U.S. men’s, women’s takeaways from World Gymnastics Championships

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Martha Karlolyi was succinct.

“Mission accomplished,” the U.S. women’s national team coordinator told media in Glasgow, Scotland, on Sunday.

Karolyi beamed after her team set program records for total medals at a Worlds with a team event and gold medals for any Worlds (five), including three individual titles for superstar Simone Biles.

Coming to Glasgow, Biles looked like a lock for the five-woman Olympic team, and Gabby DouglasAly Raisman and Maggie Nichols put themselves in strong positions via results throughout the year. They won’t learn their fates until after July’s Olympic trials.

We know what Biles did last week. Douglas and Nichols posted the best non-Biles all-around scores in Glasgow, if one counts Nichols’ four-event performance in the team final.

Raisman was fifth in all-around qualifying but missed the final because she was third among Americans, and made zero individual finals overall. However, her last routine score in Glasgow, a 15.075 on floor in the team final, would have earned bronze in apparatus finals. She may not have performed as well as Douglas and Nichols in Glasgow, but her experience and intangibles are unmatched in the U.S. program.

The U.S. would certainly be favored to repeat as Olympic champion with just that quartet, which makes the fifth roster spot somewhat of a luxury. Where does the formidable team most need help in a three-up, three-count format?

Biles, Nichols and Raisman all perform the standard high-difficulty vault, the Amanar, and put up medal-worthy floor routines (and Douglas could upgrade to the Amanar for 2016). That leaves beam, where only Biles scored above 14.4 at Worlds, and uneven bars, Biles’ and Raisman’s weakest event.

The U.S. chose to bring two bars specialists to Worlds — Brenna Dowell and Madison Kocian. Kocian hit in qualifying to earn the fifth team final spot and then shared gold with three others in the bars final (Douglas was fifth). Kocian may be the clubhouse leader for the fifth Olympic spot.

If a younger gymnast is to enter the conversation next year, it’s expected to be Laurie Hernandez, who won the junior all-around and bars titles at the P&G Championships.

On beam, Alyssa Baumann was the only gymnast to score in the 15s on both nights at the 2014 and 2015 P&G Championships (even Biles couldn’t muster that) but scored lower at her only Worlds appearance in 2014.

Maybe the perfect scenario would be a return to form from 2012 Olympian Kyla Ross, who earned World silver on bars and beam in 2013, but must regroup after finishing 10th in the all-around at the P&G Championships in August.

While the U.S. women overflow with talent, the men scraped together a World Championships team.

A fifth-place finish without the three best all-around gymnasts from last year’s P&G Championships was respectable.

The climb back to the podium will be steep. China and Japan beat the U.S. men in every Olympics and Worlds since 2005, and now Great Britain may be pulling away.

The Brits, silver medalists ahead of China in Glasgow, have experience (Louis SmithDan Purvis and Kristian Thomas all own previous World apparatus medals), promise (Brinn Bevan, 18, and Nile Wilson, 19) and arguably the world’s second-best gymnast, Max Whitlock.

The U.S. men’s medal hopes were justified after World bronze in 2014, but three members of that team missed last week’s Worlds and will go into 2016 returning from surgeries — Olympians Sam MikulakJohn Orozco (both Achilles) and Jacob Dalton (shoulder).

An underlying problem in Glasgow: the six-man team was uneven. The U.S. finished top three among all nations on high bar, parallel bars and still rings and outside the top five on pommel horse, floor exercise and vault.

The injuries to Mikulak, Orozco and Dalton of course complicated the Olympic team selection picture. Danell Leyva and Donnell Whittenburg salvaged apparatus medals Sunday, high bar silver and vault bronze, and were the team’s all-arounders, too.

A major problem is that Orozco, Dalton, Leyva and Whittenburg are not reliable on pommel horse, the U.S.’ Achilles heel event. That creates more Olympic team selection scenarios and increases the value of strong pommel workers Alex Naddour and Marvin Kimble.

Olympic roster sizes for men and women are five gymnasts each. The U.S. women could get by in Rio with four gymnasts. The U.S. men would like six or seven.

MORE GYMNASTICS: Where is McKayla Maroney?

