Simone Biles halfway to fourth straight U.S. all-around title

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — When U.S. women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi met with Simone Biles to map out the three-time world gymnastics champion’s schedule, one designed to keep Biles fresh heading into the Olympics, it was the equivalent of pulling up to an intersection in a Ferrari and letting it idle when the light turned green.

“The plan was to (not) burn her out,” Karolyi said.

Done. Way done.

When Biles stepped onto the floor at the U.S. championships Friday night, it marked just her second all-around competition in eight months. Yet there was no rust. There never seems to be for Biles, whose three-year reign seems poised to continue unabated through the biggest summer of her life and beyond.

Turning each rotation into a showcase for her unmatched talent, Biles posted an eye-popping score of 62.900, well clear of runners up Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez and everybody else on the planet.

“It’s all about peaking for the right moment,” Biles said. “I think this is a stepping stone toward it.”

The gap the 19-year-old Texan has created between herself and the rest of the world during a winning streak that’s nearly three years and counting shows no signs of closing. If anything, it’s widening considering her nearest competitors are the four women who will join her on the plane to Brazil in August.

“There’s no one that can catch Simone,” said Raisman after her best night since her return to competition in March, 2015.

Not in the U.S. and certainly not in the rest of the world.

Biles was nearly flawless from the start, her beam routine a 45-second showcase of precision with nary a wobble or even a peak at the floor 4-feet below. Her score of 15.7 is a significant step up from the 15.388 she posted at world championships last fall, an event she won easily. Her floor routine includes a series of hand flourishes that seems as if she’s saying “follow me” and a series of tumbling passes that are the gymnastics version of Michael Jordan at the height of his “airness” prime.

Asked to nitpick her performance and Biles paused. It’s not that she’s perfect — gymnastics doesn’t do perfect anymore — it’s just that she’s as close as anyone has been in a long, long time. While she pointed to nearly imperceptible miscues during her beam dismount and her first vault, even she had to admit there was little else that went wrong.

“I was pretty happy with it,” Biles said.

So was Karolyi, who will have plenty to think about over the next two weeks as she tries to find the right four women to join Biles on the plane to Brazil in August. The one thing that’s not on her mind is the mental state of her star.

“Usually these very talented girls don’t have patience,” Karolyi said. “They’re explosive and full with energy but sometimes they can be annoyed with doing the very same routine.”

Biles hardly looked bored while putting on a show no one else can match. And she wasn’t the only one who looked ready for the stage that awaits in Brazil.

Raisman wanted to “vomit” while starting out on beam, where she won bronze in London four years ago. She didn’t exactly look nervous while putting up a 15.150, something she credited on the poker face she inherited from her father. After beating herself up for months after a poor showing — by her standards anyway — at world championships last fall, Raisman is right back where she was in 2012, maybe even a bit better.

Defending Olympic champion Gabby Douglas, who won the American Cup and in Italy earlier this spring, wasn’t quite as sharp. She wobbled twice on beam and needed a world-class save to stay on at one point. Yet she did to avoid a major deduction, a trait Karolyi welcomes nearly as much as a flawlessly executed routine. Still, her score of 58.9 needs to improve on Sunday (9 p.m. ET, NBC and NBC Sports app) to remove any lingering doubt.

“I just got a little bit relaxed and let things slip,” she said. “I need to stay aggressive. The confidence level is there.”

It’s there too for the 16-year-old Hernandez. A newcomer on the national team, Hernandez hardly seems intimidated by the stakes. She put up scores that ranked in the top three in all four events, giving Karolyi yet another option as she puts together what will be the gymnastics equivalent of a “Dream Team” for Rio.

“I’d love to just have another day like I had today (on Sunday),” Hernandez said.

Madison Kocian, a world champion on uneven bars, put up the second-best score on her signature event and seems to be fully healed from a leg injury that slowed her training after placing in the top six in all four events.

Maggie Nichols, a member of last fall’s gold-medal winning world championship team, finished outside the top five on uneven bars and balance beam in her first competition since tearing the meniscus in her knee in April. Nichols remains upbeat but it appears open spots on the team appear to be dwindling.

Karolyi teased coming into nationals that she already has five women in mind for Rio. That list did not change on Friday, and time is running out.

“The first five are right there,” she said. “The process is going step by step.”

