Sam Mikulak keeps lead; Danell Leyva comes back at Olympic Trials

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — The selection committee putting together the U.S. men’s Olympic gymnastics team can probably put pencil to paper and write Sam Mikulak‘s name down.

A dry erase board might be a better option while trying to figure out who else will be on the five-man team in Rio de Janeiro.

Mikulak, a four-time national champion, overcame another typically sloppy start to top the leaderboard at the opening night of Olympic Trials on Thursday. Even after botching his dismount on parallel bars and getting crossed up on high bar, his total of 90.650 was still easily best in the field.

Though his spot when the team is unveiled on Saturday night is all but secure, Mikulak isn’t exactly thrilled. He’s spent most of the last four years just a touch above the rest of the Americans. A far sterner test awaits in Brazil, and Mikulak knows it.

“I think I’ve done this too many times and that’s why I’m upset with it,” Mikulak said. “I like to seem to dig myself a hole and build my way back.”

There won’t be nearly as much wiggle room in Rio.

“That’s why I’m upset with myself tonight,” Mikulak said. “I made two major mistakes tonight and that’s never going to fly in international competition. And that’s my goal, to be an international gymnast.”

The Olympic team will be announced after Saturday night’s final (broadcast schedule), with the panel taking into account the performances from the national championships earlier this month and the trials when putting the squad together.

There’s a path for the top two all-around finishers to secure an automatic berth, but the reality is Mikulak appears to be the only lock. His total through three days of 272.150 is more than three points clear of Chris Brooks at 269.025 and nearly five more than Jake Dalton‘s third-place total of 267.325.

Full Olympic Trials results | Olympic Trials + Nationals results

Brooks, at 29 the oldest competitor in the 18-man field, backed up a solid showing at nationals with an 89.175 on Thursday, avoiding major mistakes and providing a pretty compelling argument that he should join Mikulak. Brooks ended his night with an emphatic fist pump after surviving pommel horse without slipping off in an event that’s tormented him for years.

“Just relief to get off the horse and not hear ’30 seconds (to get back on after falling),'” Brooks said. “That’s the best feeling ever.”

One that could be topped if Brooks — an Olympic alternate four years ago — hears his name called on Saturday night. Not that Brooks is getting ahead of himself. Healthy — well, as healthy as can be expected after more than two decades of competition — Brooks is hardly fading into the twilight.

“This is my last shot at an Olympic team,” Brooks said. “(It’s) the will to not come off of anything, the will to prepare, taking everything unto my own control and leaving no stone unturned.”

Piecing the puzzle together will not be easy. The core group that has spent portions of the last four years adrift after a disappointing fifth-place finish in London spent the first night of trials providing a reminder of how deep the Americans can be when they’re on, never a guarantee.

Danell Leyva, whose star seemed to be on the rise after capturing bronze in the all-around in 2012 — the only medal won by the men’s program — headed into trials in 16th place thanks in part to a shaky couple of days at nationals that came with his left leg recovering from a series of dog bites sustained while trying to break up a fight.

Yet he looked very much like the dynamic performer he was in London, finishing third behind Mikulak and Brooks, highlighted by a 15.6 on parallel bars and a 15.2 on high bar the left his stepfather/coach Yin Alvarez doing his signature sprinting fist pump around the arena.

“I want to be the guy they’re like, ‘He’s on the team for sure,'” Leyva said. “I think that’s what Sam is doing, and that’s what I want to do as well.”

Leyva’s resiliency put him back in the mix along with some other familiar names.

John Orozco, the 2012 national champion who has spent the interim since London dealing with a series of injuries and the loss of his mother, put up the highest score on high bar. Dalton, left off the 2015 World Championships team after missing Nationals due to injury, was first on vault and second on floor.

Alex Naddour‘s world-class pommel horse set — his 15.650 edged Mikulak’s total — makes him a particularly valuable asset and his focus on becoming more versatile is paying off. Naddour wound up second on still rings and fifth on vault on Thursday, proof he can fill in capably on multiple events if asked to go to Rio. While stressing “the selection committee has a tough job” Naddour does have a bit of advice heading into the weekend.

“I’d tell them to look at the scores and do their homework,” he said. “If they do their homework and they put the right team out there, guys who can relate to each other, guys who can count on each other, that may not be the highest scores on paper, that’s the team I want … I think that’s what they want to.”

MORE: Ten gymnasts to watch at P&G Women’s Championships

Nathan Chen, Simone Biles, U.S. women’s soccer team win Team USA Awards

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Simone Biles was named female athlete of the year and Nathan Chen took the corresponding award for men Tuesday at the Team USA Awards in Los Angeles.

Six-time Olympic swimming champion Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, who has taken up wheelchair CrossFit competition since an ATV accident in 2014 left her paralyzed from the waist down, took the Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award. She works to help other people with spinal cord injuries through the Amy Van Dyken Foundation and Amy’s Army, which has launched a Wheels for Kids program to help injured children find wheelchairs that may not be covered by insurance.

