Donnell Whittenburg
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Two prevailing storylines in World Gymnastics Championships men’s team final

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Two questions hang over the World Gymnastics Championships men’s team final on Wednesday.

Can Japan end China’s dynasty?

How much will the loss of three Olympians impact the U.S.?

China has won six straight World Championships and the last two Olympics, its reign dating to 2006.

Japan finished second each time, but it appeared en route to gold at the 2014 Worlds in China until a clutch final high bar routine lifted the Chinese to the title by one tenth of a point. That marked the smallest margin of victory by a men’s or women’s team at an Olympics or Worlds since the sport threw out the perfect-10 scoring system a decade ago.

Japan’s confidence must be higher this week in Glasgow, Scotland, given it qualified first into the team final by 1.857 points over China.

However, if one adds up all the scores in qualifying by gymnasts who will contest the team final, China would beat Japan by .508.

Japan, led by five-time World all-around champion Kohei Uchimura, continues to look to preserve its heritage as the sport’s greatest dynastic nation.

Japan captured every Olympic and World title from 1960 through 1978, when Worlds were once every four years, but China is gaining.

Uchimura, arguably the greatest gymnast in history, has repeated that he values a team gold medal over an individual all-around title. He is going on all six events Wednesday, which he didn’t do in 2014.

The bronze-medal conversation usually starts with the U.S., but that isn’t the case this year. Great Britain and Russia easily topped the Americans in qualifying, to no surprise.

The U.S., which finished between third and fifth at every Olympics and Worlds since 2007, is without its three best gymnasts from 2014 — Olympians Sam MikulakJohn Orozco and Jacob Dalton — all injured.

The depleted Americans impressed some just by qualifying for this team final (and the Olympics) by finishing in the top eight in qualifying on Monday. They were fifth, led by Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva, who also qualified fourth into Thursday’s individual all-around final.

Donnell Whittenburg, who was fourth in all-around qualifying in his Worlds debut in 2014 but tumbled to 17th in the final, will be the busiest U.S. man in the team final. The powerful Maryland native will compete on five of six events, looking to better his qualifying performance that was 4.5 points shy of his 2014 qualifying total.

MORE GYMNASTICS: World Championships broadcast schedule

Penny Oleksiak edges Simone Manuel, Regan Smith sizzles again in Knoxville

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Penny Oleksiak and Simone Manuel nearly duplicated their Olympic gold-medal tie. The Canadian Oleksiak edged Manuel by .03 in the 100m freestyle at a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sunday night.

Oleksiak clocked 53.41 seconds, coming back from .37 behind Manuel at the 50-meter mark. The two tied for the Rio Olympic title in an Olympic record 52.70 seconds four years ago. Oleksiak was the surprise, a 16-year-old who came into the Games ranked eighth in the world for the year.

Since, Manuel swept the 2017 and 2019 World titles. Oleksiak was sixth at 2017 Worlds and withdrew before the 100m free at 2019 Worlds. She ranked 21st in the world last year. Oleksiak’s time Sunday was her fastest since 2017.

Full Knoxville meet results are here. The Pro Series’ next stop is Des Moines from March 4-7.

In other events Sunday, world-record holder Regan Smith won the 200m backstroke in 2:05.94, the fastest time ever outside of a national championships or major international meet. Smith, 17, achieved the same feat on Saturday in the 100m back, where she also broke the world record at last summer’s worlds.

Madisyn Cox won a matchup of the three fastest U.S. women in the 200m individual medley in 2019. She clocked 2:09.88, beating Alex Walsh by a half-second and Melanie Margalis by .54.

It was Cox’s fastest time since she took bronze at the 2017 World Championships. She missed the 2019 Worlds after failing a 2018 drug test over what she said was a contaminated multivitamin.

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Mikaela Shiffrin among favorites eliminated early in parallel giant slalom

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Mikaela Shiffrin was upset in the round of 16 of the first World Cup parallel giant slalom by unheralded Frenchwoman Clara Direz, who went on to earn her first win on Sunday.

Shiffrin had the fastest qualifying time but was bounced in the second round of head-to-head racing in Sestriere by Direz. Direz, 24, came into the day with a best career finish of seventh.

Direz was 16th-fastest in qualifying, 1.02 seconds behind Shiffrin combining times from two runs. Direz edged Shiffrin by .13 in their head-to-head run. Shiffrin appeared to be at a disadvantage being put on the red course, which produced just three winners among 20 one-run matchups.

“It is fun; I think I like the parallel GS actually more than the parallel slalom, but it’s a little bit difficult,” Shiffrin said. “I think there’s still a lot of work we have to do, and FIS [the International Ski Federation] has to do to really make the race as even as it can be because for sure you can see, there’s always a faster course. But today it’s like they’re not even the same course at all. Especially in the last four, five gates on the blue course, you can even see just looking up the hill that it’s straighter than the red course.

“Today I would say it’s a day where the luck [of which course you draw randomly] really plays a role.”

Direz eventually beat Austrian Elisa Moerzinger in the final. Direz was on the blue course for three of her four one-run rounds. Full results are here.

Higher-ranked racers used to be have their choice of courses in the parallel format.

“Maybe that wasn’t fair, either, but I think there must be a way to make it something that is more even, but at the same time, yeah, I don’t really have the answers on how to do that, either,” Shiffrin said. “It’s still in its infancy, this event.”

Shiffrin has a track record of success in parallel slaloms and similar city events, winning five of her last six starts. But the parallel GS proved problematic for the world’s best in slalom.

Swiss Wendy Holdener and Slovakian Petra Vlhova were also eliminated before the quarterfinals after being second- and third-fastest in qualifying. Holdener was also on the red course. Vlhova lost in the round of 32, when skiers were taking runs on both the blue and red courses.

Sestriere marked the last weekend of technical races (slaloms/giant slaloms) until mid-February. The next three weekends feature downhills and super-Gs. Shiffrin is expected to travel to Bansko, Bulgaria, for the first set on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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