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Grigory Rodchenkov, Russian doping whistleblower, still lives in fear

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His head covered in a black balaclava, adjusting dark goggles obscuring his eyes, Grigory Rodchenkov grows anxious if any part of his face can be seen.

Exposing Russia’s state-sponsorship doping scheme forced Rodchenkov into hiding in the United States five years ago. Revealing his current identity is still too risky for the chemist turned whistleblower, even in a video interview from an undisclosed location.

“It’s my security measures because I have physical threats to be assassinated,” Rodchenkov told The Associated Press. “And I want to live.”

Evidence from Rodchenkov that has already turned Vladimir Putin‘s Russia into international sporting outcasts continues to be used in cases against athletes along with data from his former laboratory in Moscow.

“Putin, he is quite logical. He separates opposition in two ways — enemies … betrayers,” Rodchenkov said. “I am falling in the betrayers’ category and all betrayers should be beheaded, cut, dead. So there is no doubt that he wants me to be dead.”

It has not deterred him from documenting his life story in “The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire,” revisiting how he conspired with his country to corrupt sports and then tries to show contrition by turning star witness.

Rodchenkov was the brains behind the Duchess cocktail of anabolic steroids and cover-up that turned Russia into a medal machine at the home Olympics in Sochi in 2014, topping the standings with 13 gold medals before disqualifications.

Russian spies ensured the Duchess would not be detected in doping tests as FSB agents used a hole in the wall of the Sochi laboratory to swap out the dirty samples with clean urine at night.

“For me, it was the end of doping control,” Rodchenkov said. “If we can do it, why others cannot?”

The doping cover-up extended beyond the Winter Olympics, into the Summer Games, Paralympics, world track and field championships and every major sport.

Some Russians were barred from competing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to blanket bans on countries.

So Russian athletes can still compete on the international stage if they can show they are clean, despite a four-year ban from major international sporting events being imposed on the nation last year for a fresh cover-up, including tampering with data gained from Rodchenkov’s former lab in Moscow.

“Sport is a part of Putin’s politics and showing to the West how good Russia is,” Rodchenkov said. “You cannot trust Russia. You cannot trust the certification authorities, and (anti-doping) laboratories cannot be allowed to be restored within the foreseeable future.”

Especially now, according to Rodchenkov, following constitutional changes allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030,

“Until 2036,” Rodchenkov said, “no trust.”

But why now trust Rodchenkov as he presents a virtuous image at odds with his deep collusion with the state to cheat?

“When you are laboratory director and you have 50 employees and you are reporting to your high ups at the ministry, I could not even think about morals,” he said, dismissing concerns about any long-term damage to the health of athletes he allowed to be pumped with steroids.

“It’s extremely debatable and still ungrounded,” he said. “We see the generation who is now in the end of their lives of 70s and 80s, which are still … in a good physical condition after steroid programs.”

Go back four decades and Rodchenkov was starting out in a Soviet system learning how to manipulate doping controls.

“I had honestly, I’m sorry, but I had huge feelings of accomplishment,” he said. “Those athletes I helped to (win) were extremely talented and I could not understand, with the coach, how he or she may lose to others. The only explanation was doping. Then using some programs, we won gold medals. Honestly it was like leveling the field.

“Again, ‘morals’ is maybe vocabulary from American life but not from Soviet and Russian. In (the) Soviet (Union) it was the Soviet moral, in Russia there is no morals.”

It helps when the athletes are compliant.

“This is the huge problem of the militarization of Russia sport,” Rodchenkov said. “They follow orders, they are disciplined but they cannot tell the truth because they have given the oath to the Russian state and consider foreigners as potential enemies or even actual enemies. That’s why in Russia there are three ways – lying, cheating and denying.”

Rodchenkov has had to convince the world he has shed those ways and is coming clean. More of the cases he helped to cover-up could soon come to light after the World Anti-Doping Agency shared data – of samples tested up to 2015, and tampering that continued into 2019 – that was retrieved from the Moscow testing lab at the heart of the state-backed doping program.

“The problem is that the people from outside cannot understand what is going on inside sports,” he said. “Only whistleblowers could do that. But in corrupted countries you have to escape and we need to be preserved.”

For Rodchenkov that means living a life constantly in fear of being recognized as happened on a train in the US.

