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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Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

Yuzuru Hanyu
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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

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Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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Steven Nyman, top U.S. downhiller, faces another obstacle

Steven Nyman
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Steven Nyman, the active U.S. leader in World Cup downhill wins, tore his right Achilles in a training crash and had surgery earlier this week in Mt. Hood, Ore.

“I am moving forward,” was posted on Nyman’s social media. “I’ve been through this before and have full intention to comeback [sic] and compete through the next Olympics.”

Nyman raced in three Olympics and owns three World Cup downhill victories.

He turns 40 during the next Winter Games in Beijing in 2022, when he will be three and a half years older than any previous U.S. Olympic Alpine skier.

Nyman missed the PyeongChang Olympics after a pair of major injuries: blowing out his left knee in a January 2017 downhill race crash and tearing his right ACL in downhill training in January 2018. He also tore his left Achilles in 2011.

He raced the last two seasons with a best World Cup finish of fifth in Val Gardena, Italy, site of all of his World Cup wins in 2006, 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. men’s program is in the midst of its longest World Cup downhill victory and podium droughts this millennium — none since Travis Ganong‘s win in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Jan. 27, 2017.

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