Kohei Uchimura
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Kohei Uchimura, Japan top China in World Gymnastics Championships qualifying

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GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — Japan sprinted to the front. China jogged into second.

Another showdown awaits. Just like always.

The Japanese men easily topped qualifying at the World Gymnastics Championships on Sunday, posting a score of 358.884 to finish well clear of their rivals as the two superpowers spent six rotations shadowing each other around the chilly SSE Hydro in what amounted to a dual meet.

An occasionally sloppy one at that.

Not even Japanese star Kohei Uchimura was immune to a rare slip. The reigning Olympic and five-time World champion tweaked his neck and shorted a tumbling run during his floor exercise. He smacked his thigh in frustration when he finished and rubbed his immaculately styled hair before making his way back to his teammates.

The greatest male gymnast of his generation recovered in time a steady set on pommel horse on his way to an all-around total of 90.564. Yet the graceful and understated 26-year-old didn’t stick around another Olympic cycle to chase individual glory. Beating China in a major international team competition is the thing that keeps him going, the lone hole in Uchimura’s peerless resume.

“I think we need strong guts to win the competition,” he said.

While Japan led all the way during its session, it won’t matter when the scores are reset for Wednesday’s final, giving the Chinese plenty of time to play Lucy to Japan’s Charlie Brown.

It happened in the 2014 final, when China trailed going into the final rotation only to nip the Japanese by a tenth of a point after Zhang Chenlong‘s dramatic performance on the high bar.

Maybe that’s why Zhang, the only holdover from his country’s gold medal-winning team at the 2012 Olympics, wasn’t exactly sweating a sluggish start inside a brisk arena that had Uchimura seeking the comfort of his white parka when given the chance.

“I don’t think (the mistakes) have any bearing on the finals,” Zhang said. “They are not any issue to worry about. They are exceptions, not problems.”

Particularly in a sport where China typically rules. The Chinese have won every major international competition over the last decade. Whether its qualifiers are good or bad, in the final China is the closest thing to a sure thing.

The Chinese’s afternoon began with a series of pommel horse routines that made it look more like they were riding a mechanical bull as they struggled to hold on. They settled down and recovered with a world-class parallel bars set, Zhang punctuating his 15.433 with a fist pump and You Hao following with a 15.7, the best score of the day.

Britain and Russia rounded out the top four. The U.S., the Netherlands and Romania scheduled to compete Monday, with the teams with the best eight scores earning an automatic spot in the 2016 Olympics.

The Games were hardly a given in Britain, which went a century between Olympic team medals until a stunning bronze in London three years ago. Now anything short of a trip to Rio de Janeiro next August and a run at the podium would have been a disappointment.

The Brits are almost certainly through even they — like just about everyone else — were iffy at times, particularly during a messy 20 minutes on high bar that forced them to get serious very quickly.

“You’re always nervous on your first piece, a different atmosphere and everything like that,” said Max Whitlock, the defending all-around silver medalist who narrowly made it this year’s all-around final after edging teammate Nile Wilson on a tiebreaker.

Britain came in a narrow fourth behind China, Japan and the U.S. at last year’s world competition, and that was without three-time Olympic medalist Louis Smith, who is back after a sabbatical to extend his run as one of the most elegant pommel horse specialists around.

“We wanted to just do our jobs today and let the judges take care of us,” Smith said. “We pretty much did that. We didn’t make many mistakes. We didn’t carry too many mistakes over.”

The only real drama during Britain’s session came in the race to see who would join teammate Daniel Purvis in the all-around final on Friday. The rules limit two final participants per country, forcing Whitlock and Wilson into a game of knockout.

Wilson seemed to deliver the final blow with an aggressively controlled parallel bar routine. The 19-year-old pounding his fist over his heart after sticking his landing while looking for his father in the stands. His 15.500 was spectacular but only good enough to move him into a tie with Whitlock, who received the second spot in the final through a tiebreaker that dropped the lowest score of each competitor.

Wilson shrugged off his disappointment, pointing to the pursuit of another team medal as the priority. There’s really only room for one spot on the podium China and Japan, who have finished either first or second in every world meet since 2007.

“All we need to do is to perform as normal, because there won’t be huge difference at the finals,” Zhang said. “It all comes down on how you complete the skills at the finals.”

MORE GYMNASTICS: Women’s team, all-around, event finals qualifiers

Pole vaulter, 84, sets her sights on more records

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BURLINGTON, Vt. — An 84-year-old pole vaulter isn’t putting her pole down anytime soon.

Flo Filion Meiler left Thursday for the World Masters Athletics Championship Indoor in Poland, where she’ll compete in events including the long jump, 60-meter hurdles, 800-meter run, pentathlon and pole vault, for which she’s the shoo-in.

The petite, energetic woman from Shelburne, Vermont, said she feels more like 70 than nearly 85.

