Japan ends China’s reign at World Gymnastics Championships; pommel horse dooms U.S.

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This was the moment Kohei Uchimura had waited for, a chance to clinch a team gold medal for Japan with the kind of beautiful gymnastics that’s propelled him to unprecedented individual success in the sport the last six years.

“This is a team competition, and I was the last to compete, and I really wanted to have a perfect routine,” he said, according to Worlds organizers.

He saluted the judges, took a deep breath and latched onto the high bar for the last routine of the men’s team final at the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, on Wednesday night.

China, long the Lucy to Japan’s Charlie Brown, was already vanquished.

Upstart Great Britain performed well, but even an average Uchimura, a man who has won a record five straight World all-around titles plus an Olympic all-around gold, would be enough to clinch Japan’s first World title since 1978, the tail end of its dynasty.

So Uchimura began swinging about nine feet above the mat. He let go of the bar once for a high-flying, somersaulting release move … and grabbed the bar on the way down like he always does.

The crowd roared, not for Uchimura, but for the score of Great Britain’s Max Whitlock‘s outstanding floor exercise routine that clinched the host nation’s first men’s World team medal ever.

Uchimura, perhaps affected by the noise, swung a few more times and released again, this time twisting in the air.

This time, his arms reached, but he could not get a grip. Chalk dusted off the bar, and the Japanese legend crashed on his back on the mat.

Clearly dazed, Uchimura refused to lie down. He immediately, but slowly, stood up from the mat as the crowd’s gasps silenced.

Uchimura stuck his tongue out slightly, walked over to chalk up his hands again, saluted and remounted the high bar amid applause.

Had he lost the gold medal? A scoreboard check showed he needed 13.994 points for Japan to overtake Great Britain for the title. Doable with a fall, but any more errors could be costly.

So Uchimura picked up from where he left off. He let go of the bar for release moves three more times, catching the bar on his descent twice more and then dismounting. Uchimura landed on the mat a second time, sticking his feet and not moving.

He bowed and sauntered away from the apparatus. There was no raucous celebration — no fist pump as he had shown in 2014, when it appeared his clean high bar routine had clinched Japan a gold, only for China to come back later and steal it by one tenth of a point in Nanning, China.

There was no sign of emotion from Uchimura until he reached a coach a few seconds later. They shook hands, and Uchimura emerged with what appeared to be the slightest smile.

Perhaps then he knew. But he had to wait about two more minutes before the judges’ decision came down.

“I knew the score I needed, but I thought it would be difficult, because scoring on high bar was quite strict in qualifications,” said Uchimura, who scored 15.366 in qualifying without a fall, but lost 1.5 points combined for the fall and a loss in difficulty, according to NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett. “The feeling was just like the London Olympics after pommel horse [when Uchimura flailed on a dismount on the final routine, Japan appealed the low score and it was upgraded from fourth to the silver medal].”

The verdict was a Japanese gold medal by .473 of a point, thanks to a mediocre 14.466 for the most decorated all-around gymnast in history.

Uchimura has repeated in recent years that a team gold medal would mean more to him than another individual all-around title at this point in his career. He finally got it, and his reaction now that it was assured was to pump his fists and yell briefly while surrounded by teammates.

“I feel really bad,” Uchimura, who must pass five consecutive pictures of himself in the “Walk of Champions” to get to the competition floor in the Glasgow arena, said later. “But I have never won a team competition, and even though it wasn’t perfect, we still won the gold medal. The next time I am the last competitor, I want to do what is expected of the last competitor.”

Across the floor, the British men gushed even more for their silver medals, backing up their London Olympic bronze finish.

“Everyone’s always been asking me how good can we get?” Two-time Olympian Louis Smith said in a press conference. “Today has been a perfect display of how we can knock them down as a team and just show what we are capable of.”

Dethroned China, which had rallied for bronze, already had their Li Ning jackets zipped up and offered little more than blank stares.

“It’s a warning for all of us,” Zhang Chenglong said, according to The Associated Press. “Because it’s a competition, there are always successes and failures. No one can be the forever winner.”

