. 27, 2017.

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