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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Ginny Fuchs hopes to emerge from OCD, tearful Olympic experience

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None of the boxers at this week’s U.S. Olympic Trials competed at a prior Olympics, but flyweight Ginny Fuchs remembers the specifics of her one Olympic experience in Rio.

Fuchs, who won the 2016 Olympic trials but failed to clinch a spot at the Games in international qualifiers, was nonetheless named team captain and brought to Rio as a sparring partner.

She had mixed feelings. Watching from the crowd as Claressa Shields repeated as Olympic champion on the final day of the Games was motivating. Fuchs had toyed with turning professional but, after talking to Shields, decided to forge another four years as an amateur for another chance to become an Olympian.

The Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony, two weeks before that Shields final, was too much for Fuchs to bear. She could not stay in the Athletes’ Village nor march with the U.S. delegation at the Maracana.

“I remember watching the Opening Ceremony at the place I was at with everybody,” she said. “I couldn’t watch. It was hard for me to watch. I went back to my room, cried and went to bed.”

Fuchs is favored to win the 51kg/112-pound division this week at Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Lake Charles, La., with finals streaming live on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday (4-7 p.m. ET). It’s one of five women’s Olympic weight classes, up from three in 2012 and 2016, the first two editions of the Games for female boxers.

No boxer can clinch an Olympic spot this week, but failing to make a final would all but end Tokyo hopes.

Fuchs’ toughest opponent in this Olympic cycle — which included an undefeated 2017 and a 2018 World bronze medal among more than 130 fights — may be herself. Fuchs has been open about struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It started in fifth grade.

“I can remember the first time I was on the school bus, and I was looking at the ground and looking at everybody’s backpacks on the floor,” said Fuchs, a 31-year-old from the Houston area. “And an instant thought came in mind, like, Oh my god. Everybody’s backpack is getting contaminated by this dirty floor on the bus.”

She cited a more recent example: spending up to 40 minutes washing her hands searching for that “perfect clean feeling.” Fuchs found boxing via a boyfriend after she was kicked off the LSU cross-country running team as a freshman walk-on for damaging school property in a prank.

She said the disorder hit her hardest this year. In January, she was driving to a Walmart three times a day to buy cleaning supplies, according to The New York Times.

She underwent intensive therapy and skipped October’s world championships, where she could have established herself as a clear Olympic gold-medal favorite.

“I still am going to probably do therapy for the rest of my life,” Fuchs said. “Maybe not as intense as I’m doing it right now, but it’s almost like training for boxing.

“You’ve got to keep training to keep winning in boxing. So I’ve got to keep training my OCD thoughts and how to handle and manage it. … Boxing is giving me hope almost. Like OK, outside the ring and in my room and the bathroom, I feel like [OCD] controls me and feel trapped. But I have this environment in this space in the gym, in the boxing ring, where I can be myself. And not let it attack me in a way where I can still enjoy life and not be trapped.”

Should Fuchs make the final of her division in Lake Charles, she will advance to a January camp and tournament, after which the U.S. roster for Olympic qualifying will be named.

If selected, Fuchs would head to a North and South American Olympic qualifying event in early spring in Buenos Aires to clinch the spot she could not secure four years ago. If necessary, she could get a second chance at a global qualifier in May in Paris.

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Yulia Efimova has lawyer ready if Russia ban affects her

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Yulia Efimova, the Russian swimmer who earned two Rio Olympic silver medals after initially being excluded from the Games for serving a prior doping ban, is bracing for another legal fight after the latest sanctions against her nation.

On Monday, Russia was banned from the 2020 and 2022 Olympics and the next four years of world championships in Olympic sports due to more recent anti-doping violations. However, its athletes can still compete as neutrals, if meeting specific anti-doping criteria, similar to how they did at the PyeongChang Winter Games.

Efimova was initially barred from the Rio Olympics under an IOC mandate that any Russian who previously served a doping ban would be ineligible due to the country’s anti-doping violations at that time.

Efimova appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which ruled that IOC stipulation unenforceable. She went on to earn 100m and 200m breaststroke silver medals and develop a rivalry with American Lilly King, who said Efimova should not have been eligible.

It’s unclear from Monday’s ruling whether Efimova will be allowed to compete as a neutral, should Russia accept the sanctions or any appeal to CAS by the nation be denied.

“I will behave in a similar way,” to 2016, Efimova said, according to RT.com. “I have already hired a lawyer. There is a rule that a person can’t be punished twice for the same offense. If you violate a driving code or instigated a brawl you will not be punished twice for that. I hope it will work, but I cannot be sure of [a positive outcome].

“Right after my race at the Rio Games, I said that this doping controversy was not over, it was just the beginning, and we would have problems in the future. It was quite clear. And with every new year the situation is only getting worse and worse.”

Efimova, 27 and the two-time reigning world 200m breast champion, was banned 16 months between 2013 and 2015 after testing positive for a steroid. A FINA panel ruled that Efimova was not intentionally trying to cheat but was negligent in failing to read the label of a GNC store supplement.

“Yes, long ago I made a doping violation,” Efimova said this week, according to RT. “But there are a great number of U.S. and European athletes who have a similar situation regarding doping, and they are competing without any restrictions. If you want to introduce those regulations, they must be equally applied to all athletes, not only Russian competitors.”

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