The U.S. men, missing their three best gymnasts from 2014 due to injuries, plummeted from second place going into the final of six rotations to place fifth, as they had in qualifying and as they had in disappointing fashion at the Olympics. Their final rotation free-fall wasn’t shocking given their last three routines came on pommel horse, long their Achilles’ heel.

The Japan victory was a little more of a surprise given the history books.

China had relegated Japan to silver at the previous five World Championships and the last two Olympics, after Japan took the 2004 Olympic title. The Chinese were starting to close in on the greatest dynasty in gymnastics history, that of Japan, which won every Olympic and World team title from 1960 through 1978.

China, which had qualified second into this final, was not at its best Wednesday night. Zhang went out of bounds on floor exercise on the first rotation. Lin Chaopan nearly fell off the pommel horse on the second, and then Xiao Ruoteng did come off of it.

The Chinese were in seventh place after six of 18 routines and were fortunate to climb back for the bronze medal. Japan, meanwhile, led wire to wire. Its small lead over the U.S. going into the final two rotations, one tenth, would inevitably balloon with the Americans average at best on floor exercise and so poor on pommel horse.

The U.S. went into the final with a nothing-to-lose mindset, given it was missing the top three all-around finishers from the 2014 P&G Championships — Olympians Sam MikulakJohn Orozco and Jacob Dalton — due to injuries.

In second place after four of six rotations, it led third-place Russia by 1.957 points and fourth-place Great Britain by 2.192 points with six total routines left for each nation.

“I kind of had an idea that we needed to be about 3.5 points above Great Britain or Russia to be a possibility of a medal,” Alex Naddour said in a USA Gymnastics interview. “So when we were less than that, I knew we had to be as perfect as we could.”

Then two Americans went out of bounds on floor exercise — Donnell Whittenburg and Paul Ruggeri III. The U.S. was still in second going to pommel horse, but now the lead over third-place China was .261 and fourth-place Great Britain was 1.242.

“It was definitely nerve-racking,” Whittenburg said in a USA Gymnastics interview. “We know that it’s not our best event.”

Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva led off pommel horse with two major leg form breaks and a messy swing up to a handstand before his dismount. His 13.1 took the U.S. out of the medals.

“I was a little upset at myself,” Leyva said in USA Gymnastics interview.

Whittenburg followed with a 13.866, further ensuring they’d be off the podium. Those were the only two U.S. routines of the night that scored below 14.

The fifth place marked the U.S.’ lowest finish at Worlds since it was 13th in 2006.

But there is hope. The team will undoubtedly be better in 2016, with the returns of Mikulak (stronger on pommel horse than Leyva and Whittenburg), Dalton (the 2013 World silver medalist on floor) and Orozco (who is best on parallel bars and high bar). They’ll vie to make a five-man Olympic team.

In Glasgow, Leyva was fourth in all-around qualifying and could earn a medal in that final Friday, but Uchimura will be favored to make it six straight there, especially with the weight of team expectations off his shoulders.

The World Championships continue with the women’s all-around final Thursday, featuring Simone Biles going for an unprecedented third straight title and Olympic champion Gabby Douglas.

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

MORE GYMNASTICS: World Championships broadcast schedule

MEN’S TEAM FINAL
GOLD: Japan — 270.818

SILVER: Great Britain — 270.345
BRONZE: China — 269.959
4. Russia — 268.362
5. United States — 267.853
6. Switzerland — 261.660
7. South Korea — 260.035
8. Brazil — 259.577

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that China was first in qualifying.

As Cullen Jones leaves Olympic-level competition, his mission is amplified

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Cullen Jones‘ impact on his sport shone again in late May, despite competition being shut down since March and swimmers at all levels kept out of pools due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jones, motivated by a message from 2012 Olympic teammate Lia Neal, created a group text chat among 10 to 20 Black swimmers sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The topic: How can we make our voices heard?

That kind of get-together was impossible during Jones’ ascent more than a decade ago. He was the first Black swimmer to hold a world record and the only Black swimmer on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.

The U.S. swim team at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 could include multiple Black swimmers for both genders for the first time.

