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.

Chicago Marathon features Emily Sisson’s return, Conner Mantz’s debut, live on Peacock

Emily Sisson
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At Sunday’s Chicago Marathon, Emily Sisson makes her return, nearly three years after Olympic Trials disappointment. Conner Mantz makes one of the most anticipated U.S. men’s debuts in 26.2-mile racing.

It is not the norm, but an American will be one of the spotlight runners in both the men’s and women’s elite races at a major marathon. Peacock airs live coverage at 8 a.m. ET.

Sisson, 30, starts her first mass marathon since dropping out of the Olympic Trials on Feb. 29, 2020, her legs “destroyed” on the hilly Atlanta course where she started as arguably the favorite. She ran the virtual New York City Marathon later in 2020, but that was solo (and not in New York City). Her 2:38:00 isn’t recorded in her official results on her World Athletics bio.

Since, Sisson won the Olympic Trials 10,000m on the track and was the top American in Tokyo in 10th place. She moved back to the roads, winning national titles at 15km and the half marathon and breaking the American record in the latter.

Sisson vaulted into the elite group of U.S. female marathoners in 2019, when she clocked the second-fastest debut marathon in American history, a 2:23:08 on a windy day in London, where the early pace was slow.

At the time, it was the 12th-best U.S. performance all-time. In the last two years, Keira D’Amato, 37, and Sara Hall, 39, combined to run seven faster marathons. At Chicago, a flat course that produced a world record three years ago, Sisson can answer them and perhaps get close to D’Amato’s American record 2:19:12.

“I’m hoping sub-2:20,” coach Ray Treacy said, according to LetsRun.com. “With the [super] shoes and the training behind her, I would think that’s [worth] at least three minutes.”

It is less likely that Sisson can challenge for the win on Sunday given the presence of Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich, the 2019 World champion and defending champion in the Windy City. The 28-year-old mom is the fifth-fastest woman in history with a personal best of 2:17:08. And Ethiopian Ruti Aga, a podium finisher in Berlin, New York City and Tokyo with a best time of 2:18:34, though she has one marathon finish since the pandemic (a seventh place).

Like Sisson, Mantz has shown strong recent road racing form. The American men’s debut marathon record of 2:07:56 (Leonard Korir) is in play. If he can break that, Mantz will be among the five fastest U.S. marathoners in history.

Rarely has a U.S. male distance runner as accomplished as Mantz moved up to the marathon at such a young age (25). At BYU, he won NCAA cross-country titles in 2020 and 2021 and placed fifth in the Olympic Trials 10,000m, then turned pro and won the U.S. Half Marathon Championships last December.

“If everything goes as planned, I think sub-2:08 is realistic,” Mantz said in a Citius Mag video interview last month. “If everything goes perfect on the day, I think a sub-2:07, that’s a big stretch goal.”

The men’s field doesn’t have the singular star power of Chepngetich, but a large group of East Africans with personal bests around 2:05. The most notable: defending champion Seifu Tura of Ethiopia and 2021 Boston Marathon winner Benson Kipruto of Kenya.

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Alpine skiing to test new format for combined race

Alpine Skiing Combined
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Alpine skiing officials will test a new format for the combined event, a race that is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

French newspaper L’Equipe reported that the International Ski Federation (FIS) will test a new team format for the combined, which has been an individual event on the Olympic program since 1988. L’Equipe reported that a nation can use a different skier for the downhill and slalom in the new setup, quoting FIS secretary general Michel Vion.

For example, the U.S. could use Breezy Johnson in the downhill run and sub her out for Mikaela Shiffrin in the slalom run, should the format be adopted into senior competition.

The format will be tested at the world junior championships in January in St. Anton, Austria, according to the report.

In response to the report, a FIS spokesperson said, “Regarding the new format of the combined is correct, and our directors are working on the rules so for the moment the only thing we can confirm is that there will be this new format for the Alpine combined that has been proposed by the athletes’ commission.”

Some version of the combined event has been provisionally included on the 2026 Olympic program, with a final IOC decision on its place coming by April.

This will be the third consecutive World Cup season with no combined events. Instead, FIS has included more parallel races in recent years. The individual combined remains on the biennial world championships program.

L’Equipe also reported that the mixed team parallel event, which is being dropped from the Olympics, will also be dropped from the biennial world championships after this season.

“There is nothing definitive about that yet, but it is a project in the making,” a FIS spokesperson said in commenting on the report.

Vion said the mixed team event, which debuted at the Olympics in 2018, was not a hit at the Beijing Games and did not draw a strong audience, according to L’Equipe.

The World Cup season starts in two weeks with the traditional opening giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria.

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