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.”

VIDEO: P&G Women’s Championships

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.

MORE: Analyzing the U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team

Three questions with Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea before the U.S. Championships

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2016 U.S. national champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea changed coaches to kick off the new season. Now under Dalilah Sappenfield in Colorado Springs, the oft-injured team said they’re healthier than ever heading into the U.S. Championships this weekend in Detroit.

The 2018 Four Continents Champions got off to a “slow start” this year, with a seventh place finish a silver medal on the Challenger Series. On the Grand Prix series, though, they had a fifth place finish in Japan and a silver medal-performance in France. It was their first-ever Grand Prix medal. They told reporters on a media teleconference ahead of nationals that both of their Grand Prix performances “showed growth.” Since then, they’ve spent time drilling on their programs.

Here’s what we learned from their teleconference:

1. They’ve made huge strides from where they are today compared to where they were this time before nationals a year ago.

Tarah Kayne: “There’s a huge difference for me specifically mentally and physically. Last year I was coming off of a right knee surgery where I had my patella tendon reconstructed. For nationals, we were just getting started back into competitive shape. We had maybe a handful of free skate run-throughs under our belts going into nationals. I was just starting to get comfortable doing throws again. We were purposefully trying to make our throws smaller to cut back the impact on my right knee, and to make it as safe as possible.”

“Now this season, I am feeling so much healthier and stronger. We’re making our throws bigger again! Which is a great feeling for me to feel comfortable and to be in that place physically. And also mentally to feel safe doing that. A huge part of that has been being at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and training under Dalilah who I find to be very empowering.”

Danny O’Shea: “We’re healthy. That’s been the goal for a very long time. We have been elusive for a lot of our career so far. Feeling healthy going into nationals is a very comforting place to be in. Not having to scramble, rely purely on mental toughness to overcome what may be a lack of physical training is a very nice place to be in.

2. They feel like they got a fresh start under their new coach.

TK: “With Dalilah, we started from scratch. We just came to her and let her mold us. Whatever she wanted us to do, we did. We didn’t question things. We didn’t say, ‘that’s not how we do things, how we’re used to.’ We just let her change whatever she wanted to change because we didn’t want to get the same results we have always gotten. We wanted to improve. We wanted to be bigger; we wanted to be better; we wanted to be faster.”

DO: “When you’re with a coach for seven years as a team, things are second-nature. There’s been definite differences in what we’ve been doing throughout the year. Some took some getting used to. Some were very comfortable right off the bat. Overall, it’s been a positive for us and that we’re in a very good place physically right now, which is helping us be able to train hard and keep pushing throughout the year.”

3. Kayne and O’Shea don’t want anyone else to miss out on the Olympics (like they did, as 2018 Olympic alternates) or the world championships. And with only one U.S. pair spot at Worlds this year, they know what’s at stake.

DO: “It’s on our minds.”

TK: “It’s a hard job. It’s a hard position to be in. I wish I wasn’t in this position. I would love to be walking into this with three spots and have a little bit of wiggle room… it’s a job. I have to go and do my job at nationals to get to Worlds. And then I have to do my job at Worlds to make sure no one else is in this position again… We’re capable at this place and time to accomplish that goal for ourselves and for the United States.”

DO: “We have always gone into nationals trying to skate our best, but this year we know we have to go and do that and we have to win. You wanna go into every competition to try and be your best, but with the way things are, we’re going in to win nationals and make that world team again, and go to Worlds and start turning this around. We don’t want to have one spot for Worlds or one spot for the Olympics any longer.”

MORE: Three questions with Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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U.S. junior champions crowned in ladies’ and men’s events

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Gabriella Izzo is the newest junior ladies’ national champion, crowned this week at the U.S. Championships in Detroit. Junior ladies’ national champions of the past include eventual Olympians Mirai Nagasu, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Bradie Tennell.

Izzo had a commanding lead after the short program, with 60.97 points, where she pulled off her first-ever triple Lutz, triple loop combination in competition. (However, it was deemed under-rotated.) Regardless, her 111.45 points in the free skate combined for 172.42 points and the gold medal.

Audrey Shin, who actually won the free skate by just over a point, earned the silver medal with 165.61 points. Emilia Murdock took home the bronze with 154.48 points.

On the junior men’s side, Ryan Dunk rebounded from second after the short program to win the event. His 132.85-point free skate was enough to crack the 200-point overall score, the only man in the field to do so, and win the gold.

Men’s junior champions include eventual world champion Nathan Chen (twice) as well as Olympians Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown.

Dinh Tran finished second with 196.03 points after a fourth-place short program. Joonsoo Kim, who lead after the short program on Tuesday, ended up with the bronze medal with 187.95 points.

NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will live stream each junior competition and replays will also be available on-demand. Check out the full schedule and live streaming information here.

The junior rhythm dance took place earlier Wednesday. Siblings Caroline and Gordon Green lead the field with 70.82 points, while Avonley Nguyen and Vadym Kolesnik are second with 65.92 points. The brother-sister team of Oona and Gage Brown are in third with 63.34 heading into Friday’s junior free dance.

Also Wednesday, Laiken Lockley and Keenan Prochnow took the lead in the junior pairs’ short program. The junior pairs’ free skate is Thursday. Kate Finster and Balazs Nagy are second, followed by Isabelle Martins and Ryan Bedard in third.

MORE: Full streaming schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the junior and senior U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!