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

Federica Brignone passes Mikaela Shiffrin for World Cup overall lead

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Italian Federica Brignone passed an absent Mikaela Shiffrin for the World Cup overall standings lead by winning a combined in Switzerland on Sunday.

Brignone prevailed by .92 of a second adding times from super-G and slalom runs in Crans-Montana. Full results are here.

Brignone moved 73 points ahead of Shiffrin in the overall through 29 of 40 scheduled races. A race winner receives 100 points on a descending scale through the 30th-place finisher. The season runs through March 22.

Shiffrin, the three-time reigning World Cup overall champion, has not competed since the unexpected death of her father on Feb. 2. She has not announced if or when she will return this season.

Brignone, 29, is having a career season with five wins and 10 podiums across four disciplines.

Brignone’s best previous World Cup overall standings finish was fifth. She earned giant slalom medals at the 2018 Olympics (bronze) and 2011 World Championships (silver).

She could become Italy’s first female World Cup overall champion. The last Italian male winner was Alberto Tomba in 1995.

The women’s Alpine skiing World Cup moves to La Thuile, Italy, for a super-G and a combined next Saturday and Sunday.

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Jade Carey on brink of becoming first gymnast to qualify for U.S. Olympic team

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The U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials aren’t until late June, but Jade Carey is in position to qualify for the Tokyo Games in March.

Carey, seeking an individual Olympic gymnastics spot outside of the team competition, earned the maximum points in a World Cup series that is one path to Olympic qualification.

Carey has three wins each on floor exercise and vault with two World Cups left in March. Carey will mathematically clinch an Olympic spot if no other gymnasts earn maximum points on one of the apparatuses to force a tiebreaker.

A gymnast’s top three finishes across the eight-stop series count in Olympic qualifying. If Carey finishes atop the floor or vault standings, she goes to the Olympics.

Carey picked up those third wins on floor and vault at the sixth World Cup in Melbourne, Australia, this weekend.

So far, no other gymnast has two wins on floor. One other gymnast can get to the maximum points on vault with one win between the last two stops (and others with two).

The one downside to qualifying this route: Carey would not be able to compete in the team competition at the Olympics. Those four spots will be determined at and after June’s trials in St. Louis, with Simone Biles likely grabbing one of them.

“I knew I would be giving up being on the team,” Carey said in October of going the World Cup route, “but I think, for me, it made sense to just go for it.”

Carey is a world medalist on vault and floor, but she doesn’t have the all-around credentials of Biles and some other U.S. gymnasts.

Olympic team event roster sizes were cut from five to four for Tokyo, putting a greater onus on all-around prowess given a team must put three gymnasts on each apparatus in the Olympic final.

The U.S. is the deepest country in women’s gymnastics, so the only truly safe pick to make the four-woman Olympic team event roster is Biles.

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