Maggie Nichols
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U.S.’ ‘most improved’ gymnast hopes to best Gabby Douglas at American Cup

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NEWARK, N.J. — Maggie Nichols will walk into the Prudential Center for the AT&T American Cup on Saturday (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 1 p.m. ET) more than ready to compete against the Olympic all-around champion, her friend and usual teammate Gabby Douglas.

Nichols will have two very important things on her side: a mature new floor routine and the approval of U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.

In practice Thursday, Nichols did a run-through of her brand-new floor exercise, which has more of the Latin-inspired choreography that became her signature in 2015.

Her previous routine, which earned bronze at the 2015 World Championships, used a piece of paso doble music called “España Cañí.”

Her new music for 2016 — the music Nichols hopes to hear in Rio in August — is similar, “a tango-ish sort of thing,” she said.

“It’s still very new,” Nichols said Thursday, “so it won’t be as good as I probably can dance. I’ll try my best.”

The sophisticated routine reflects the grown-up athlete Nichols has become after her breakout 2015.

In August, she led after the first three of eight rotations at the P&G Championships, eventually finishing second behind Simone Biles and ahead of 2012 Olympians Douglas, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross.

Two months later, she earned team gold and floor bronze in her World Championships debut in Glasgow, Scotland.

She also added high school graduate to her list of accomplishments, finishing classes at Roseville Area High in Minnesota in December.

She’s now focused entirely on gymnastics. Nichols plans to stay amateur and compete collegiately at Oklahoma in January 2017, after the expected post-Olympic whirlwind dies down.

While her résumé speaks for itself, it was the endorsement of Karolyi that marked her as a Rio contender.

“Maggie Nichols, the biggest improvement I can see in this quadrennium is her,” Karolyi said last August. “At the beginning, she was just average, new elite, two and a half, three years ago. And every year, very seriously, very committed, very dedicated, she worked her way, and I think at this moment she is showing definitely world-class gymnastics.”

Nichols feels she’s still improving.

“My skills are getting cleaner, and everything’s getting more powerful,” she said.

Karolyi’s feedback has been more about mentality, that she urged Nichols to “stay really focused and calm and do what I usually do.”

Not that Nichols or Karolyi are worried that she’ll falter under the pressure at the American Cup.

“Maggie never missed a routine last season in any competition,” Karolyi told USA Gymnastics. “She handles very well the pressure, and she is one of those girls who really likes to perform. Sometimes gymnasts get a little intimidated, but not her.”

Nichols isn’t thinking about the fact that she’ll be facing off with the reigning Olympic all-around champion on Saturday.

Though Douglas earned World Championships all-around silver behind Biles in October, Nichols posted an all-around score in the team final that would have won bronze in the individual final.

Does Nichols consider herself the favorite Saturday?

“I haven’t thought too much about it, but it’s my goal so that’d be really cool if it came out that way,” Nichols said.

A few months before the London Olympics, Douglas posted the highest score at the American Cup, but the win wasn’t official because she was competing as an exhibition athlete.

All four U.S. female all-around Olympic champions — Douglas, Nastia Liukin, Carly Patterson and Mary Lou Retton — won the American Cup the same year as their Olympic title.

Biles, the three-time U.S. and World all-around champion and Rio Olympic favorite, was not entered in the American Cup.

USA Gymnastics could enter a maximum of two gymnasts and wanted to get an early look at Douglas and Nichols.

Biles is slated to make her 2016 debut at the Jesolo Trophy in Italy in two weeks.

MORE: Mary Lou Retton reflects on American Cup win 

Correction: Due to an editing error, Maggie Nichols was incorrectly credited with posting a higher World Championships all-around score than Gabby Douglas in an earlier version of this post.

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

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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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