Jamaica hopes to send gymnast to Olympics for first time


In a tiny, out-of-the-way gym hidden among the hills on the outskirts of Cal’s campus, Toni-Ann Williams enthusiastically drags a humongous mat to the balance beam area before getting to work. She carries her own vault springboard to run through several repetitions.

Her upgraded floor exercise needs to be just right beginning this weekend at the World Gymnastics Championships in Scotland, where Jamaica’s hopes of making history by qualifying the country’s first Olympic gymnast are riding on her every high-flying flip and acrobatic twist. Meanwhile, Williams’ college teammates are working on routines they’re months away from performing in competition.

“When I first started everyone had told me, ‘You’re the first gymnast to compete for Jamaica,’ and I never realized — you’re the first gymnast for an entire country,” Williams said. “I never realized how big that was. I never allowed myself to think that highly of myself before, but I do recognize it now. It helps me stay humble and keeps me going through this crazy journey.”

The 19-year-old Williams, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year last season for the University of California, realizes that regardless of whether she reaches the Rio Games next August, she has done plenty to boost the sport in her parents’ homeland where megastar sprinter Usain Bolt is the most well-known and popular Olympian.

Williams’ mother, Marlene, has already envisioned the moment many times: Her daughter walking into the opening ceremonies less than a year from now alongside Bolt and the rest of the Jamaican delegation.

Toni-Ann doesn’t dwell on that.

“When I was younger, I definitely did, but now it feels more tangible, so I can’t allow myself to get ahead of myself or I will go insane,” she said.

Because Jamaica is largely still discovering gymnastics and it remains underfunded, Williams hopes her platform will bring positive attention to the sport. Jamaica will host the Caribbean championships next month.

MORE GYMNASTICS: World Championships broadcast schedule

Williams has been there only a couple of times. Her mother moved to the U.S. in 1990 and her father about four years earlier, and Williams was born in Maryland.

The Jamaica Amateur Gymnastics Association covers its monthly overhead expenses with assistance from the country’s sports development foundation, while the athletes often must earn much of the rest themselves through fundraising and by landing sponsorships — which they received to help with the trip to Scotland.

“Most of the athletes have been working hard to fund themselves. We are very grateful,” said Nicole Grant-Brown, President of the Jamaica Amateur Gymnastics Association.

She is confident Williams is leading the way.

Still, there’s a daunting path ahead to reach Rio. A strong showing at worlds, going through Nov. 1 in Glasgow, is just the first step for any of the Jamaicans to qualify.

The six-gymnast Jamaican contingent — that’s all the federation can afford — is dependent on an athlete qualifying for Rio first through a strong finish at the World Championships, and all as individuals because the country didn’t enter enough international meets to send a team.

Based on ranking and a complicated system that excludes the Olympic-qualifying teams from worlds, Williams or the others must be among the top 40 to reach next spring’s Olympic Test Event in Rio de Janeiro for a chance at an Olympic berth.

In a unique twist, her college coach will be along every step of the way.

The university is allowing Justin Howell to coach Cal’s student-athletes while simultaneously serving as Jamaica’s head coach. With Howell now gone for two weeks to coach Williams and Jamaica’s other athletes, his wife and associate head coach Liz Crandall-Howell is running things back in the Bay Area for the Golden Bears.

Williams is typically in the gym for a couple of hours training on her own before her three-hour Cal practice. She is taking just eight units this semester — about half of a regular course load — during her chase of an Olympic bid.

She has concentrated more on her nutrition and also exercise outside the gym through extra spinning sessions for cardio, and weight training.

“She’s going to have to do her job,” Crandall-Howell said. “She has a very high level of difficulty and with a high degree of difficulty comes more risks.”

Williams has gone from three to four tumbling passes on floor for Worlds, where she will be joined by Jamaican teammates including her younger sister Maya.

And there’s no pressure on the home front. Her mother is already beyond thrilled at what Williams has accomplished in a short time, especially considering the teen was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age 14. It flared up during the Pac-12 championships earlier this year and caused Williams to shake during the meet.

The Olympics would make her many challenges worth it all.

“That would be one of the most amazing moments in my life, just to know she had done something for my country,” said her mother Marlene, active in the Jamaican gymnastics movement. “We sleep, eat and walk Usain Bolt. And at some point in this life we are going to sleep, walk and dream about gymnastics in Jamaica also.”

MORE GYMNASTICS: U.S. women face familiar dilemma in qualifying

Madison Chock, Evan Bates win an ice dance world title for the ages

Madison Chock, Evan Bates

After 12 years and three Olympics together, Madison Chock and Evan Bates won their first world title in ice dance, becoming the oldest gold medalists in the event and the second U.S. couple to win.

Chock, 30, and Bates, 34, won worlds in Saitama, Japan, totaling 226.01 points between the rhythm dance and free dance for their first gold after three previous silver or bronze medals.

Despite Chock’s fluke fall in the middle of Saturday’s free dance, they prevailed by 6.16 over Italians Charlène Guignard and Marco Fabbri. Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier took bronze.

“We wouldn’t be sitting here today without many of those challenges that we faced, not just this season, but through all the many seasons of our career,” Chock said. “We really persevered and showed a lot of grit, and, I think, maybe our performance today was a little reflection of that — perseverance and grit yet again. That little blip in the middle was so fast and so unexpected.”

All of the medalists were in their 30s, a first for any figure skating discipline at worlds since World War II, in an event that included none of last year’s Olympic medalists. None have decided whether they will continue competing next season.


French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who won last year’s Olympic and world titles, skipped this season on an indefinite and possibly permanent break from competition. Olympic silver medalists Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov have been barred from competing since last March due to the blanket ban on Russians for the war in Ukraine. Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the Olympic bronze medalists, retired.

Chock and Bates, the top returning couple from last season, became the oldest couple to win the ice dance at worlds or the Olympics.

Birthdates are hard to come by for the earliest world champions from Great Britain in the 1950s — before ice dancing became an Olympic event in 1976 — but the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame confirmed many ages, as did Brit Paul Thomas, a 1956 gold medalist who now coaches in Canada.

Chock and Bates join their former training partners, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, as the lone Americans to win a world title in ice dance. Davis and White did it in 2011 and 2013, then in their final competition in 2014 became the first (and so far only) U.S. couple to win an Olympic ice dance title.

Chock and Bates’ competitive future is uncertain, but they are committed to a summer 2024 wedding.

Perhaps no ice dancers, and few, if any, figure skaters since World War II worked this long and hard at the elite level to reach the top podium step.

Each was looking for a new partner in 2011 when they teamed up, a year after Bates placed 11th in his Olympic debut with Emily Samuelson.

After Davis and White stopped competing, Chock and Bates ascended as the next top U.S. couple in the nation’s strongest figure skating discipline.

For years, it looked like their peak came at the 2015 World Championships, when they led after the short dance and then posted their best free dance score of the season. But Papadakis and Cizeron relegated them to silver minutes later with a breakout performance.

The next season, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani overtook Chock and Bates as the top U.S. couple. When the Shibutanis stepped away from competition in 2018, Hubbell and Donohue inherited the American throne.

Chock and Bates endured her ankle injury in the 2018 Olympic season (they were ninth at those Games, a nadir), her concussion after fainting on a walk on a hot Montreal day in 2020 and a fourth-place finish at last year’s Olympics, missing a medal by 3.25 points.

They did earn an Olympic medal in the team event that will be gold or silver, pending the resolution of Russian Kamila Valiyeva‘s doping case.

“When I think about the totality of our career, I’m struck by what our coaches have done for us and the lifeline that they gave us five years ago,” Bates said, noting their move from Michigan to Montreal in 2018. “After PyeongChang, we could have easily been done.”

Chock and Bates ranked second in the world this season after the fall Grand Prix Series. Things changed the last two months.

In January, Chock and Bates won the U.S. title by the largest margin under a 13-year-old scoring system, with what Bates called probably the best skating of their partnership. In February, Chock and Bates won the Four Continents Championships with the best total score in the world this season to that point.

Meanwhile, Gilles and Poirier, the top couple in the fall, lost momentum by missing their nationals and Four Continents due to Gilles’ appendectomy.

World championships highlights air Saturday from 8-10 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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2023 World Figure Skating Championships results


2023 World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, top 10 and notable results …

Gold: Kaori Sakamoto (JPN) — 224.61
Silver: Lee Hae-In (KOR) — 220.94
Bronze: Loena Hendrickx (BEL) — 210.42
4. Isabeau Levito (USA) — 207.65
5. Mai Mihara (JPN) — 205.70
6. Kim Chae-Yeon (KOR) — 203.51
7. Nicole Schott (GER) — 197.76
8. Kimmy Repond (SUI) — 194.09
9. Niina Petrokina (EST) — 193.49
10. Rinka Watanabe (JPN) — 192.81
12. Amber Glenn (USA) — 188.33
15. Bradie Tennell (USA) — 184.14

Men (Short Program)
1. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 104.63
2. Ilia Malinin (USA) — 100.38
3. Cha Jun-Hwan (KOR) — 99.64
4. Keegan Messing (CAN) — 98.75
5. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 95.56
6. Jason Brown (USA) — 94.17
7. Kazuki Tomono (JPN) — 92.68
8. Daniel Grassl (ITA) — 86.50
9. Lukas Britschgi (SUI) — 86.18
10. Vladimir Litvintsev (AZE) — 82.71
17. Sota Yamamoto (JPN) — 75.48
22. Andrew Torgashev (USA) — 71.41


Gold: Riku Miura/Ryuichi Kihara (JPN) — 222.16
Silver: Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 217.48
Bronze: Sara Conti/Niccolo Macii (ITA) — 208.08
4. Deanna Stellato-Dudek/Maxime Deschamps (CAN) — 199.97
5. Emily Chan/Spencer Howe (USA) — 194.73
6. Lia Pereira/Trennt Michaud (CAN) — 193.00
7. Maria Pavlova/Alexei Sviatchenko (HUN) — 190.67
8. Anastasia Golubova/Hektor Giotopoulos Moore (AUS) — 189.47
9. Annika Hocke/Robert Kunkel (GER) — 184.60
10. Alisa Efimova/Ruben Blommaert (GER) — 184.46
12. Ellie Kam/Danny O’Shea (USA) — 175.59

Ice Dance
Gold: Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 226.01
Silver: Charlene Guignard/Marco Fabbri (ITA) — 219.85
Bronze: Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN) — 217.88
4. Lilah Fear/Lewis Gibson (GBR) — 214.73
5. Laurence Fournier Beaudry/Nikolaj Soerensen (CAN) — 214.04
6. Caroline Green/Michael Parsons (USA) — 201.44
7. Allison Reed/Saulius Ambrulevicius (LTU) — 199.20
8. Natalie Taschlerova/Filip Taschler (CZE) — 196.39
9. Juulia Turkkila/Matthias Versluis (FIN) — 193.54
10. Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko (USA) — 190.10
11. Kana Muramoto/Daisuke Takahashi (JPN) — 188.87

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