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Breanna Stewart’s youth may boost her Olympic team chances

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The U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team of 12 players will lean heavily on experienced gold medalists and professional superstars adept at pressure situations.

And that’s why UConn senior Breanna Stewart, who fits neither of those labels, could become the youngest U.S. Olympic women’s basketball player since 1988 when the team is named in the next few months.

“[It’s roster spots] 10, 11 and 12 who aren’t going to get a lot of minutes,” said U.S. women’s national team director Carol Callan, who chairs the five-person Olympic team selection committee. “Who can sit there and be ready to go and be content with that scenario? Sometimes that’s where youth has the advantage. … After you pick the first eight or nine, because you know that’s who the core of the team is, that last three or four is the ones that you have so much flexibility with to try and fit in. So the key is, we’re not picking an All-Star team. We’re picking a team. That’s the way it comes together.”

Ten of the 12 members of the 2012 Olympic team (that went undefeated en route to a fifth straight gold) are among 25 finalists to make the Rio Olympic team.

The pool of potential first-time Olympians includes reigning WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Brittney Griner. The latter started all six games at the 2014 World Championship.

That would seem to leave little room for a collegian, even the 6-foot-4 forward Stewart, who has been called a guard in a center’s body and whose versatility has been likened to Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant.

Stewart is trying to lead UConn to a fourth straight NCAA title this season and could earn her third straight NCAA Player of the Year award. No UConn player has accomplished either feat.

Stewart’s UConn coach, Geno Auriemma, doubles as the Olympic coach (but is not on the five-person selection committee).

“Stewie has put herself ahead of a lot of players in the WNBA that could also be on this team,” Auriemma told media at a three-day national team camp at UConn last week. “And if she does make the team, it’s because she deserves it. She earned it.”

Stewart came into focus as an Olympic hopeful when she made the 2014 World Championship team.

At Worlds in Turkey, she played a total of 36 minutes over six games, scoring 11 points, fewest on the team. Not surprising, but the value in her being there was largely unrelated to the box score. Same with last week, when Stewart tacked on the national-team camp in between college games.

“Now Stewie’s one of us,” three-time Olympic champion point guard Sue Bird said at last week’s camp. “She was just way more assertive and aggressive and, beyond everything else, comfortable. When we had Worlds, she was the youngest on the team, it was her first time, there’s all these old players, probably players that she watched growing up. So I think it can be the type of situation where you don’t want to step on people’s toes, but now, I don’t think she cares.”

Diana Taurasi (2004), Candace Parker (2008) and Sylvia Fowles (2008) all made Olympic teams immediately following their final NCAA seasons. All three averaged between 16 and 19 minutes per game at their first Olympics, about three times as many as Stewart at the 2014 World Championship.

Callan compared Stewart to Maya Moore and Bird, who were one and two years out of college when they made their first Olympic teams but, like Stewart, already had World Championship experience.

“Young players, you don’t want to have to necessarily rely on them in the gold-medal game, when you’re down by one and there’s 10 seconds left,” Callan said of an unlikely scenario for the U.S., which has won 41 straight Olympic games. “But at the same time, they also sometimes by being young don’t feel that pressure. They just go play. When you’re a four-time Olympian, perhaps, you realize, whoa, the weight of the world. I just think it’s the mix of everything that values the youth and experience.”

MORE: Brittney Griner returns as Olympic finalist without fear of 2012

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

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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

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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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