A 1983 world champion will become the oldest Olympic table tennis player ever

Ni Xia Lian
European Table Tennis Union
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Ni Xia Lian, a 55-year-old, Chinese-born table tennis player for Luxembourg, is set to become the oldest Olympian ever in her sport.

Ni earned Luxembourg a quota spot at the 2020 Tokyo Games by bagging bronze at the European Championships on Wednesday. Ni will fill that spot and compete at her fifth Games next summer, according to Luxembourg’s table tennis federation.

Ni’s first senior medal at a global competition came with China at the world team championships in 1983.

Ni moved to Luxembourg in the 1990s, running a hotel with her husband. She kept competing, with a five-year break between 2002 and 2007, and set a record in 2017 for the longest table-tennis match at 1 hour 33 minutes.

She would already be the oldest Olympic table tennis player if not for He Zhiwen, who was born in China and competed for Spain with the nickname Juanito at the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics. He retired after Rio at age 54, according to the International Table Tennis Federation.

Ni will be 57 next summer, older than any previous female Olympians outside of archery, equestrian, shooting and art competitions, according to the OlyMADMen. Her best Olympic finish was ninth in Sydney in 2000.

Chinese-born players represent many countries in table tennis, including European Games gold and silver medalists, Fu Yu of Portugal and Han Ying of Germany.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

MORE: Most experienced Olympian in history retires at age 72

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Phil Dalhausser, tempted by retirement, partner switch, forges to final Olympics

Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena
AVP
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At one point last summer, Nick Lucena made an unusual move for an Olympic beach volleyball player. He suggested to his partner, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser, the best American for the last decade, that Dalhausser might be happier playing with somebody else.

“I thought, man, Phil’s not enjoying this, he wants to retire,” said Lucena, who at the time was sidelined by a minor injury. “The last thing I want to do is slow you down. I was like, if he’s going out, it’s not going to be on my account.”

Lucena even offered a replacement: the up-and-coming Taylor Crabb, who at 27 is 12 years younger than both Lucena and Dalhausser, Floridians who paired at the Rio Olympics (lost in the quarterfinals), for the last four years and to start their careers from 2003-05.

“Taylor is a special player,” Lucena said. “Them together, I thought they’d be a special team.”

Dalhausser agreed to an extent. Crabb is the best defender in the world, he said. But Dalhausser, the bald, 6-foot-9 blocker known as the “Thin Beast,” waved off Lucena’s humility.

“If I were to rate a defender one through 10, Taylor being a 10, say Nick is a nine,” Dalhausser said earlier this month. “But we’re buddies. We get along. We’ve been friends for 20 years. That just adds a point value to him, so now he’s a 10.”

Crabb, based in California, sensed from afar that Dalhausser might be interested in a change last year. So, he called him.

“I’d be crazy not to ask Phil or for us to talk,” said Crabb, in his third season with three-time Olympian Jake Gibb. “We had talked a little bit, but at the end of the day … “

Crabb cut his answer short in a Midtown Manhattan hotel breakfast booth as Lucena walked by.

Even though they didn’t split, Lucena worried that Dalhausser’s heart was not in the sport anymore. Dalhausser isn’t one to show emotion on the sand, but it was clear that 15 years traveling the world took its toll. He’s married now with 4- and 6-year-olds, but he spends more time every summer with Lucena, a fellow 39-year-old father of two.

“I just wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t going to become happy with making a change in volleyball or whatever,” Dalhausser said. “It had to come from inside.”

An epiphany came last offseason. Dalhausser dived into self-help books: Jack Canfield‘s “The Success Principles,” Eckhart Tolle, Tony Robbins.

“One day, I was walking around the kitchen, thinking aloud, what the hell is my purpose?” he said. “I said, I guess it’s volleyball. My wife [former beach volleyball pro Jennifer Corral] was sitting right there and said, you’re an effing idiot if you don’t think it’s volleyball.

“Since then, I was like, all right, I guess I’m going to make a run.”

An Olympic run. Dalhausser and Lucena are about to start a crucial stretch of international tournaments in Tokyo 2020 qualifying. It begins this weekend at the world championships in Hamburg, Germany.

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A maximum of two U.S. pairs can qualify for the Games. Dalhausser and Lucena are outside the world top 25, but, more importantly, third among Americans about halfway through qualifying. They’ve only played four events; most have played at least six. Each team’s 12 best finishes in the two-year qualifying window count when the Olympic field is determined next summer.

