Donnell Whittenburg leads bunched crowd at P&G Championships

Donnell Whittenburg
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HARTFORD, Conn. — Donnell Whittenburg is halfway to his first U.S. all-around title and one-quarter of the way to his first Olympic team.

Whittenburg, the Baltimore native with a linebacker build, posted a six-event score of 89.9 points on the first of two days of competition at the P&G Championships on Friday night. He edged three-time reigning U.S. all-around champion and 2012 Olympian Sam Mikulak by .05, with the next five gymnasts within another point.

Whittenburg was in 32nd place after the first rotation due to starting off on his weakest (yet favorite) event, pommel horse. But he followed that up with the highest score of any gymnast on any apparatus on still rings, a 15.95, and jumped past Mikulak and Jacob Dalton in the sixth and final rotation.

“There’s still more room for improvement, but, today, just glad to get through the first day with clean sets,” said Whittenburg, who earlier this year added to his tattoo collection by spending two hours getting the entire John 3:16 verse inked on his bulging left bicep.

London Olympians Dalton, John Orozco and Danell Leyva are fourth, 11th and 12th, respectively. Full standings are here.

The P&G Championships conclude Sunday (1-4 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra), after the U.S. women compete in the Secret Classic in Hartford on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, Live Extra).

The P&G Championships are one of two Olympic men’s selection meets, followed by the U.S. Olympic Trials in St. Louis in three weeks. The five-man Olympic team will be named after trials.

A gymnast can clinch an Olympic berth by finishing in the top two in the all-around and the top three in three of the six events in combined standings after four days of competition at the P&G Championships and Olympic Trials.

If Friday’s scores repeat Sunday and at Olympic Trials, Mikulak will automatically qualify for his second Olympic team in three weeks, and Whittenburg will undoubtedly prove he should go to Rio, too.

What a four-year journey it has been for Whittenburg, who was raised by a single mother with three siblings. He won this meet in 2012, in the junior division, that is, at age 17, after being eighth in 2011.

Whittenburg moved up to the senior ranks and finished 13th in the 2013 P&G Championships all-around. Then fourth in 2014. And second in 2015. He capped last year with his first individual World Championships medal, bronze on vault, a power event that lends itself to his musclebound explosiveness.

“He kind of showed up on the scene, like, oh man, this kid’s really good,” Dalton said. “He’s really improved. He’s cleaned things up, but just his difficulty is insane. He’s got a lot of hard skills that he makes look easy.”

Mikulak, coming back from a partially torn Achilles that kept him out 2015 Worlds, would have had the first-day lead if not for his last step of the night. He stumbled out of bounds on floor exercise.

“If I hit all my routines on Sunday, and I still lose, then so be it,” said Mikulak, who could become the fifth man to win four straight U.S. all-around titles. “As long as I’m hitting my sets, I’m a happy man.”

Orozco and Leyva, the two best U.S. gymnasts this time four years ago, could miss the five-man team for Rio if they repeat their Friday performances on Sunday and at the Olympic Trials. They didn’t seem too worried, commiserating by jokingly high-fiving after flawed performances.

“I was tired by the end of it,” said Leyva, who fell off high bar, a silver-medal event for him at the 2015 World Championships.

Orozco, who fell off the pommel horse to open his night, said he made a novice mistake earlier Friday by not eating enough.

“I’ve been taking my diet super seriously, and I thought, OK, I want to be lean and light, so I’m going to have two pieces of chicken and some asparagus,” said Orozco, who shaved his head earlier this spring and is coming back from a second torn right Achilles last year. “It got me through the warm-ups, but the minute I started competing, I jumped up on pommel [horse], and halfway through my routine I started cramping.”

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Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

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Italian skier Elena Fanchini, whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won a silver medal in downhill at the 2005 World Championships and also won two World Cup races in her career — both in downhill.

She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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