The show also included a medal ceremony in which the teammates and family of the late Steven Holcomb received silver medals that were reallocated after doping infractions changed the results of the 2014 Olympic bobsled competition.

MORE: Holcomb’s legacy lives on 

Award winners from the ceremony:

Female Olympic athlete of the year: Simone Biles, gymnastics 

Biles took a one-year break after winning four gold medals and a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics, then came back to do even better, unleashing new skills on the balance beam and in the floor exercise. This year, she won five gold medals at the world championships, breaking the record for career medals.

Female Paralympic athlete of the year: Oksana Masters, Para Nordic skiing and Para cycling 

Already an eight-time Paralympic medalist in Nordic skiing, biathlon and rowing, Masters had a breakout year in cycling, taking silver medals in the world championships. In Nordic skiing, Masters took five world championships (three cross-country, two biathlon) and the overall World Cup championship in sitting cross-country along with a second-place overall finish in biathlon.

Male Olympic athlete of the year: Nathan Chen, figure skating 

Chen had a double back-to-back year, winning his second straight world championship and his second straight Grand Prix final. He also started his 2019-20 season by winning both of his Grand Prix events. He and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu are far ahead of any other skaters in posted scores this season.

Male Paralympic athlete of the year: Ben Thompson, Para archery 

Thompson took the world championship and the No. 1 ranking in the men’s compound event and led the U.S. to a world record in the team compound event.

Olympic team of the year: U.S. women’s soccer team 

The team claimed the sport’s biggest prize for the second straight time, working its way through a difficult field that included a quarterfinal matchup with host France to win the World Cup once again, adding to its previous wins in 1991, 1999 and 2015.

Paralympic team of the year: U.S. sled hockey team 

Like the women’s soccer team, the sled hockey team went unbeaten in the world championships and claimed a fourth world title.

MORE: Golden goal clinches championship

Olympic coach of the year: KiSik Lee, archery 

This year, Brady Ellison won a world title and set a world record in the Pan Am Games, and Ellison teamed with Casey Kaufhold to win the world title in the mixed team event, which will be on the Olympic program in 2020.

Paralympic coach of the year: Wesley Johnson, paratriathlon 

The founder and head coach of Balanced Art Multisport in Salt Lake City, Johnson is the personal coach of three top-10 paratriathletes, and he served as an assistant coach in the world championships, where three of the athletes he coached won silver medals.

NBC will have highlights of the show at 2 p.m. ET Dec. 22.

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Hanyu, Zagitova control their Grand Prix Final destiny at NHK Trophy; TV, live stream schedule

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In order to qualify for the Grand Prix Final — after missing the event the past two seasons for varying reasons — two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu needs to finish inside the top four at NHK Trophy, the sixth and last remaining Grand Prix series event. Hanyu competes on home ice in Japan this weekend, and the event is streaming live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.

A full breakdown of Grand Prix Final-clinching scenarios can be found here.

Hanyu won the Grand Prix Final four straight times (2013-16). The prestigious December event would be the first time this season Hanyu and two-time Grand Prix Final champion Nathan Chen would compete head-to-head, outside the world championships in March.

Hanyu trains in Toronto alongside American Jason Brown, who will also be competing in Japan. Brown clinches a spot in the Grand Prix Final if he earns a silver or better, but is also very likely in if he earns a bronze medal.

Reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia is in a similar situation this weekend at NHK Trophy, needing to finish on the podium to clinch a berth in the Final. She faces Moscow-based training partner Alena Kostornaia (who needs to finish fifth or better to make the Final) and Japan’s Rika Kihira (must earn a medal of any color), among others such as 2019 European champion Sofia Samodurova of Russia and 2017 U.S. national champion Karen Chen.

MORE: Alina Zagitova focused on artistry, while other Russians push technical boundaries

Three teams in the pairs’ field at NHK Trophy can earn spots in the Grand Prix Final. Two-time world pair champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China and Russia’s Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov need a medal of any color to clinch, while Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro need silver to clinch, but could win with a bronze and a high score. See the breakdown here for details.

In ice dance, four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are favorites at NHK Trophy. They have appeared in three Grand Prix Finals and own a medal of each color, including a win at their most recent appearance in 2017. (The duo withdrew from a regular-series Grand Prix event last season and were unable to qualify for the Final.)

The most likely NHK Trophy scenario is that Papadakis and Cizeron win NHK Trophy, and Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin finish second – and if that happens, Papadakis and Cizeron, Stepanova and Bukin and Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates (currently on the cusp of an entry) all make the Final.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NHK Trophy Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Thursday 10:30 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Friday 12 a.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
10 p.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Saturday 12:30 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Sunday 4 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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