Sam Mikulak wins fourth straight U.S. title; Orozco, Leyva in Olympic danger

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Sam Mikulak won his fourth straight P&G Championships all-around title and took another step toward his second Olympic team on Sunday.

John Orozco and Danell Leyva, the top two U.S. gymnasts in 2012, finished 10th and 16th after two days of competition in Hartford, Conn., this weekend. They have serious work ahead to make the five-man team for Rio.

The Olympic men’s gymnastics selection competition is at the halfway point after the P&G Championships. The Olympic team will be announced after the Olympic Trials in St. Louis in three weeks. At least three of the five members, perhaps all five, will be chosen by a committee based primarily off results at those two meets.

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. Nobody currently meets that criteria.

Mikulak totaled 181.5 points in Hartford, winning by 1.65 points over Chris Brooks, a 2012 Olympic alternate making his last push for a first Olympics.

Mikulak is the first man to win four straight U.S. all-around titles since Blaine Wilson in 2000 and the fifth overall.

Mikulak, coming back from a partially torn Achilles that kept him out of 2015 Worlds, overtook first-day leader Donnell Whittenburg and Brooks, who led after four of six rotations Sunday.

“It’s a great accomplishment, I’m very happy to still be winning,” Mikulak told media in Hartford. “I want to do better routines. … I want to unleash those awesome routines that I’ve been doing in training and trust my training a little bit more.”

Jacob Dalton, another 2012 Olympian, was third, 2.5 points back. Full scores are here.

John Orozco, who won this meet four years ago en route to his first Olympics, was 4.5 points behind. Orozco said he struggled with cramps and being “drained physically” this weekend.

Orozco considered himself fortunate to even compete on all events in Hartford, given a doctor told him it wouldn’t be possible after he tore his right Achilles for the second time last June 15.

“I honestly don’t feel any pressure at all [about my Olympic team chances],” Orozco said after bettering a Friday performance where he fell off the pommel horse. “I finally feel like I’m getting there. I’m still not there, which is OK, because at trials is where I want to peak. … I’m glad that I didn’t do my absolute best yet. Hopefully I’m saving a little for trials.”

Leyva, who won the 2012 Olympic Trials and all-around bronze at the London Games, echoed Orozco’s attitude after dropping from 12th to 16th on Sunday. In two days, Leyva fell off the high bar, went out of bounds on floor exercise and mangled a pommel horse dismount, among several errors.

“I don’t mind being the underdog,” said Leyva, who added that dog bites from one month ago covered by a full-left-leg wrap didn’t affect him in Hartford. “I wasn’t trying to be perfect here. You’ve got to be perfect in Rio.”

If Orozco and Leyva repeat their P&G routines at Olympic Trials, there may be no Rio.

The formation of the Olympic team is much like a puzzle. The top all-around gymnast(s) — Mikulak, for sure — are surrounded by a supporting cast that can plug in the holes.

Orozco and Leyva excel on similar events, high bar and parallel bars. Orozco placed third on high bar and sixth on parallel bars this weekend. Leyva was sixth on high bar and fourth on parallel bars.

Mikulak, Brooks and Whittenburg are also strong on one or both of those events, complicating matters since a nation uses three athletes per apparatus in the Olympic team final.

The U.S.’ biggest need is on pommel horse, where neither Orozco nor Leyva excels. That could favor the likes of Alex Naddour, a four-time U.S. champion on the event who is also usable on still rings and floor exercise.

Naddour, who got a London 2012 tattoo on his right bicep after being an Olympic alternate, flubbed his pommel horse dismount Friday but came back Sunday with the highest score on the apparatus of all gymnasts on both days.

“The U.S. team really wants to change that idea of horse is a weak event for us,” Mikulak said. “Every team has its strengths and weaknesses. All we can do is minimize our weaknesses as much as possible.”

NBC Olympics gymnastics producer Julia Fincher contributed to this report from Hartford.

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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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