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Nadia Comaneci ‘sick to my stomach’ watching Romania crumble at Worlds

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GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — The reality hit and the tears, like the mistakes that doomed the Romanian women’s gymnastics team on the worst day in the program’s medal-strewn history, piled up quickly.

First Larisa Iordache cracked, the 19-year-old star’s composure slipping away after a handful of questions about what exactly happened. The rest of the team soon followed, leading Iordache to usher them out of the media zone Friday on the first — and Romania’s almost certainly last — day of the World Gymnastics Championships.

“Sorry, thank you,” Iordache politely said over her shoulder as she picked up speed.

The sooner one of the sport’s original superpowers moves on, the better.

While Russia eased to first with an opening total of 231.437, Romania’s stunning collapse in the opening session overshadowed everything that came after it. The same country that has medaled at every Summer Olympics since 1976 finished a distant eighth with the U.S. and China to come on Saturday.

The top eight qualifiers advance to next Tuesday’s finals and an automatic berth in the 2016 Summer Games. Romania will still head to Rio next year, just sooner than planned. Teams who finish between ninth and 16th will compete in a test event in April, where the final four Olympic spots will be determined.

Amazingly, jarringly, Romania will be in mix with the likes of Spain and Poland, whose programs would consider an Olympic trip a blessing. Not in Romania, where it has been a birthright since Nadia Comaneci was perfect in capturing the all-around gold in 1976.

“I am sick to my stomach,” Comaneci said Friday after watching from the stands.

Hard to blame her. She understood her home country walked onto the floor at The SSE Hydro shorthanded after veteran Catalina Ponor injured her leg in training a few weeks ago and Ana Maria Ocolisan twisted her ankle in practice on Thursday. Comaneci didn’t expect to see what amounted to a full-on meltdown.

Neither did anyone else, with Britain’s Elissa Downie calling it a “disaster.”

“You don’t want to wish that on any team,” Downie added. “Everybody works so hard for that championship, and nobody goes out to fall purposely. It’s just one of those things.”

Things that typically happened to someone other than the Romanians.

MORE GYMNASTICS: World Championships broadcast schedule

Yet from the start, they just seemed off. They were sluggish on floor exercise and uninspired on vault. Uneven bars, never a strong suit, proved their undoing. Laura Jurca was the only one among the five Romanian women to get through a routine without hitting the mat. Diana Bulimar came off twice, standing there stunned for several moments after her second miscue.

The mistakes continued on beam, with Iordache botching an early skill and appeared disinterested as she tried to complete her set. Comaneci, who attempted to give the girls a pep talk after Ocolisan went down, believes the program can rebound even by next summer.

“It’s not the best year for them,” Comaneci said. “I know they have a few girls that aren’t of age who are in the plan for next year’s Olympics. There’s been a lot of accidents also. It wasn’t very smooth for everybody and psychologically on top of that, (Ocolisan’s injury) hit them hard.”

While the Russians have problems of their own, including back issues for 2010 World champion Aliya Mustafina that have sidelined her indefinitely, they seemed to grow stronger as they made their way around the pink-splashed SSE Hydro. Russia posted the highest team scores on bars, vault and balance beam, mixing their precision with a seemingly effortless grace.

They were followed by the energetic Brits, buoyed by competing on home soil they continued the rise that started in the run-up to the London Games. Confident and calm, they weren’t cowed by the stage or the idea of leaving Romania in the rearview mirror, if only for one meet.

Neither were Italy, Japan, Canada or Brazil as the field behind the U.S., Russia and China grew more jumbled with flame being lit in Rio in 287 days.

Barring something unforeseen, Romania will almost certainly make it through the test event. It will likely be joined there by Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan. The 40-year-old — yes, she’s 40 — finished with an all-around total of 52.998 and will probably miss out on the vault finals here after sitting on her Produnova, basically two forward flips. She hardly seemed undeterred and why should she? It’s only one of the hardest vaults being done at an event where she’s twice the age of most of the competitors.

Three years ago, Chusovitina insisted she was going to retire after the London Games. Yet she’s still here, still flipping and still a marvel.

“We are women,” she said through a translator. “We say one thing and we change our mind. It happens all the time.”

It’s a sentiment that could be echoed by the Romanians. Comaneci is optimistic a rough morning doesn’t indicate tougher times ahead.

“Gymnastics is still popular (in Romania),” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll forget about this day.”

 

MORE GYMNASTICS: U.S. faces familiar dilemma in qualifying

Simone Biles, her name sparkling, extends 6-year win streak

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Simone Biles has long stood out for her gymnastics, but on Saturday she competed with her last name sparkling in silver beads on her World Champions Centre leotard for the first time. The gym’s other athletes had “WCC” on the back.

