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Bridget Sloan eyes final NCAA season, 8 years after Olympic silver

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In 2012, Bridget Sloan‘s eyes welled as she came to grips with the end of her elite gymnastics career, speaking about withdrawing shortly before competition began at the U.S. Olympic trials in San Jose.

“Everything happens for a reason, so this was just kind of my time,” said Sloan, the youngest member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team who had just ended her bid to make back-to-back Olympic teams due to an elbow injury.

Sloan breathed deeply. Then came another question — are you optimistic that you’ll compete for the University of Florida in 2013?

Sloan smiled.

“Oh, heck yeah,” she said, swatting her right hand. “I do not like to go down without a fight. … I’ll head down to Florida, have a great time, and I will win NCAAs. I plan on going down to school and taking names.”

Sloan did just that in her first three years in Gainesville and is beginning the final season of one of the most decorated careers in the sport’s history.

No other gymnast comes close to Sloan’s résumé — an Olympic medal (silver with the U.S. in Beijing), a World all-around title (in 2009), an NCAA all-around title (2013) and three NCAA team titles (2013, 2014, 2015).

And it’s hard to believe many Olympians in any sports taking part in NCAA competition more than seven years after an Olympic appearance. Tasha Schwikert, the youngest member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, competed for UCLA through 2008.

The UF gymnastics season began with an intrasquad meet on Thursday. Full-fledged competition starts Jan. 8. Sloan, 23, who started elite-level gymnastics at age 10, will perform her last routine no later than the NCAA Championships in mid-April.

“I don’t really know if I’ll be that emotional,” Sloan said recently, sitting on a couch outside of an indoor UF practice facility with her image decorating the walls in no fewer than seven places. “I kind of have already been through this with elite. Once that elite career is over, I was like peace out I’m going to college. So many people were like, ‘Are you going to be sad that your [elite] career ended the way it did?’ Obviously it could have ended a little differently, but I am very good at putting all of my memories in little compartments in my brain.”

Sloan verbally committed to Florida in 2011, but she first chose college gymnastics over turning professional soon after winning the 2009 World all-around title.

“I really had to think about, did I want to do college, or did I want to take money?” Sloan said of possibly giving up the opportunity for a Division I scholarship. “And it was actually a really hard decision for me simply because the money was there, I thought it was a lot of money, but in my parents’ eyes, it wasn’t enough to pay for college and have a good amount left over after college.

“So it kind of came down to all right, do I want gymnastics to be a job, or do I want to continue to compete, graduate [from high school in Indiana], figure out if I want to try for 2012 and then go off to college? … If I would’ve taken money in 2009, I would not be a three-time national [team] champion, I would not be a Florida Gator, I’d be living with my parents at home, because I would have no money, because after 2009 was when my injuries started.”

Sloan couldn’t defend her U.S. all-around title in 2010 due to an ankle injury and a torn pectoral but made it back for the 2011 Pan American Games, which proved to be her final international competition.

She enrolled at Florida after the teary withdrawal from the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, transitioned to college gymnastics (generally less difficult routines but a much busier competition schedule) and won the NCAA all-around title as a freshman.

Sloan’s biggest setback at UF came Jan. 11, when she suffered a severe right ankle sprain on her final tumbling pass at a meet at Ball State, about 70 miles east of her Pittsboro, Ind., hometown.

She was fitted with a walking boot and crutches yet returned to compete Feb. 20. Then, on March 13, Sloan scored a perfect 10 on uneven bars to become the eighth gymnast to record a “GymSlam,” recording 10s on all four events in her NCAA career.

Other Olympians like Schwikert and 2004 team members Courtney Kupets, Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool went on to compete in college.

But more recent U.S. Olympic women’s gymnasts are bypassing NCAA by turning pro — such as four of the five 2012 team members — and, already, top 2016 hopeful Simone Biles.

“There are way more professional than there were in my time,” Sloan said. “Growing up, you had a select few. I remember [2004 Olympic all-around champion] Carly Patterson was a professional gymnast, it just blew my mind. I can’t even imagine getting paid for doing gymnastics. Again, it turns into your job. I didn’t want to take the fun out of gymnastics. College has been a way for me to put the fun back into gymnastics.

“There are some girls that took the money, and it’s done amazing things for them, which I applaud them in that, but it’s very difficult to get that.”

Such as Jordyn Wieber, who won the 2011 World all-around title, turned pro and then missed the 2012 Olympic all-around final.

Wieber enrolled at UCLA and helps as a team manager as she’s not allowed to compete.

“I’ve spoken to Jordyn,” Sloan said. “She’s so happy where she’s at. I think she’s very content at getting this amazing college experience. 

“There are some girls that you never even knew took money. Those are the girls that I feel for a little bit because I wish they would have gotten that college experience.”

Sloan said she may want to continue in the sport in a non-competitive capacity after she graduates from UF. A communications major who has learned from the likes of Chad Ochocinco, she’d like to work for Nike or commentate for the SEC Network.

But first is one more season.

It comes after Marvin Sharp, her longtime Indiana coach until Sloan left for UF, was found dead in his jail cell in September, less than a month after being arrested on child molestation charges.