“Results wise haven’t been great up to this point,” said Dalhausser, who won at least one international event each of the previous 13 seasons, but none since Olympic qualifying began last June. “I feel like we’re going to hit our stride here, the more we play consistently and get into a rhythm. I think we’ll be fine. I’m not really worried about it.”

Come next summer, Dalhausser and Lucena will both be older than all but one previous Olympic beach volleyball player. Dalhausser said this is his last Olympic cycle and that he will not play internationally after the 2020 season, but could continue on the domestic AVP tour.

“You see these grays here?” Dalhausser said, pointing to his chin stubble. “Obviously, when I was 28 in Beijing [the 2008 Olympics with Todd Rogers], that was probably my peak as far as vertical goes. But I’m not so sure I’m that far under it.”

Still, injuries are creeping up. They withdrew from a recent event in Poland, citing Dalhausser’s ab injury that has limited his jump serving.

While Dalhausser and Lucena were arguably medal favorites going into Rio, there is no debate about the new No. 1 going into worlds.

“Hands down,” Dalhausser said. “Norway.”

Anders Mol, 21, and Christian Sørum, 23, have won eight of their last 11 international events together. Norway has never put a men’s or women’s team into an Olympic beach volleyball quarterfinal. But the Beachvolley Vikings, who honed their skills at a Hogwarts-like academy called Top Volley Norge in a village named Sand, are unlike any team Dalhausser has ever seen.

“They just don’t have any holes in their game,” Dalhausser said.

It was about this time five years ago when Dalhausser was part of the world’s hottest team. He and Sean Rosenthal won three Grand Slams in a four-event stretch in the summer of 2014. But Dalhausser suffered an oblique injury at about this time in the last Olympic cycle, and they plateaued. Lucena emailed Dalhausser about his availability, and they reunited a year before the Rio Games.

Dalhausser actually wanted to retire after he and Lucena lost to eventual gold medalists Alison and Bruno in the Olympic quarterfinals. He spoke with his alma mater, the University of Central Florida. Had the school started a beach volleyball program, he would have left for a job there.

Even up until this past January, Lucena said he was trying to talk Dalhausser into playing this summer’s world championships. Finally, Dalhausser was asked by his agent and USA Volleyball for a 2019 season schedule. He submitted one with 15 events, mostly international ones, and shared it with Lucena.

“It kind of told me, oh damn, we’re going to try to make a run, which I was not ready for, but I was kind of excited,” Lucena said. “I still felt like I had a lot left in the tank. Maybe not a lot, but enough to make a push.”

Lucena said he’s seen a change in Dalhausser’s demeanor. They won for the first time in seven events together this season at the AVP New York City Open earlier this month, rallying past Crabb and Gibb in a three-set semifinal. Lucena, known more for his defense, earned the AVP’s Hammer Award, given to the top offensive player of the tournament.

“A wise man once said,” Dalhausser deadpanned, sitting next to Lucena at the event, “a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”

Lucena and Dalhausser came up together in the early 2000s, playing for a few hundred dollars a tournament and holding part-time jobs, including as substitute teachers. When Dalhausser left to pair with Rogers, Lucena spent nearly a decade with the motivation to become a strong enough player to get Dalhausser back as a partner.

It didn’t surprise NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong that Lucena would willingly let Dalhausser leave for another partner in the middle of their last Olympic cycle.

“Those guys are lifelong friends,” Wong said. “Nick’s that guy who can see the bigger picture, life outside of volleyball. The crazy thing was last year on tour, Phil never told me this, but there were two or three different people saying, hey, we think Phil’s going to retire after this year. His motivation, his energy were pretty low and so the question was, is this like a little lull, recharging the battery before one last Olympic push? Or is this the swan song?”

Now Dalhausser seems firm in pushing ahead for one more year.

“It was tempting [to switch partners], but, again, at the end of the day, family then volleyball,” Dalhausser said, noting that sticking with the Tallahassee-based Lucena allows him to spend more time at home in the Orlando area. Most elite beach volleyball players live in California, including Crabb.

“I guess I can be like, hey, Taylor, you want to make a run? It’s not too late,” Dalhausser said. “But my gut’s not telling me that’s the right thing.”

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