Danell Leyva
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Depleted U.S. men make World Gymnastics Championships final

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GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — Alex Naddour watched his buddies labor through one skittish pommel horse routine after another, none with any particular degree of precision or artistry.

The good vibes surrounding the somewhat patchwork U.S. men’s gymnastics team were gone. The seemingly comfy spot in the team finals and the automatic spot in next summer’s Olympics suddenly didn’t quite feel so comfy.

Naddour, the rare American who seems to actually enjoy the 45 seconds of lactic acid torture that is the pommel horse, smiled. This is kind of his thing.

“Some guys when they feel the pressure, they get tight,” Naddour said. “For me, I look at each guy in the eyes and I tell myself I’m not going to mess up, I’m going to do it for all these guys right here.”

Sliding from one side of the horse to the other with a controlled flair rare for an American, Naddour calmly put together a routine that cemented a trip to Rio next August and allowed the U.S. men’s program to exhale.

The six-man group missing Olympic veterans Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton and John Orozco finished qualifying in fifth place with a total of 350.322. The Americans will be joined in the finals and by Japan, China, Britain, Russia, Switzerland, Brazil and South Korea. 

The U.S. officially moved on after Naddour posted a passport-punching 15.266 on pommels, the final routine on the final rotation that capped an uneven but gritty performance.

“I love a good fight,” Chris Brooks said.

Good thing, because the U.S. was in one for much of the afternoon.

Rising star Donnell Whittenburg battled a cold and a series of wobbles, including a memorable brawl with the parallel bars where his massive arms nearly turned one of the poles into splinters as he tried to hold on. 

The resilient Brooks, added to the team when Mikulak sprained an ankle a few weeks ago, tried to ignore the searing pain in his left shoulder when not serving as the de facto cheerleader. 

Danell Leyva, a bronze medalist in the all-around at the 2012 Olympics, showed extended flashes of the brilliance that has appeared only occasionally since his triumph in London three years ago while earning a spot in the all-around final.

It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t always pretty. That can wait until Rio. This was about survival for a team minus some vital parts from the group that captured bronze at worlds a year ago. Yet the U.S. survived to remain firmly in the pack behind front-runners China and Japan.

The top of the podium is likely out of reach. That third step, however, remains in sight. Three days after a sloppy training session, one that included Paul Ruggeri laughing in frustration during his floor exercise, the U.S. regrouped. 

They’ve been doing this long enough to know the difference between a tough day and a bad one. It’s why national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika didn’t feel the need for a pep talk.

They do their best gymnastics when they’re not too tight,” Mazeika said. “I don’t micromanage that. I let them be themselves.”

The Americans looked loose, breezing through still rings and vault before things started to get shaky. 

Brooks’ bum shoulder kept him from making the lift he needed on parallel bars, and his 12.933 put the U.S. in the need of a big score to offset it.

Enter Leyva was the world champion in the event back in 2011, when he was a teenager. Not anymore. The 23-year-old remains a work in progress, but his athletically aggressive set produced a 15.633. 

Twenty minutes later Leyva was at it again, soaring over the high bar in what is the gymnastics version of the half-pipe, a series of turns and daring flips that seems to connect with Leyva’s inner showman. He drilled his landing and received a massive hug from stepfather and coach Yin Alvarez.

Leyva’s 15.566 was the highest of the meet and the highlight of an all-around total that put him fourth overall and placed him in the premier group with Japan’s incomparable Kohei Uchimura for the all-around finals on Friday.

It wasn’t the best and that’s what I needed,” Leyva said. “I need to have something to look forward to. I need to know I didn’t do my best.”

A sentiment echoed by the rest of a team that will have to find a way past Russia and the rapidly improving Brits if it wants to find its way onto the medal stand Wednesday. 

It’s telling that the group which has spoken incessantly about its depth since London needed it more than ever. The highest U.S. score on each event was spread among five different gymnasts, and Leyva, Naddour, Whittenburg, Brooks and Brandon Wynn all advanced to at least one event final.

The chase for individual glory can wait. For now they’ll settle for a mix of relief and guarded optimism.

“We did our job today, we’re going to Rio,” Whittenburg said. “But we still have more jobs ahead of us.”

MORE GYMNASTICS: World Championships broadcast schedule

Gregorio Paltrinieri swims second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history

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Olympic champion Gregorio Paltrinieri swam the second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history, clocking 14:33.10 in his native Italy on Thursday.

Paltrinieri, 25, missed Chinese Sun Yang‘s world record from the 2012 Olympics by 2.08 seconds.

The Italian now owns the second- and third-fastest times in history, including his 14:34.10 from the 2016 European Championships, also held at the 2012 Olympic pool in London.

Paltrinieri is a versatile distance swimmer. At last year’s world championships, he finished sixth in the open-water 10km to qualify for the Olympics, then won the 800m free in the pool in a European record time and finished with 1500m bronze, just missing a third straight world title in that event.

German Florian Wellbrock won the 1500m in 14:36.54 at worlds, with Paltrinieri finishing 2.21 seconds back.

Sun, 28, was in February banned eight years stemming from destroying a drug-test sample with a hammer in September 2018. Sun, who focused more on the 200m and 400m frees in recent years, did not race the 1500m at the 2017 or 2019 Worlds.

Top-level swim meets in the U.S. are scheduled to resume in November with the Tyr Pro Series.

MORE: Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15

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Bianca Andreescu to miss U.S. Open

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Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the U.S. Open, citing “unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic” compromising her ability to prepare to defend her Grand Slam title.

“I have taken this step in order to focus on my match fitness and ensure that I return ready to play at my highest level,” Andreescu, a 20-year-old Canadian, posted on social media. “The US Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. However, I realize that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

Andreescu’s absence means the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be without both 2019 male and female singles champions.

Rafael Nadal previously announced he would not defend his title, saying he would rather not travel given the global situation. Roger Federer is also out after knee surgery. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty didn’t enter, either, citing travel concerns.

Last year, Andreescu made her U.S. Open title run as the 15th seed, sweeping Serena Williams in the final. Ranked 208th a year earlier, she became the first player born in the 2000s to win a Slam and the first teen Slam winner since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Andreescu then missed the Australian Open in January due to rehab from a knee injury that forced her to retire during a match at the WTA Finals on Oct. 30. She also missed the French Open and Wimbledon in 2019 following a rotator cuff tear.

MORE: Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis competition

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