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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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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