Jones, a 36-year-old Olympic gold and silver medalist (two of each color), will not be one of them. He recently announced retirement from the highest level of swimming. The last member of the epic Beijing 4x100m freestyle relay to bow out.

His legacy includes not only records and medals, but also role model status for countless young swimmers. And the face of USA Swimming’s “Make a Splash” program, barnstorming the last 12 years to help teach kids how to swim, particularly in underserved communities.

Jones is not finished working toward equality outside of the competition pool.

“George Floyd’s death is a catalyst for me,” Jones said in a June interview. “Just emboldens me to do more.”

Jones decided to speak out about discrimination, sharing stories of racism that he’s faced since becoming a swimmer after nearly drowning as a child. He filmed social media videos, joined a webinar series started by Jacob Pebley and Neal and contacted longtime sponsor Speedo.

“I always kept it very corporate,” Jones said. “I was always very neutral. You would never see me hanging out with my friends drinking, because I worked with kids. That wasn’t the image that I really wanted to put out there. When it came to my political ideals, I never really put it out there because I wanted my platform to be very straightforward, clean cut so that when companies want to align with me they know they’re aligning with a safe brand.

“But, after George Floyd’s death, I was of course enraged and upset.”

Jones and other Black swimmers helped USA Swimming recraft a June 1 statement condemning racism. On June 12, USA Swimming published a new statement, acknowledging that the sport, like society, fostered systemic racism. It detailed four short-term steps the organization would take.

Jones said “Make a Splash” was already in the process of restructuring before the pandemic. Now, he wants to be sure the tour hits the neighborhoods that most need it, such as the South Side of Chicago and Memphis.

More than 30 U.S. Olympic, Paralympic and national teamers came together to educate the swimming community on what Black Lives Matter means and to raise money for charities that support Black communities. Jones urged contributions to the Innocence Project to help exonerate the wrongfully convicted and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

“Many times we’re expected to be athlete first, and then Black second,” Jones said on a webinar with Neal and two-time Olympic 50m freestyle gold medalist Anthony Ervin titled “Swimmers for Change.” (Neal and Ervin each have one African-American parent. Ervin’s dad is three quarters African American and one quarter Native American.)

We need to keep our mouths open about things that are going on because we are the faces of what USA Swimming is in diversity,” Jones continued. “We need to make sure that these young people, as they’re coming up, they understand that they can look to us.”

Jones was born in the Bronx and moved to Irvington, N.J., as a kid. “Crips and the Bloods, gun shots, everything, that’s what I grew up around,” he said. “I leave my house, and I don’t wear certain colors because I don’t want one side to get upset.”

Jones, at “Make a Splash” stops, told families his swimming story. At age 5, he nearly drowned coming off a slide at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown, Pa.

“It can take as little as 20 seconds for a kid to drown,” Jones, whose best event, the 50m freestyle, is a 21-second splash and dash without taking a breath, wrote in The Players’ Tribune in 2015. “I was under water for 30 seconds.”

Jones was rescued by a lifeguard and resuscitated with CPR. “The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘What’s the next ride we’re getting on?'” Jones wrote. “My mom’s first words were, ‘We’re gonna get you swim lessons.'”

By 8, Jones began a competitive swim career that lasted nearly three decades.

At 15 years old, the mom of a swimmer that he finally defeated said, “Shouldn’t he be playing basketball?”

“I was not instructed to speak out at the time,” Jones said. “I was instructed to work harder and not let anyone get in my way. That determination is what led me to the podium at the Olympic Games.”

Jones carried that memory through college at NC State, where he regularly heard boos after winning races at dual meets in his senior season in 2006.

Then a few years ago, as an Olympic champion professional, Jones was pulled over by a police officer. He was told to pop the trunk. The officer didn’t have a warrant, but Jones complied. Inside of it were some fins, paddles, a kickboard, swimsuits and copies of Jones’ autographed card that he distributes.

“The guy looks, and he goes, oh, you’re that Black swimmer that went to the Olympics. OK, well you have a good day. Took off,” Jones said. “There’s so many different ways that this still happens today.”

