U.S. women romp to World Gymnastics Championships gold

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Five U.S. women in red and sparkling silver leotards clutched each other’s hands as they waited for the scoreboard to update one final time, just like the Fierce Five at the London Olympics.

“I got the shivers,” said Maggie Nichols, the only rookie on this year’s team. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

It wasn’t a matter of if the Americans would win, but by how much.

The U.S. women’s gymnastics team captured its fourth straight global title in a romp, hitting all 12 routines for a wire-to-wire victory at the World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, on Tuesday.

“I think we started off with a bang,” team leader Simone Biles said, “and ended with a bang.”

The Americans totaled 181.338 points, beating silver medalist China by 5.174.

Great Britain edged Russia for bronze by .416, its first World Championships team medal, its gymnasts bawling as the home crowd applauded.

Biles, who will go for an unprecedented third straight women’s World all-around title Thursday, earned her 10th World Championships medal, matching the U.S. record held by the retired Alicia Sacramone. She said her mom locks up all of her medals.

London Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, the U.S. all-around silver medalist Nichols and Madison Kocian joined Biles on Tuesday. They scored 14.8 points or better on 10 of 12 combined routines and were the only team with no falls.

“We know we can do these routines in our sleep,” Raisman said.

It was a dominating U.S. performance, but not as big of a blowout as its 2014 World title (6.693-point margin). And it came after about 20 days of training with no days off, Nichols said.

“We made a joke that we worked out so much that we were going to go on strike,” Raisman said. “It was all worth it.”

The last nation to win four straight global titles was Romania, which captured the 1997, 1999 and 2001 World titles and the 2000 Olympic title.

“I almost don’t even remember,” U.S. women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said of the streak. “I know that every time that’s where we strive, but we just never assume. … I see sometimes, or in the past, that once somebody gets to the top, think that I deserve to be there just because who I am.”

Karolyi is the secret to the streak, along with plenty of hard work, Raisman said.

Now, the U.S. will go into Rio 2016 with a chance for the first run of five straight global titles since the Soviet Union won six from 1968 through 1978.

“The pressure will be there,” Biles said. “We’re all really good at handling the pressure.”

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Biles, Douglas, Raisman and Nichols set themselves up well this year to make the five-woman Olympic team, which will be chosen after the Olympic trials from July 8-10 in San Jose. The Rio Olympics open Aug. 5.

“Aly and Gabby keep saying this is just like the Olympics,” Biles said of Worlds. “It’s just the title that’s different.”

Karolyi, whose judgment matters the most in deciding the Olympic team, said she’s very pleased with the comebacks of Douglas and Raisman, who took two years off after London 2012 and are trying to become the first U.S. women since 2000 to make back-to-back Olympic teams.

“I think probably with the leftover several months until Olympics, they will be in totally top shape,” Karolyi told media in Glasgow. “I think it’s a great achievement so far.”

Who else is in the running?

Kocian, who competed on one event in the team final, uneven bars. Brenna Dowell, who is also strongest on bars, and went unused in the team final. MyKayla Skinner was the alternate in Glasgow. Her best events are vault and floor exercise.

Then there’s Laurie Hernandez, the U.S. junior champion who will be old enough for the Olympics in 2016 and could become the first U.S. Olympian in any sport born in 2000.

Of the other London Olympians, Jordyn Wieber retired, McKayla Maroney hasn’t competed in more than two years and Kyla Ross finished 10th in the all-around at the P&G Championships in August and withdrew from Worlds team selection.

Olympic silver medalist Russia could be stronger in Rio than in Glasgow, if it gets 2010 World all-around champion Aliya Mustafina back from injury.

Douglas, with gold nail polish, said having a gold medal draped around her neck felt “like old times” but that this year’s team is stronger and more powerful than in 2011, at the start of this dominating run.

“We each bring, like, a different unique treasure to the team,” she said.

NBC Olympics researcher Amanda Doyle contributed to this report from Glasgow.

MORE GYMNASTICS: World Championships broadcast schedule

SCORES
GOLD: U.S. — 181.338
SILVER: China — 176.164
BRONZE: Great Britain — 172.380
4. Russia — 171.964
5. Japan — 169.887
6. Canada — 167.697
7. Italy — 167.597
8. Netherlands — 162.730

ROUTINE VIDEOS
VAULT: Douglas | Nichols | Biles

UNEVEN BARS: Nichols | Douglas | Kocian
BALANCE BEAM: Nichols | Raisman |
Biles
FLOOR EXERCISE: Nichols | Raisman | Biles

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

Lin Dan
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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

MyKayla Skinner
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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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