Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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

Usain Bolt, sleep-deprived dad and budding cyclist, would unretire if the man in charge called

Usain Bolt
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Usain Bolt isn’t doing much running these days, but he would unretire if one person asked: longtime coach Glen Mills.

“If my coach came back and told me, let’s do this, I will, because I believe so much in my coach,” Bolt said this week in a video interview with Variety. “So I know if he says we’re going to do this, I know it’s possible. Give Glen Mills a call, and I’ll be back.”

Mills coached Bolt to eight Olympic titles and world records in the 100m (9.58 seconds) and 200m (19.19) before the Jamaican legend retired in 2017. Bolt has occasionally visited the track since, which may have been a mistake.

“My coach gets too excited when I come to the track,” Bolt said, “so I stay away.”

Bolt’s days are now spent as a father to daughter Olympia Lightning Bolt, born in May and introduced to the world via social media on Tuesday. Bolt said parenting is harder than breaking a world record.

“I got sick the first week because I was scared to fall asleep,” said Bolt, adding that he has been spit up on a few times. “So I stayed up at night just watching her because I’m a heavy sleeper. But I’ve learned that I’m going to wake. I’m going to get up no matter what. I’m getting better, and I’m learning.”

Bolt said he was unaware that Serena Williams‘ 2-year-old daughter is named Olympia (as a middle name, but she goes by Olympia) until this week’s reveal. His girlfriend, Kasi Bennett, came up with the name.

“My girlfriend, I told her, I think you’re putting a little bit of pressure on her to name her Olympia,” said Bolt, who previously said he would not encourage his child to take up sprinting. “But, we’ll see, I’m not going to force her to do anything.”

In retirement, Bolt has been seen doing a step class, riding a Peloton and playing professional soccer. Lately, he’s been road cycling with friends, upping the mileage every week.

“I have a newfound respect for cyclists because you see the Tour de France, they make it look easy. It’s not,” Bolt said.

Bolt expressed disappointment with the Olympic postponement to 2021, even though he’s not competing anymore. He does hope to be in Tokyo in some capacity. He found a silver lining.

“The only good thing about is that I actually get to take my daughter next year if the world gets back,” he said. “One of my moments is to have my first born just to walk on the track with me. That’s something that I always thought about.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Usain Bolt responds to Carl Lewis tweet

British gymnastics stars speak up about abuse amid investigation

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Decorated British gymnasts Becky and Ellie Downie spoke out about specific abuses they’ve experienced in the sport, becoming the latest athletes to come forward this week.

The Downie sisters, in social media posts on Thursday, said they’ve seen and experienced an “unsafe attitude to young girls’ weight, and the resulting mental health issues” and “dangerous consequences of over-training, which frequently was the norm, for fear of punishment or deselection.”

The comments came two days after British Gymnastics announced it launched an independent review into allegations of abuse in the sport. Before that, former British gymnasts said they were assaulted, bullied or abused by coaches.

“The behaviors we have heard about in recent days are completely contrary to our standards of safe coaching and have no place in our sport,” British Gymnastics chief executive Jane Allen said Tuesday. “It is clear that gymnasts did not feel they could raise their concerns to British Gymnastics, and it is vital that an independent review helps us better understand why so we can remove any barriers as quickly as possible.”

The Downie sisters are Olympians and world championships medalists.

“Over the past few days we’ve been watching our former teammates and friends bravely sharing their stories, and we can’t sit by and not offer support for them by sharing our own experiences,” they posted with the caption, “Our Story.” “Speaking out is something we’ve both felt we really needed to do for a long time now, but in truth, we’ve been afraid to do so.”

Becky Downie, the 2019 World silver medalist on uneven bars, said she was overtrained “to the point of physical breakdown” many times.

She said she was called “mentally weak” for speaking up at a national team camp and later suffered an ankle injury as a result of the unsafe training approaches. Downie required a fourth surgery on the ankle.

Ellie Downie, the 2019 World bronze medalist on vault, said she’s been made to feel ashamed of her weight for almost her entire career. That included a nutritionist telling her to submit daily photos of her in her underwear and everything she ate to ensure she wasn’t lying about her diet.

She said she was told at a national camp to lose six kilograms (13 pounds). If she hadn’t “made a dent” within two weeks, “there’d be consequences.”

The sisters said gymnasts were weighed regularly.

“We all know off by heart the weight of a bottle of water, and consequently eating and drinking the night before weigh day wasn’t worth the risk,” Ellie wrote. “To this day we still hide food for the fear of it being found.”

The Downies said there has been change since Becky Downie spoke up in 2018 about unsafe training, including the discontinuation of routine weigh-ins.

“We’re aware our contribution raises more troubling issues the sport must confront, but we truly hope it will contribute to positive change,” they wrote. “What’s clear from speaking to many different gymnasts from all over the world, this is a gymnastics culture problem, as opposed to just a national one.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience