Danell Leyva
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Danell Leyva, Donnell Whittenburg try to embrace Olympic alternate role

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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

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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