Danell Leyva, Donnell Whittenburg try to embrace Olympic alternate role

Danell Leyva
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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Donnell Whittenburg lay in his hotel room late Saturday night, his body exhausted but his mind unable to turn itself off after a once seemingly assured spot on the U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics team slipped away, when his phone rang.

Congratulations, said national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika. There’s a spot available as an alternate if you want it.

Whittenburg politely accepted the invite then went right back to trying to explain to his mother how a two-time world championship team member and one of America’s rising stars found himself on the outside looking in when the official five-man Olympic squad was announced at the end of an electric final round at Olympic Trials.

“She was still kind of shocked,” Whittenburg said. “She’s not really that familiar with the whole process and how it works. She was still kind of confused. But after a while she just told me to own it and take on a new role.”

One that in many ways will be more emotionally and physically challenging than the one faced by Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton, Alex Naddour, Chris Brooks and John Orozco, all of whom celebrated with tears amid an ocean of balloons after hearing their names called during a brief meeting just after the conclusion of the Olympic Trials.

While trying to get the U.S. back on the podium four years after washing out in the team finals in London four years ago will be difficult, at least it’s a tangible destination.

That’s not necessarily the case for Whittenburg and fellow alternates Danell Leyva and Akash Modi, who have to find a way to stay mentally prepped for an opportunity that may never come. It’s a position Brooks knows only too well. The 29-year-old was a replacement athlete in London, making the trip across the Atlantic then spending the meet as a one-man megaphone in the stands while his friends slogged to a fifth-place finish. Trying to reconcile the mixed emotions that come “when you’re literally 20 feet from your dream” as Brooks put it, is not easy.

“You get the messages, ‘Oh congratulations,'” he said. “You’re trying to be nice but in the back of your head you’re like, ‘I didn’t really make it.’ You have those thoughts. It’s part of being a human being.”

Yet disappointment is one thing. Duty is another, something Leyva was reminded of while talking to 2008 Olympian Raj Bhavsar on Saturday. Bhavsar was an alternate in 2004 and again four years later when he found himself thrust into the lineup after a broken hand forced defending Olympic champion Paul Hamm to abandon hopes of a repeat.

“He said, ‘you never know what’s going to happen, so be ready,'” Leyva said.

Leyva should know. He became just the third American man in a century to win an individual all-around medal when he surged to bronze in London, the only hardware the U.S. men’s program checked in customs on their way back home. Shortly after the awards ceremony, Leyva said emphatically his goal over the ensuing quadrennium was to make inroads on Olympic champion Kohei Uchimura of Japan.

Now, he’ll only get the chance if one of his teammates goes down. The 24-year-old struggled during the opening two rounds of qualifying in Hartford earlier this month. Though he was markedly improved at trials — his performance on vault Saturday night drew the customary frantic fit of joy by stepfather/coach Yin Alvarez — it wasn’t enough to sway the selection committee. On the surface it appears as if Leyva took a step back, a notion that obscures the tangible proof that the guys who made the team ahead of Leyva took a step forward, a clear sign the program is heading in the right direction.

“I feel like it kind of speaks for itself about the depth that U.S. gymnastics has,” Leyva said.

USA Gymnastics decided to hold men’s trials two weeks before the women’s to give the team members a brief —very brief — breather before beginning final preparations for Rio. It also provides the alternates a little extra time to get over any lingering frustration.

Officials, well aware of the delicate circumstances, have put together a plan designed to create a near identical experience for all involved up until opening ceremonies on Aug. 5. The Olympic team and the replacement athletes will work out side-by-side over the next six weeks in what can best be described as a high-profile intrasquad meet, one Whittenburg plans to take as seriously as the real thing.

“I want to make sure I’m pushing those guys (on the team) as best I can,” Whittenburg said.

If they need advice on how to handle it, they need only ask Brooks. Four years ago, he and Naddour trained away from the team once the games began then sat in the O2 Arena while their friends competed on the floor below. It wasn’t the best time ever. Yet it’s what the program needed.

“You have to basically man up and put all that stuff aside and get ready,” Brooks said. “Gymnastics is a cruel, cruel sport. At the drop of the hat, a lineup can change.”

MORE: Yin Alvarez: U.S. makes ‘big mistake’ not taking Leyva

South Korea’s first gold medalist of 2018 PyeongChang Olympics to compete for China

Lim Hyo-Jun
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Lim Hyo-Jun, a short track speed skater who won South Korea’s first gold medal of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, has been cleared to skate for China and was reportedly named to the national team Monday.

Lim, who won the 1500m on the first day of medal competition at the PyeongChang Games, began the process of switching to China after a June 2019 incident where he pulled down a teammate’s trousers, leaving him standing, exposed, in front of female teammates.

Lim, the 2019 World overall champion, was banned from the team for a year and later found guilty of sexual harassment before the verdict was overturned on appeal.

It was reported in March 2021 that Lim was in the process of trying to gain Chinese nationality to compete at the Beijing Winter Olympics, but Lim was not cleared to switch by the International Skating Union until this July. His Chinese name is Lin Xiaojun.

Another star South Korean skater, triple 2006 Olympic gold medalist Ahn Hyun-Soo, switched to Russia after not making the 2010 Olympic team. He then won three golds for the host nation as Viktor Ahn at the 2014 Sochi Games.

China’s national team for the upcoming season reportedly does not include veterans Wu Dajing, the nation’s lone gold medalist across all sports at the 2018 Olympics, and Fan Kexin, a three-time Olympic medalist.

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Brigid Kosgei, world record holder, to miss London Marathon

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World record holder Brigid Kosgei withdrew before Sunday’s London Marathon due to a right hamstring injury that has bothered her for the last month.

“My training has been up and down and not the way I would like to prepare to be in top condition,” was posted on Kosgei’s social media. “We’ve decided it’s best I withdraw from this year’s race and get further treatment on my injuries in order to enter 2023 stronger than ever.”

Kosgei, a 28-year-old Kenyan mother of twins, shattered the world record by 81 seconds at the 2019 Chicago Marathon. She clocked 2:14:04 to smash Brit Paula Radcliffe‘s record from 2003.

Since, Kosgei won the 2020 London Marathon, took silver at the Tokyo Olympics, placed fourth at the 2021 London Marathon and won this past March’s Tokyo Marathon in what was then the third-fastest time in history (2:16:02).

Ethiopian Tigist Assefa moved into the top three by winning the Berlin Marathon last Sunday in 2:15:37.

The London Marathon women’s field includes Kenyan Joyciline Jepkosgei, a winner in New York City (2019) and London (2021), and Yalemzerf Yehualaw, who was the Ethiopian record holder until Assefa won in Berlin.

The men’s field is headlined by Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest male marathoner in history, and Brit Mo Farah, a four-time Olympic champion on the track.

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