Sam Mikulak leads veteran U.S. Olympic team; Danell Leyva misses out

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ST. LOUIS — Jonathan Horton texted Chris Brooks and Alex Naddour a picture before both rounds of the U.S. men’s gymnastics Olympic Trials this week. The image was from London four years ago. In it, Brooks and Naddour were cheering from the stands in the O2 Arena as alternates while their teammates stumbled to a fifth-place finish.

Horton attached a short note too, giving Naddour and Brooks a reminder of what was at stake.

“He was like, ‘Make this not happen,'” Brooks said with a laugh.

It didn’t. Finally.

Surging at a time when he so often stumbled, the 29-year-old Brooks secured a long-awaited Olympic berth on Saturday night. His second-place finish in the all-around behind four-time national champion Sam Mikulak was good enough to erase any lingering doubt about his maturity and his ability to perform in the clutch.

“Old guys still got it,” Brooks said.

There will be plenty of them in Rio de Janeiro in August. Each of the five members giddily celebrating in a sea of balloons — Brooks, Naddour, Mikulak, Jake Dalton and John Orozco — have either competed in the Olympics or multiple world championships (or both). Each have their own individual strengths.

And perhaps most importantly for a program that’s in some ways been eclipsed on the international stage by upstart Great Britain behind longtime powers China and Japan, each seized their spot by not shying away from the moment.

“There was no, hardly any hiccups along the way,” said national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika. “It was great to see.”

Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva and Donnell Whittenburg, the only two U.S. men to earn a medal at the 2015 World Championships, were left off the Olympic team.

While Mikulak entered the final day assured of a second Olympic berth, he was the only lock. Behind him was a jumble of a 6-8 contenders vying for one of the remaining four positions. Mazeika admitted in some ways the selection committee was “splitting hairs” while trying to piece together a group that could thrive in the three-up, three-count format during Olympic team finals.

Ultimately they let the math do the talking. And when each committee member jotted down their final ballot during a brief 12-minute meeting at the end of the competition, they were identical.

“In reality, when the scenarios came in and the same team was on all of them, it was relatively easy at that point,” Mazeika said.

Emotional, too. Brooks has spent the better part of a decade on the fringe, stung by injuries or inconsistency. Yet he went 24 for 24 through four rounds of qualifying, including a muscular save on parallel bars Saturday night when he nearly over-rotated his way to the mat. Nearly.

In his head during those frantic five seconds as he fought to hold on, Brooks’ mind was racing.

“There’s no way I’m coming off these bars,” Brooks said. “‘You’re going to have to break my arms to get me off these bars.”

There was no need. He recovered and put up a 15.175, and his four-round total on parallel bars was tops in the field. When Brooks drilled his high bar set a few minutes later, he let out a guttural scream as the weight of unmet expectations seemed to vanish in front of him following what he called “the best routine of my life.”

Brooks is hardly the only American who took a winding path to Rio. Orozco was one of the team’s bright young stars in 2012. Yet London was a nightmare. He flew off pommel horse during the team and all-around finals and the last four years has been a mix of injury and personal setbacks. He tore ligaments in his knee in 2012 and his Achilles for a second time last summer just months following the passing of his mother.

Orozco will be a specialist this time around, focusing on high bar, parallel bars and maybe pommel horse. The disappointment of 2012 lingers, but so does the sense of redemption.

“The majority of us are veterans,” Orozco said. “The pressure was there to help push us and that’s a beautiful thing to see.”

Though the committee combined the scores of nationals earlier this month and trials to try and get a big-picture view, the truth is the last month just marked the final steps in a lengthy process of elimination. The men’s team has largely been static at the top since London, with Mikulak ripping off four straight national titles and the core group remaining intact during a run that included a team bronze at the 2014 worlds but also a missed podium at 2015 world championships last fall, a meet Mikulak and Dalton both missed due to injury.

The U.S. will head to Rio at full strength, and with something resembling momentum. Outside of Mikulak’s typical early meet flub — he slipped off high bar during the first rotation — glaring mistakes were few and far between.

Dalton, who maintained he could have competed in worlds despite a shoulder injury but instead was left off and underwent surgery instead, overcome a so-so performance in nationals. Naddour, who became a father earlier this year, has long been the best American on pommel horse but has added solid skills elsewhere in hopes of making him more attractive to the committee. Naddour’s improvement on vault probably helped open the door for Brooks.

Eight years ago he didn’t make it to Olympic trials. Four years ago he just missed the cut and served as in essence the lead cheerleader. Not this time. This time, he’ll walk in with the rest of Team USA. This time, he’ll be on the floor. This time, he’s going for real.

“I flashbacks of being an 8-year-old kid in the gym, all my coaches along the way, all my friends and family that sacrificed for me,” Brooks said. “It’s all now worth it.”