The night after Floyd’s death, Jones was walking Vinny, his family’s French Bulldog, around 10 p.m. outside his South Carolina house in what he describes as a nice neighborhood.

He saw a police car go past, stop at an intersection, turn around and drive up to him. The officer rolled down his window and asked Jones if everything was OK. Yes, Jones told him. The officer asked how old Vinny was (six years). They made small talk about each owning dogs. Then the officer told him once more he wanted to make sure everything was OK and drove away.

“If I wasn’t 6-foot-5, muscular and Black, I don’t know that you would have necessarily turned around. You definitely wouldn’t have asked me twice if everything was OK by me walking my dog,” Jones said in recalling the interaction. “I had to verbally disarm him by telling my vast — not so vast — knowledge of dogs so that he would feel comfortable with me, even though he’s the one with the gun. And I’m going to have to teach my child [11-month-old Ayvn] how to do that.”

Jones became visible to the nation as part of the 2008 U.S. Olympic 4x100m freestyle relay that won in Beijing, anchored by Jason Lezak‘s fastest split in history to overtake the French.

Jones earned the fourth and final spot on the team with the fastest split in the preliminary heat the night before. (That same night was one of Jones’ favorite memories: meeting the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team and LeBron James quipping, “Oh, snap, you got a brother on the team?”).

After Jones completed the third leg of the morning final, he was so exhausted that he said he “was blacking out.” Jones made what he called “an idiot move” and swam to the side of the pool to exit — traditionally done after individual races — rather than lift himself out right there at the wall.

When Lezak out-touched Alain Bernard, Jones was still on his way back to join the first two U.S. swimmers, Michael Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale, behind the starting block. So Jones wasn’t in the immediate celebration photos and video that spread across the world.

But he was the only one to make the media rounds throughout the rest of the day because he didn’t have any more races left at the Games.

He estimated he did 13 hours of media that day. Jones returned to the Athletes’ village around 2 the next morning. He never cooled down after his swim. He was speechless after so many interviews when he entered his room, which he shared with close friend Ryan Lochte. (Lochte greeted Jones by jumping on his back, and even crying a little bit.)

Soon after, Jones received two phone calls that also changed his life. One, from a friend who told Jones, “Do you know what you just did? Tiger. Venus and Serena. That’s what you just did.”

Another, from the USA Swimming Foundation. Jones was told that drowning was the second-leading cause of accidental death in America. That 70 percent of African-American children can’t swim. That swim lessons could reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent for children ages 1-4.

He became a leader for “Make a Splash,” which started in 2007. The tour took off after his involvement following the Beijing Olympics. Four millions kids have received swim lessons through the program and its local partners.

“I don’t think there’s any question, at least up to date now, that Cullen has certainly made the biggest impact on the African-American community and the Black community in general in the sport of swimming,” said Olympic champion and NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines, who estimated he has traveled with Jones for more than 50 “Make a Splash” stops. “There are trailblazers, but nobody has made the overall impact of Cullen.

“We’ll look back on this — hopefully 20 or 30 years from now — he’ll be sort of our Jesse Owens and have had that kind of impact.”

Jones’ peers can attest.

Simone Manuel became the first Black female swimmer to win an Olympic title for the U.S. in Rio. In her famous, tearful interview after the 100m freestyle, Manuel said the gold medal was not just for her, but for those who inspired her. She named Maritza Correia, the first Black woman on a U.S. Olympic swim team in 2004, and Jones.

Jack LeVant, a rising Stanford junior and 2019 World Championships team member, remembers sitting around the TV with his family back in 2008 to watch the relay. He was 8 years old.

“Cullen, undoubtedly, has been my biggest role model in the sport,” LeVant said. “It was so awesome to see someone who looked like me doing the things that I wanted to do one day.”

Which made an interaction between LeVant and Jones in 2017 so meaningful. Jones, in what turned out to be his last major meet, missed the world championships team by .02 of a second in the 50m free. LeVant, then 17, saw his idol on the pool deck.

“I was devastated for him,” LeVant said. “As he was walking by, I was like, yo, great job, Cullen, we all love you man. He stopped and he shook my hand. He looked me right in the eye and thanked me for saying that.”

