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.

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

Tessa Virtue, Scott Moir retire from ice dance competition

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Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the most decorated Olympic figure skaters in history, announced their retirement late Tuesday. They’re done competing in ice dance, and their upcoming Canadian tour will be their last together.

“After 22 years, it feels like the right time to step away from the sport,” Virtue said in a video. “This is so personal and emotional for both of us. … We still can’t believe people care.”

“It just feels for us like it’s the right time to say goodbye while we’re still loving and enjoying the sport as much as we always have been,” Moir said. “This is my first selfie video, and I’m not going to cry. What a beautiful ride it’s been.”

The news was expected.

Virtue and Moir last competed in PyeongChang, earning golds in ice dance and the team event to bring their total to five medals (three golds) and break the record for most Olympic medals in the sport (buoyed by the addition of the team event in 2014).

“It definitely feels like [this is our last Olympics],” Moir said on TODAY in PyeongChang, hours after their ice dance gold. “If it is, this is a great way for us to go out. … It feels right. It feels like a good end.”

Virtue, 30, and Moir 32, teamed up in elementary school. Moir, a childhood hockey player, followed brother Danny into dance, pairing with his first partner at 8 and then with Virtue and 9.

Virtue hit the ice at age 6 because she didn’t want to be the only one in her class who couldn’t skate during a field trip. When she was 7, she was paired with Moir through Moir’s aunt Carol, who coached both as singles skaters. Two years in, Virtue attended Canada’s National Ballet School for a summer before choosing to stick with skating.

That decision ultimately led to one of the greatest careers in Canadian sports history.

They earned a junior world title in 2006, the first of eight Canadian titles in 2008 and, in 2010, the biggest of all — home gold at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games despite Moir messing up the steps at the end of their free dance. They faced the wrong way in their final pose.

“Scott just said thank you to me and just said look around us, take this in,” Virtue said on NBC as the final couples skated.

“I had to be positive because I messed up,” Moir later joked.

Virtue and Moir developed a rivalry with American training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White, with whom they traded world titles in the Sochi Olympic cycle. In Russia, the Americans edged the Canadians for the title by 4.53 points.

Moir waited until the arena emptied, returned to the rink and kissed the ice. Many thought it was a goodbye to the Olympics.

Two years later, they announced a comeback, saying they still had the fire and wanted to take advantage of one more chance to go to the Games. They won all but one of their competitions in those last two seasons, including the Olympics by a slim .79 of a point over French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

Now they join the other Canadian champions of their generation — Patrick ChanKaetlyn Osmond and Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford — in leaving the competitive arena for good.

“We spent 22 years coasting around the outside of the rink, hanging out together, making programs, trying to just soak up our sporting experiences,” Virtue said. “We still can’t believe people care.”

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MORE: Keegan Messing explains decision to hold up Japanese flag

Keegan Messing ‘glad’ to have held Japanese flag for Yuzuru Hanyu

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Yuzuru Hanyu heard Japan’s national anthem at the medal ceremony for his season-debut event on Saturday. But didn’t see a flag.

That’s when the bronze medalist, Keegan Messing of Canada, “took initiative” and unfurled the Japanese flag so Hanyu could honor it at the Autumn Classic in Ontario.

While there were plenty of fans of the Japanese skater in the crowd holding their own flags, none were hoisted above the ice like in some competitions.

Messing took it upon himself to hold up the Japanese flag that was hanging from a flagpole behind the medal podium.

Messing explained his decision following the interaction:

That was just actually instinct, honestly. When they said that we’re gonna play the anthem for the winner, I looked out and I realized there was no flag ready. A couple of the spectators had a flag but so I decided to hold up a flag because if I were in that place, I would’ve liked to have a flag presented at that time. That’s why I did it. I felt like that’s what I would’ve wanted so I went ahead and took initiative and I did it. I’m very happy I did. It felt good to do. I’m glad.

Hanyu is next expected to compete on the Grand Prix circuit, again in Canada in October and at NHK Trophy in Japan in November.

Messing’s assignments are Skate America in October and Cup of China in November.

The next time Hanyu’s and Messing’s paths could cross is at December’s Grand Prix Final, should they both qualify.

MORE: Yuzuru Hanyu wins Autumn Classic

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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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