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Maggie Nichols, Madison Kocian fight off injuries hoping to crack deep U.S. roster

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Maggie Nichols gets the question pretty frequently, usually from one of her high school classmates and usually with a very specific caveat.

“They say, ‘Who do you think is going to be on the Olympic team?'” the 18-year-old gymnast said with a laugh. “Then it’s like, ‘Well, who besides you?'”

Out of sheer politeness, Nichols does not correct them, though she’s well aware that her place on the five-woman team that will head to Rio de Janeiro in August as heavy favorites to load up on copious amounts of medals is hardly a given. Besides, who doesn’t want to be told by someone – anyone really – that they’re good enough to be an Olympian? If Nichols is being honest, she’s not above doing the math in her head, too.

“Sometimes it’s good to think about that stuff just to prepare yourself,” Nichols said.

One way or the other.

Nichols appeared to be a near lock after helping the U.S. cruise to a world championship last October. She was the only American to compete in all four events during the team final – a big vote of confidence from national team coordinator Martha Karolyi – and added a bronze medal on floor exercise.

Then she felt a twinge in her knee while landing a vault during practice in early April. An MRI revealed a torn meniscus, one easily repaired with minor surgery. But it forced her to skip the Pacific Rims and the Secret Classic, two important preliminary meets ahead of this weekend’s U.S. championships and the U.S. Olympic Trials next month in San Jose.

Nichols could only cheer as her friends – the same friends she’s trying to beat out for an Olympic berth – did their best to catch Karolyi’s attention.

“It’s weird watching them compete,” Nichols said. “But it was nice because I knew where I needed to get that extra gear up.”

Nichols had a shoulder to lean on during the process. Madison Kocian, who like Nichols won a pair of medals at worlds last fall, began March on crutches after two bones in her left ankle smacked together during a national team camp. The ensuing bone bruise left the 19-year-old frustrated and bummed out.

“It hit me both mentally and physically,” Kocian said. “But on the mental side it was like, ‘Gosh I was pretty much at my top heading into this year. It’s such an important year.”

The most important, at least for Kocian and Nichols, both of whom are planning on stepping away from elite gymnastics to focus on college careers when the current Olympic cycle is over. They took turns trying to cheer each other up during their rehabs, working on what they could (mostly upper body strength and conditioning) while trying to show Karolyi during the team camps this spring they had no intention of letting the setbacks slow them down.

“I just wanted to show up and be in front of her,” Kocian said. “It’s super important.”

Good idea considering the wealth of options at Karolyi’s fingertips. Karolyi is stepping down from her post after Rio and has no plans on doing it with anything less than one last gold. She called the current group of top Americans as deep as she’s seen, starting with three-time reigning world champion Simone Biles and defending Olympic all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas. Barring injury, the two stars figure to be on the plane to Brazil. Three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman also is in good position, though Raisman joked the U.S. is so talented Karolyi could pick five names out of a hat and be fine.

And while Karolyi is quick to praise Nichols and Kocian for their spectacular contributions at worlds, those heady two weeks in Scotland are now so 2015.

“As we go closer to the major competition for what we (are) selecting, it’s more important what you do (now) than what you did a half a year ago,” Karolyi said. “That makes a difference.”

Kocian returned at the Secret Classic in Hartford earlier this month, posting the second-highest score on bars. She will take on a heavier workload this weekend but her best bet at going to Rio probably depends on her ability to become one of Karolyi’s top three choices on Kocian’s signature event.

The two teenagers are trying not to put too much pressure on themselves. You don’t spend this much time in the national program without having a little toughness, something they had a chance to show during a commercial for Under Armour, when the cameras played a montage of the draining daily grind of competing for a dynasty.

They were overwhelmed by the response, though the understated Kocian gave credit to the cameras and the lighting for showcasing arms that look like they were transplanted off an MMA fighter.

“I guess it looked pretty cool,” Kocian said.

Not as cool, though, as standing atop a podium in Rio.

MORE: Maggie Nichols ’97 percent’ going into P&G Championships

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

Jordan Larson
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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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