“It was a student,” he recalled. “I told him, `Forget you are meeting me, yes it’s me, don’t tell anyone.’ … I disappeared again.”

MORE: Russia track and field faces expulsion if it misses deadline

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Noah Lyles, more world champs race in Monaco; TV, live stream schedule

Noah Lyles
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Noah Lyles headlines a bevy of world champions slated for the first full-on Diamond League meet of the abbreviated track and field season, live on NBC Sports on Friday.

Monaco hosts the strongest fields of any meet since the world championships 10 months ago. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBC Sports Gold air coverage on Friday at 2 p.m. ET.

Reigning world champions include Lyles (200m), Grant Holloway (110m hurdles), Donavan Brazier (800m) and Sam Kendricks (pole vault), and those are just the Americans.

Swede Mondo Duplantis, who twice raised the pole vault world record in February, takes on Kendricks in Monaco. Distance stars Sifan Hassan, Hellen Obiri, Beatrice Chepkoech, Timothy Cheruiyot and Joshua Cheptegei dot the fields, too.

The Diamond League season was due to start in April, but the coronavirus pandemic halted large-gathering track meets until now. Repurposed versions of Diamond League meets in Oslo and Zurich were held the last two months with fewer events and athletes and some entrants racing from different countries.

After Monaco, more Diamond League meets are scheduled for Stockholm (Aug. 23), Lausanne (Sept. 2), Brussels (Sept. 4), Naples (Sept. 17), Doha (Sept. 25) and China (Oct. 17).

Here are the Monaco entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:40 p.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
2:03 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
2:05 — Women’s High Jump
2:12 — Men’s 800m
2:17 — Women’s Triple Jump
2:19 — Women’s 5000m
2:42 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
2:50 — Women’s 100m
2:57 — Men’s 1500m
3:07 — Women’s 400m
3:13 — Men’s 5000m
3:32 — Men’s 200m
3:39 — Women’s 100m
3:47 — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 1:40 p.m.
The top field event of the meet includes the reigning Olympic champion (Brazil’s Thiago Braz), reigning world champion (Kendricks) and the world-record holder (Duplantis, who must be the favorite here). Kendricks and Duplantis already went head-to-head this spring, competing virtually from respective home pole-vault setups. Kendricks took their first six head-to-heads, back when Duplantis was a teenager, but the Louisiana-born Swede won all four of their indoor duels in February. Duplantis is the clear Tokyo Olympic favorite until proven otherwise.

Men’s 800m — 2:12 p.m.
The top four from the 2019 World Championships are entered. Brazier, 23, caught fire the last year. He broke the American record to win the world title. He broke his own American indoor record in February. Then, last month, Brazier took 1.33 seconds off his 1500m personal best. Nobody in the Monaco field has beaten Brazier since the start of 2018.

Women’s 5000m — 2:19 p.m.
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in world champion at 1500m and 10,000m, but she’s lost four of five meetings with two-time world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya at 5000m. Hassan appears to be gearing up to race the 5000m in Tokyo, though, saying last month her eye was on a 1500m-5000m Olympic double had the Games been held this year. The 1500m preliminary heats and the 5000m final are separated by about 12 hours at the Olympics next year. Also in this field: three-time Olympian and former American record holder Shannon Rowbury, set for her first Diamond League race in nearly three years and since the birth of daughter Sienna.

Men’s 1500m — 2:57 p.m.
Last we saw Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in a 1500m, he led wire-to-wire en route to a 2.12-second victory in the world championships final. Only one man has beaten Cheruiyot in three years, countryman Elijah Manangoi, who is provisionally suspended due to whereabouts failures. The Monaco field does include Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen (second-fastest man of 2019), Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha (indoor mile world-record holder), Pole Marcin Lewandowski (world bronze medalist) and Craig Engels (2019 U.S. champion who was 10th at worlds).

Men’s 200m — 3:32 p.m.
Lyles and younger brother Josephus Lyles go head-to-head for the first time since January 2017. Noah has lost just one outdoor 200m since placing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials coming out of high school. Josephus, primarily a 400m sprinter in his developmnt, last month took a half-second off a five-year-old 200m personal best. His new best time — 20.24 seconds — would have placed third at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships behind Noah (19.78) and Christian Coleman (20.02).

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