Biles lived up to the billing, extending her six-year win streak to 19 straight all-arounds, capturing the U.S. Classic, a tune-up for next month’s U.S. Championships.

Biles, the four-time Rio Olympic champion, scored 60 points in Louisville at the meet where she made her comeback last year after nearly two years off from competition. She prevailed by a comfortable 2.1 points over Riley McCusker, her largest margin of victory of her four U.S. Classic titles.

“I’m very satisfied,” she said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “I’m a little sad that I went out of bounds on floor [exercise], but overall I feel like there are improvements to be made.”

Full results are here.

Biles is prepping for nationals in Kansas City in three weeks, when she eyes a sixth U.S. all-around title to tie Clara Schroth Lomady‘s record from the AAU era in the 1940s and ’50s.

Then come the world championships in October in Stuttgart, Germany. Biles could win a fifth all-around to move one shy of Kohei Uchimura‘s record.

The world’s other top gymnasts may be her countrywomen.

Biles was outscored on balance beam on Saturday by 2018 World teammates Kara Eaker and McCusker and beaten on uneven bars by 2017 World all-around champion Morgan HurdSunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and McCusker. Biles swept all the gold medals at last year’s nationals.

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Geraint Thomas struggles; Julian Alaphilippe ups Tour de France lead

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LA MONGIE, France (AP) — When the team of Geraint Thomas was in its pomp at the Tour de France, a time trial followed by a big mountain stage would have been playgrounds for Sky — now in new colors as Ineos — to take cycling’s greatest race by the scruff of the neck and leave everyone else fighting for second place.

Not this year.

Thomas, the defending champion, cracked on Saturday on the Tour’s first encounter with a climb to above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), exposing unprecedented weaknesses in his team that has won six Tours in the past seven years.

The time trial on Friday and the climb up to the legendary Tourmalet pass on Saturday seemed primed for Thomas to reel in Julian Alaphilippe, the yellow jersey-holder from France who is setting the Tour alight with his punchy riding and determination to keep the race lead, filling French fans’ heads with dreams of a first homegrown winner since 1985.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

But instead, Thomas has seen Alaphilippe only get further and further away. In two days, the Frenchman has put 50 seconds of extra daylight between him and the Welshman. His lead — up to 2 minutes, 2 seconds — is becoming large enough to start realistically envisioning Alaphilippe in yellow in Paris next weekend as the first French winner since Bernard Hinault.

Fueling the ecstasy of delirious crowds that lined Saturday’s steep uphill finish, French rider Thibaut Pinot won Stage 14, putting him back in the picture to fight for the podium after he lost mountains of time on Stage 10.

Thomas rightly pointed out that the Tour is far from done, with six more ascents to above 2,000 meters still to come.

But his inability to stay with Pinot, Alaphilippe and other title contenders at the top of the Tourmalet — he was eighth, 36 seconds behind Pinot — was a mini-earthquake for the Tour dominated by his British team since 2012 — with champions Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and, in 2018, Thomas.

“Not the best day. I just didn’t feel quite on it from the start. I was quite weak,” Thomas said.

“At the end I knew I just had to pace it. I didn’t really attempt to follow when they kicked. I just thought I should ride my own pace rather than follow them and blow up on the steepest bit at the end. It’s disappointing. I just tried to limit the damage.”

Having taken cycling to a new level since 2012 with its vast budget and attention to the minutest of details, the team run by David Brailsford has been hit both by misfortune and by the inevitability that, eventually, other teams would start to close the gap.

A horror crash in training for four-time winner Froome, now recovering from career-threatening broken bones, robbed the team of its ace. Thomas’ own preparations were hampered by a crash at the Tour of Switzerland last month.

And Egan Bernal, being groomed by Brailsford to succeed Froome and Thomas, looks increasingly unable to compete for the title this year. Bernal was fifth on the Tourmalet and is fourth overall, 3 minutes behind Alaphilippe.

Pinot, now sixth overall and 3:12 behind Alaphilippe, is showing remarkable grit in bouncing back from his Stage 10 misfortune, when he was part of a group that got separated from other title contenders in crosswinds.

“I have this rage inside me, because in my opinion it was an injustice,” said Pinot, a podium finisher in 2014.

“Since the start of the Tour I had this stage in the back of my mind. The Tourmalet, it’s mythical,” said Pinot, who has three career stage wins at the Tour.

French President Emmanuel Macron, on hand at the top of the Tourmalet to see Pinot win and Alaphilippe extend his lead, gushed about the “two fantastic riders.”

“They attack and they have heart,” Macron said.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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