Simone Biles claims 4th straight national title, remains Olympic favorite

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — The national titles are starting to run together for Simone Biles, a three-year blur of near flawlessly executed routines and carry-on cases full of medals.

If Biles is being honest, the fourth straight all-around championship she cruised to on Sunday night wasn’t so much a competition as an exhibition and one more thing for Biles to scratch off her checklist before the next real test: Rio de Janeiro and the Summer Olympics.

It’s a destination Biles is finally allowing herself to think about after putting up a two-day total of 125.00 — the highest during her historic run at the top — to beat three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman by nearly four points. Only next week’s Olympic Trials, a mere formality, stand between the 19-year-old Texan and the global stage.

“I guess there’s really no other steps besides trials and making the team,” Biles said. “We’re one step ahead again.”

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Technically Biles has been there for years. She hasn’t lost a meet since July 2013 while creating a gap between herself and the rest of the planet, one that shows no signs of closing with 40 days to go before opening ceremonies in Brazil. Biles began the night with a dynamic floor exercise that combines peerless tumbling with the kind of charisma that should play in living rooms across the world in August.

She followed it up with a difficult Amanar vault — one of the most challenging currently being done in competition — in which she seemed to drop out of the sky before landing. Only a minuscule hop stood between Biles and perfection, just enough of a miscue for judges to deduct a tenth of a point while giving her a 9.9 for execution.

“I don’t think there’s any such thing as perfect in gymnastics anymore,” Biles said. “They always find something.”

Biles is as close as the sport gets at the moment as the leader of a team that will be heavily favored to dominate the podium in Brazil. The five-woman Olympic squad won’t be officially announced until July 10. Biles’ place is secure, and the picture around her appears to be rapidly clearing up.

Raisman began the year struggling with her form following a disappointing — by her standards — performance at the 2015 world championships, when she failed to qualify for the all-around final after finishing behind Biles and Olympic champion Gabby Douglas during qualifying.

The 22-year-old spent the winter vowing to regain U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi‘s trust and now finds herself in perhaps the finest stretch of a career that includes two golds and a bronze from the 2012 games.

Steady on beam. Powerful on floor. Efficient on uneven bars, Raisman may be the best gymnast in the world not named Biles at the moment. The current Olympic champion on floor exercise began the night with a gravity defying tumbling pass she managed to finish with a smile. She joked after the first round on Friday that staying within a couple of points of Biles would be a victory in itself. Raisman’s score of 60.650 on Sunday was just 1.5 behind her good friend.

“I think that I am better (than I was four years ago),” Raisman said. “And I feel like I’m on track to be a better gymnast than I was.”

Raisman isn’t the only one surging. So is electric 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez, who looks right at home on the big stage in her first year at the senior level. Her routines are is a study in attitude and aggression, character traits Karolyi prizes as much as any cleanly executed skill.

Douglas, trying to become the first gymnast in nearly 50 years to repeat as Olympic champion, ended up fourth and admitted she needed to improve after a sloppy night on Friday. Douglas got off to a shaky start as she fought to stay on bars — the event that first drew Karolyi’s admiration — and posted a pedestrian 14.5. She was better on balance beam, landing her dismount with an emphatic stick that might as well have served as a reminder of what she can do when she’s on.

“Trials, I’ll be better at trials,” Douglas said with a laugh.

The only real drama heading to San Jose is likely for the fifth and final spot. Madison Kocian, who won gold on uneven bars at last fall’s world championships, continued her impressive comeback from a leg injury in February. Though she was second to Ashton Locklear on bars at nationals, she also finished in the top half of the field on beam and floor, versatility that would be valuable in international competitions as Karolyi tries to put together a group for the three-up, three-count crucible that is the Olympic team finals.

Karolyi began the weekend with a team in mind and didn’t see much to change her preferences over the course of two nights. Whoever hops the plane to Rio will go as the heavy favorites to bring back copious amounts of gold led by Biles, who is head — and shoulders, legs and everything else — above the rest.

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Brigid Kosgei beaten as another world record smashed in Nike shoes

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Ethiopian Ababel Yeshaneh broke the half marathon world record by 20 seconds, beating new marathon world-record holder Brigid Kosgei in the United Arab Emirates on Friday.

Nike-sponsored runners lowered the men’s and women’s marathon and half marathon records since September 2018, each appearing to race in versions of the apparel giant’s scrutinized Vaporfly shoes.

Yeshaneh, a 28-year-old who finished 14th in the 2016 Olympic 5000m, clocked 1:04:31 for 13.1 miles to better Kenyan Joyciline Jepkosgei‘s world record from 2017.

Kosgei, a 26-year-old Kenyan, also came in under the old world record but 18 seconds behind Yeshaneh.

Kosgei took 81 seconds off Paula Radcliffe‘s 16-year-old women’s marathon world record on Oct. 13, clocking 2:14:04 to win the Chicago Marathon.

Nike Vaporfly shoes, including the prototypes worn by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge when he ran a sub-two-hour marathon, were deemed legal by World Athletics’ new shoe regulations last month, according to Nike.

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Olympic, world champion lugers pull out of World Cup event over safety

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U.S. Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer and other top lugers are skipping this weekend’s World Cup stop in Winterberg, Germany, citing unsafe track conditions and a growing frustration with the international federation over athlete concerns.

“This was brought to the attention of the FIL [International Luge Federation] and yet again we were told that everything is ok,” was posted on Mazdzer’s Instagram. “I realize that a boycott is a lose-lose situation and there are no winners. But I have no other option at this point. I feel personally that this track is not safe for doubles sleds or for athletes who do not have adequate numbers of runs.”

Mazdzer said by phone Friday that he noticed significant bumps on the track in his first training run earlier this week.

“I couldn’t drive because I’m being thrown everywhere,” he said. “When you’re going 130 kilometers an hour [80 miles per hour], you don’t really want the track to be bad.”

An FIL spokesperson said Friday that Mazdzer’s choice was “his individual decision” and declined further comment ahead of races scheduled Saturday and Sunday. Mazdzer said that he was told the race starts will be moved down.

USA Luge said in a Friday statement that it will not participate in the World Cup and would communicate its concern for athlete safety to the FIL.

Two-time U.S. Olympian Summer Britcher said she was boycotting via Instagram, calling it “a farce of a World Cup.” Top lugers said athletes suffered serious injuries in training runs.

“I love this sport, but after too many decisions too many times that disregard 1-the safety of the athletes, and 2- the integrity and fairness of our sport, I have grown a great disdain for the International Luge Federation, and those who make these decisions,” was posted on Britcher’s account. “I will not race this weekend. I do not believe the track is safe, I do not believe it has been prepared to a World Cup standard, and I do not believe that the International Federation and Winterberg World Cup organisers should get away from this with no consequences.”

Britcher’s post noted that her team notified coaches and the technical director that the track was unsafe after her first training run Wednesday.

“Our concerns, and the concerns of the rest of the athletes from other nations throughout the day were not taken seriously,” Britcher posted.

Britcher said that several coaches attempted to fix the track for several hours on Thursday after athletes refused to train.

Olympic champion David Gleirscher of Austria and World Cup standings leader Roman Repilov of Russia and the top doubles teams of Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken and Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt of Germany also posted on Instagram that they’re skipping the Winterberg World Cup, the penultimate stop of the season, for safety reasons.

Mazdzer estimated a 20 percent crash rate in training, but that the track condition has improved since Wednesday. He still plans to race next week at the last World Cup in Königssee.

“There’s a lot of problems with Winterberg,” he said after detailing the situation between athletes and the FIL, “and it’s not just the track.”

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