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Ilia Malinin’s quadruple Axel sheds light on first figure skater to land triple Axel

Vern Taylor
Vern Taylor, the first figure skater to land a triple Axel in competition. (Getty Images)
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Vern Taylor arrived at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario, on Sept. 15 to do what he has done at that rink for the last three decades: coach figure skaters. But this day was different.

Taylor, who in 1978 became the first man to land a ratified triple Axel in competition, was told that 17-year-old American Ilia Malinin performed the first quadruple Axel the previous night.

“When we heard that he landed it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s terrific,'” Taylor said by phone.

He was then shown video of Malinin’s feat.

“Anything’s possible,” Taylor said. “43 years [later], that’s something. It’s knowing that you can perform the jump that makes it challenging.”

Malinin, the world junior champion, landed the most difficult jump in skating and checked off the only remaining quad yet to be performed.

At the 1978 World Championships in Ottawa, a 20-year-old Taylor broke through a similar barrier in hitting the last remaining unchecked triple jump. But while Malinin’s senior career seems to be just getting started, and many medals appear in his future, Taylor is largely a forgotten man outside of ardent figure skating followers.

He finished 12th at those 1978 World Championships. Taylor’s 1980 Olympic prospects were dimmed by the fact that Canada had just one men’s singles spot, and he had taken runner-up at nationals in 1978 and 1979 to Brian Pockar, who also outscored Taylor at those years’ world championships. So Taylor stopped competing a year before the Lake Placid Games.

“I didn’t have a reason,” he said. “I just decided to take a break.”

Taylor will always have that day at the world championships in Ottawa. He can still remember the nervousness, knowing that two other skaters also planned to attempt a triple Axel. They were unsuccessful, though Taylor didn’t know it.

“I didn’t see their jumps,” he said. “I didn’t want to know what was ahead of me.”

American David Jenkins landed a triple Axel in Movietone newsreel footage reported to be from 1957, but that was not in competition.

Taylor, skating to music from “Rocky,” put the triple Axel as the third jump of his program, according to reports at the time. The one YouTube video of it, published two years ago, has 32,000 views. It shows Taylor landing the three-and-a-half revolution jump on one foot and spinning out of it while managing to stay on that single skate blade amid a crowd roar.

“During that program, it was like a rock concert,” Taylor said. “I got the energy from the audience.”

The Montreal Gazette reported at the time that the jump was ratified three hours later. Italian Sonia Bianchetti, the men’s referee at the 1978 Worlds, said she met with the assistant referee, the ISU president and a technical delegate.

“During this short meeting it was recognized that Vern had completed the first triple Axel Paulsen jump [Norwegian Axel Paulsen was the skater who landed the first Axel jump in 1882, getting it named after him] in an officially recognized figure skating competition,” she wrote in an email last month. “The triple Axel was fully rotated and landed on one foot.”

One of the people inside the Ottawa Civic Centre that day was 16-year-old Canadian Brian Orser. Orser, inspired by Taylor, later became synonymous with the jump — labeled “Mr. Triple Axel” and landing it en route to silver medals at the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 and the 1987 World title.

Orser remembered Taylor visiting his skating club for an exhibition. Orser saw Taylor doing an Axel takeoff exercise off the ice, incorporated it into his own routine and began teaching it to his skaters after becoming a coach.

Yet another Canadian, Kurt Browning, was the first man to land a ratified quadruple jump of any kind in competition — a toe loop at the 1988 World Championships.

“For me, personally, it was huge,” he said, “because I was promised a car if I could land it.”

Through an agreement with an Edmonton car dealership, Browning was handed the keys to a Quattro — quad/Quattro — after hitting the toe loop. The skater was unaware that the dealer was merely leasing it to him. About six months later, Browning received a call asking to bring the car back.

Browning was inspired by American Brian Boitano, whom he previously saw land a quad outside of competition. Taylor motivated him, too.

“[Taylor] gave me permission, even at a young age, to start thinking bigger,” he said.

Browning also pointed to Jozef Sabovčík, a 1980s skater for then-Czechoslovakia who many believe was the first man to land a quad in competition, Browning included. Sabovčík was initially given credit for a quad toe loop at the 1986 European Championships, but weeks later it was invalidated because he touched down with his free foot, according to reports.

“I never want to come off as arrogant, but despite what ISU [International Skating Union] decided in the end, I do know that I landed the jump on that day,” Sabovčík, who said he performed a quad jump on his birthdays through age 44, wrote in an email. “The fact that most of the people in the skating world believe the same thing, it means everything to me that Kurt is one of them. It would have been nice to have my name in the Guinness Book of Records, but I am also not trying to change history.”