Reece Whitley, a rising junior at Cal, remembered his first time meeting Olympians at a childhood swim meet. He was not there to compete. But his mom thought it would be a great idea for Whitley to see two Olympians who were there: Brendan Hansen (a Pennsylvania breaststroker like Whitley) and Jones. A decade later, Whitley, as a high school senior, was an instructor at a “Make a Splash” stop with Missy Franklin, Gaines and Jones.

“A lot of professional swimmers, once they get to their later 30s and early 40s, and once they have a kid and start a family, they kind of leave the sport, but Cullen clearly has a mission that I stand behind, and he’s going to stick with it until everything is right,” Whitley said.

Jones’ devotion to “Make a Splash” was so ardent that Neal believes it cost him in competition.

“He was traveling so much for ‘Make A Splash’ one year leading up to trials,” she said. “He wasn’t able to reach his potential that summer of making whatever team that was because he also dedicated so much of himself to advocating for water safety.”

In a way, the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Jones’ original mission.

“This kind of puts a halt on all the kids that could have learned how to swim this summer because these public pools are being shut down,” Neal said, “but then when you have private pools still opening, that attracts more predominantly white families and kids, and they’re still on track to learn how to swim.”

Jones said that, at last check a few years ago, the amount of African-American children who couldn’t swim dropped to 64 percent, from 70 percent when he partnered with “Make a Splash” in 2008.

There were similar improvements for Latin American and white children. Jones attributed the success at least partially to swimming’s popularity — “the Michael Phelps phenomenon.”

“At the same time, you had this water safety prevention initiative that was there, screaming, i.e. me, that it’s important to get kids to learn how to swim,” he said. “So to see those numbers drop in my lifetime, I did not even expect that, let alone to see it in about eight years.”

The USA Swimming Foundation told a story from 2010, when “Make a Splash” stopped in Shreveport, La., three months after six Black teenagers drowned in the Red River.

The foundation reported that six kids total showed up for the swim clinic with Jones, all terrified.

“I got out of the pool,” Jones said after eventually getting all six into the water, according to the foundation. “I went into the bathroom, and I just started crying. I thought, ‘I get it. This is what I need to be doing.'”

MORE: Jason Lezak’s memories of Beijing Olympic relay

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World Alpine Skiing Championships on for 2021 after request to delay rejected

Alpine Skiing World Championships
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GENEVA (AP) — A request by the organizers of next year’s skiing world championships in Italy to postpone the event by one year was rejected Thursday by the International Ski Federation.

FIS ruled that the event will go ahead from Feb. 9-21, 2021, in Cortina d’Ampezzo — the highlight of an Alpine season that faces challenges to find safe protocols for international travel and attending races in Europe, North America and China.

The Veneto region of northern Italy was hit hard by the coronavirus and the season-ending World Cup races in Cortina in mid-March were canceled. That week-long event was to be a test for the 2021 worlds.

“The last month of efforts to come to this solution demonstrates the strong collaborative spirit of the ski family and stakeholders.” FIS president Gian-Franco Kasper said.

Organizers in Italy have said they expect losses of about 30 million euros ($34 million) if the worlds are also canceled. They asked for a postponement to March 2022, which would be only weeks after the Beijing Olympics.

“But we will be ready in any case and we will show that these world championships can change the history of a region despite the current difficulties,” Alessandro Benetton, president of the Cortina organizing committee, said in a statement.

Italian racer Sofia Goggia, the 2018 Olympic downhill champion, said she was “happy for Cortina because it will host the first major international event after the coronavirus epidemic.”

Cortina, which hosted the 1956 Olympics, will co-host the 2026 Winter Games with Milan and use the worlds as a showcase for the resort.

The women’s World Cup downhill on the Olympia delle Tofane course each January is one of the most scenic in the sport with a signature jump between tall outcrops of jagged rock.

The Dolomites venue was awarded the 2021 worlds by FIS after missing out as a candidate four straight times from 2013-19.

MORE: Anna Veith retires, leaves Austrian Alpine skiing in unfamiliar territory

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