“But you know, I do train five days a week. And when I found out I was going to compete at the worlds, I’ve been training six days a week because I knew I would really get my body in shape,” she said last week, after track and field training at the University of Vermont.

But she literally won’t have any competition in the pole vault in the championships, which runs March 24-31 in Torun, Poland. She is the only one registered in her age group, 80-84, for the sport, for which she set a world record at age 80. In the men’s pole vault, nine men are listed as competing in that age group.

Meiler said she the events she likes the best are the hurdles and the pole vault – one of the more daring track and field events, in which competitors run while carrying a fiberglass or composite pole, brace it against the ground to launch themselves over a high bar, and land on a mat.

“You really have to work at that,” she said. “You have to have the upper core and you have to have timing, and I just love it because it’s challenging.”

Meiler is used to hard work. She grew up on a dairy farm, where she helped her father with the chores, feeding the cattle and raking hay. In school, she did well at basketball, took tap and ballroom dancing, and, living near Lake Champlain, she water skied.

Meiler, who worked for 30 years as a sales representative for Herbalife nutritional supplements, and her husband, Eugene, who was a military pilot and then became a financial analyst, together competed in water skiing.

“Many times when I did water ski competition I was the only gal in my age group,” she said.

She’s a relative newcomer to pole vaulting and track and field, overall. At age 60, she was competing in doubles tennis with her husband in a qualifying year at the Vermont Senior Games when a friend encouraged her to try the long jump because competitors were needed.

“That was the beginning of my track career,” she said, standing in a room of her home, surrounded by hundreds of hanging medals. She took up pole vaulting at 65.

Athletics has helped her though some hard times, she said. She and her husband adopted three children after losing two premature biological babies and a 3-year-old. Two years ago, their son died at age 51.

And she desperately misses her training partner, a woman who started having health problems about five years ago and can no longer train. It’s tough to train alone, she said, and she hopes to find a new partner.

“She’s incredibly serious about what she does,” said Meiler’s coach, Emmaline Berg. “She comes in early to make sure she’s warmed up enough. She goes home and stretches a lot. So she pretty much structures her entire life around being a fantastic athlete, which is remarkable at any age, let alone hers.”

And it has paid off, said Berg, an assistant track coach at Vermont.

Berg herself first started following Meiler 10 years ago while she was a student at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, watching her at the annual Dartmouth Relays.

“She was like a local celebrity,” she said.

Setting a record at age 80 with a 6-foot (1.8-meter) pole vault at the USA Track and Field Adirondack Championships in Albany, New York, while her husband watched, Meiler said, was one of her happiest days.

“I was screaming, I was so happy,” she said.

The overall world record for women’s pole vaulting is 16.6 feet (5.6 meters), according to the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Meiler turns 85 in June, when she’ll head to the National Senior Games in New Mexico.

That will put her in a new age group, in which she hopes to set even more records.

Meiler’s athletic achievements are remarkable and something to be celebrated, said Dr. Michael LaMantia, director of the University of Vermont Center on Aging.

Pole vaulting clearly isn’t for everyone of her age, but in general, activity should be, LaMantia said.

“She can serve as a role model for other seniors,” he said.

Amateur boxing president steps aside during IOC inquiry

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — With Olympic boxing under investigation by the IOC, the president of the sport’s governing body said on Friday he was stepping aside to let an interim leader take charge.

Gafur Rakhimov sai d he was not resigning as AIBA president, however, and did not call for new elections.

Rakhimov’s status on a U.S. Treasury Department sanctions list as an alleged heroin trafficker is part of an inquiry by an International Olympic Committee-appointed panel.

The panel will update the IOC executive board next week in Lausanne, Switzerland. AIBA could be derecognized by IOC members in June.

The IOC halted planning for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic boxing tournaments and blocked AIBA officials from contacting organizers in Japan.

“The allegations against me were fabricated and based on politically motivated lies,” Rakhimov said. “I trust that the truth will prevail. Nevertheless, I have always said that I would never put myself above boxing, and as president, I have a duty to do everything in my power to serve our sport and our athletes.”

Under AIBA statutes, an interim president is picked from among the five vice-presidents, who include several Rakhimov supporters. The executive committee is due to meet by telephone this weekend. The interim leader can serve only a maximum 365 days before fresh elections, however, meaning that arrangement can’t last through to the Tokyo Olympics.

When Rakhimov was elected last year, his supporters pushed for a plan to allow the president to step aside while still retaining key influence and being able to return at any time, but that was defeated.

It’s not clear if Rakhimov’s departure would be enough to calm the IOC, which has also criticized AIBA over how fights are judged, anti-doping measures, and its debts.

The IOC could try to host an Olympic boxing tournament without AIBA, and some national boxing officials have tried to form a group which could help the IOC stage the event.