Sabovčík, now 58 and coaching in Salt Lake City, attended March’s world championships in Montpellier, France, where Malinin finished ninth. There, he spoke with Malinin’s parents, Russian-born Uzbek Olympic skaters Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skornyakov, whom he calls friends.

“They told me that he was already doing a quad Axel on a fishing pole harness [in practice], and that it was coming,” Sabovčík said.

Less than two months after that talk, the first video surfaced of Malinin landing a clean quad Axel — at a U.S. Figure Skating jump camp.

“I did not think [a quad Axel] was possible,” Sabovčík said. “It really has to be an athlete that can combine the technical ability with jumping ability with the speed of rotation. When Kurt and I jumped, we had a relatively speaking slow rotation, but we jumped really big compared to these kids. But Ilia, he has the vertical lift, but he [also] has an unbelievably fast rotation.”

The recent proliferation of quads in men’s and women’s skating can be attributed to several factors, including better boots, better ice conditions and improvements in technology that can aid coaching. Still, there are concerns about if and how the pounding of training quads can wear down a skater physically.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, who started training a quad in 1989 and attempting it through the mid-1990s. Bonaly had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

Even Taylor faced those questions.

“People said, ‘Aren’t you worried about injuring yourself?'” he said. “I would say, ‘No, I want you to know it can be done.'”

Sabovčík never tried a quad Axel in his skating days, but Browning did for less than a week in the early 1990s after winning four consecutive world titles.

“Just playing with it,” said Browning, who never tried it in competition. “Ilia has that special ability to not only get up in the air, but then he has that beautiful rotation that doesn’t look hurried. It’s fast, it’s quick as lightning, but it doesn’t look hurried. It’s so easy. Like a good golfer swings easy, and the ball goes 400 yards.”

Browning recalled a conversation he had with two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who in recent years made the quad Axel his quest. Hanyu attempted it in competition last season but did not land it cleanly before retiring in July. He said upon retirement that he still hoped to master the jump for his non-competitive show career.

“I asked Yuzu one day, ‘When you do quad Axel, does it just feel like you’re up there forever?'” Browning said. “And he kind of looked at me funny, and he goes, ‘Yeah, like it never ends.'”

The skating world awaits the reserved Hanyu’s thoughts on Malinin’s quad.

“Knowing Yuzu, I would think he’d be very supportive,” said Orser, who coached Hanyu for nearly a decade. “He appreciates that kind of athleticism.”

Orser also noted what comes with being the first — and so far only — skater to land a rarefied jump. Malinin, who headlines Skate America in two weeks, will be asked about the quad Axel in just about every interview for the foreseeable future. For some skaters, they may feel a responsibility to land it all the time.

“But I don’t think [Malinin] thinks too much about it,” Orser said. “His technique is perfect, so he’ll be fine.”

The inevitable topic after that is the next progression in skating: the first quintuple jump. Orser said that Hanyu did five-rotation Salchows in practice with the aid of a harness.

“It’s just a little bit more rotation than the quadruple Axel, so it’s not that far off,” said Sabovčík, whose unratified quad toe loop came eight years after Taylor’s triple Axel. “Now that I’ve seen the quad Axel, I don’t think it’s impossible.”

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Aleksandra Trusova splits from coach Eteri Tutberidze, months after Olympic tears

Alexandra Trusova, Eteri Tutberidze
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Olympic figure skating silver medalist Aleksandra Trusova reportedly split from coach Eteri Tutberidze‘s group, eight months after a tearful scene after the Olympic free skate.

Trusova, 18, will now be coached by Svetlana Sokolovskaya, according to Russian media reports dating to Saturday. All Russian skaters are ineligible to compete internationally indefinitely due to the national ban over the war in Ukraine, but Russia is still holding domestic events.

At the Beijing Winter Games, Trusova became the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a free skate. She had the highest score that day, but it wasn’t enough to make up the gap to fellow Tutberidze pupil Anna Shcherbakova from the short program.

Moments after the competition ended, Trusova was seen crying and yelling at Sergey Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.

“Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” she said in Russian.

Shcherbakova had the individual gold, and the other Russian women’s singles skater at the Games, Kamila Valiyeva, skated both programs of the team event. The Russians placed first in the team event, but medals will not be awarded until Valiyeva’s doping case is adjudicated. It’s possible that Valiyeva gets retroactively disqualified, the Russian team gets disqualified and the other nations all move up with the U.S. going from silver to gold.

Trusova performed at the Russian test skates last month, withdrawing after her short program due to a back injury.

Trusova previously left Tutberidze in 2020 for two-time Olympic champion turned coach Yevgeny Plushenko‘s group, then moved back to Tutberidze’s group after the 2020-21 season.

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