“All the happenings involving Marvin this fall was stunning,” Sloan said, according to the University of Florida Athletic Association. “Marvin was my coach. He helped me reach my goals. Marvin also helped me set goals I perhaps didn’t realize were in my reach, like the Olympics or World Championships. What happened this fall with Marvin is probably something I’ll never fully understand.”

Sloan’s drive, when she could rest on her unequaled accolades, is evident in her attempts to upgrade difficulty in her routines in practice this fall.

It’s left an impression on UF coach Jenny Rowland, hired in May after Rhonda Faehn left Gainesville to become the senior vice president of USA Gymnastics’ women’s program.

Rowland said she was a judge at Sloan’s first international competition at age 12.

“The athlete that Bridget was in Beijing, really, I would say she still has that exact same competitive nature today,” Rowland said“She’s very vocal that she’s the grandma of the group, but at the same time she never complains about it.”

MORE GYMNASTICS: Nastia Liukin details 2012 Olympic trials in book excerpt

*Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated Sloan was the seventh gymnast to complete a “GymSlam.”

*Clarification: A reference to a change in Sloan’s USA Gymnastics biography page in an earlier version of this post has been deleted as the change was computer-generated, according to USA Gymnastics.

Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s first Olympic track and field medalist, has coronavirus

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Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s lone Olympic track and field medalist, tested positive for the coronavirus, according to World Athletics and an Iranian news agency.

“We’ve received word from several Asian journalists that Iranian discus thrower Ehsan Hadadi has tested positive for coronavirus,” according to World Athletics. “[Hadadi] trains part of the year in the US, but was home in Tehran when he contracted the virus.”

Hadadi, 35, became the first Iranian to earn an Olympic track and field medal when he took silver in the discus at the 2012 London Games. Hadadi led through four of six rounds before being overtaken by German Robert Harting, who edged the Iranian by three and a half inches.

He was eliminated in qualifying at the Rio Olympics and placed seventh at last fall’s world championships in Doha.

Jordan Larson preps for her last Olympics, one year later than expected

Jordan Larson
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Whether the Tokyo Olympics would have been this summer or in 2021, Jordan Larson knew this: It will mark her final tournament with the U.S. volleyball team, should she make the roster.

“I’m just not getting any younger,” said Larson, a 33-year-old outside hitter. “I’ve been playing consistently overseas for 12 years straight with no real offseason.

“I also have other endeavors in my life that I want to see. Getting married, having children, those kinds of things. The older I get, the more challenging those become.”

Larson, who debuted on the national team in 2009, has been a leader the last two Olympic cycles. She succeeded Christa Harmotto Dietzen as captain after the Rio Games. Larson started every match at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

As long as Larson was in the building, the U.S. never had to worry about the outside hitter position, said two-time Olympian and NBC Olympics volleyball analyst Kevin Barnett.

“She played as if she belonged from the start,” he said. “They will miss her all-around capability. They’ll miss her ability to make everyone around her better. She’s almost like having a libero who can hit.”

Karch Kiraly, the Olympic indoor and beach champion who took over as head coach after the 2012 Olympics, gushed about her court vision.

“It’s a little dated now, but somebody like Wayne Gretzky just saw things that other people didn’t see on the hockey rink,” Kiraly said in 2018. “And I remember reading about him one time, and the quote from an opposing goalie was, oh my god, here he comes, what does he see that I don’t see right now? She sees things sooner than most people.”

Larson grew up in Hooper, Neb., (population 830) and starred at the University of Nebraska. She was a three-time All-American who helped the team win a national title as a sophomore. She had the opportunity to leave Nebraska and try out for the Olympics in 2008 but chose to remain at school for her final season.

She earned the nickname “Governor” as a Cornhusker State sports icon.

Larson helped the U.S. win its first major international title at the 2014 World Championship. She was also part of the program’s two stingers — defeats in the 2012 Olympic final and 2016 Olympic semifinals, both matches where the U.S. won the first set (and convincingly in 2012).

“It just gives me chills thinking about it now,” Larson said of the Rio Olympic semifinals, where Serbia beat the U.S. 15-13 in the fifth. “That team, we put in so much. Not just on the court but off the court working on culture and working on how are we best for each other. How can we be the best team? How can we out-team people? Certain teams have a better one player that’s a standout that we maybe didn’t have or don’t have. So how can we out-team the other teams? We had just put in so much work that was just heartbreaking.”

Larson and the Americans rebounded to win the bronze-medal match two days later.

“I don’t know anybody that didn’t have their heart ripped out. It was just a soul-crusher of a match,” Kiraly said of the semifinal. “More meaningful was what a great response everybody, including Jordan, mounted to the disappointment of that loss.”

The U.S. took fifth at worlds in 2018 and is now ranked second in the world behind China.

Larson spent the past club season in Shanghai. The campaign ended in mid-January. She hadn’t heard anything about the coronavirus when she took her scheduled flight back to California, learning days later that LAX started screening for it. Now, she’s working out from her garage.

Larson is in line to become the fifth-oldest U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball player in history, according Olympedia and the OlyMADMen.

Her decade of experience could go a long way to help the next generation of outside hitters, led by three-time NCAA champion and Sullivan Award winner Kathryn Plummer.

“If you’re coming into the USA program as an outside hitter, in the next year or the quad or the quad after that,” Barnett said, “the measuring stick is going to be Jordan Larson.”

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