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

Kyle Dake repeats as world wrestling champ; next challenge: Jordan Burroughs

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Kyle Dake recovered from an unspecified freak accident that required surgery, and not wrestling in a meet for eight months, to repeat as world champion at 79kg, a non-Olympic weight class, on Sunday.

The next six months will bring another challenge — beating Jordan Burroughs for an Olympic spot.

“Every year I have a goal of being the best guy in the world. Last year, I proved it. This year, I proved it,” Dake told Trackwrestling.com. “I’ve got my work cut out for me, coming up.”

Dake, a four-time NCAA champion at Cornell who considered quitting after finishing second at U.S. trials year after year, is now in his freestyle prime. He backed up going unscored on at worlds last year by beating his four opponents in Kazakhstan this week by a combined 27-4, capped by topping Azerbaijan’s Jabrayil Hasanov 4-2 in a final rematch.

Kid Dynamite is unquestionably one of the world’s best pound-for-pound wrestlers.

That was not the case four years ago. Then, an internationally inexperienced Dake moved out of the 74kg division, and up to 86kg for the Olympic year, to avoid facing Burroughs because Burroughs had a bye into the Olympic trials final as the reigning world champion. Dake ended up losing the 86kg trials final to J’den Cox, who on Saturday repeated as world champion himself.

The four-year difference would seem to favor Dake over Burroughs at April’s trials, where Dake has a bye into the semifinals and Burroughs into the final.

Burroughs, at 31 years old, is on the back end of his career. He just missed the finals of back-to-back world championships for the first time, though he came back for bronze medals. Burroughs has made every U.S. world or Olympic team at 74kg dating to 2011 and earned a medal every time, save his tearful Rio Olympic exit.

Dake, reluctant four years ago to detail his decision to move out of 74kg, determined before this week’s worlds that he would choose 74kg over 86kg (where Cox likely waits again).

“74 seems like a good spot for me,” Dake told Trackwrestling last month.

The number of weight classes drops from 10 at worlds to six at the Olympics, ensuring that at least two of these Americans will not make the Tokyo team:

Burroughs — 5x Olympic/world champion
Dake — 2x world champion
David Taylor — 2018 World champion (missed 2019 while injured)
Cox — 2x world champion
Kyle Snyder — 2x Olympic/world champion

Later Sunday, Snyder rallied from being upset in the 97kg semifinals on Saturday to snag a bronze medal with a 5-0 win over Georgian Elizbar Odikadze. A potential third straight world final between Snyder and Russian Abdulrashid Sadulayev was the most anticipated match of the championships, but Snyder was beaten one match early by Azerbaijan’s Sharif Sharifov.

Sadulayev, meanwhile, blanked Sharifov 4-0 to complete a 30-3 romp through his four matches to repeat as world champ.

“The hardest part about it I would say is just the fact that I didn’t get to wrestle Sadulayev again,” said Snyder, a Rio Olympic champion and a 2015 and 2017 World champion who shared bus and elevator rides with Sadulayev on Saturday and Sunday. “I felt prepared for him.”

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MORE: Jordan Burroughs: Time is running out

Israel is first nation to qualify for 2020 Olympic baseball tournament

Margo Sugarman
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Israel’s baseball team, which captivated at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, is headed to its first Olympics next summer.

Israel won a joint European-African tournament to become the first nation to qualify for baseball’s return to the Games after the sport was voted off the program after Beijing 2008.

It joins host nation Japan. Four more countries will qualify — two at the global Premier12 in November, another from the Americas and one more from a last-chance qualifier next year.

Israel, ranked 19th in the world, advanced via its best opportunity in Italy this week. It upset the highest-ranked European nations — the Netherlands (No. 8) and host Italy (No. 16) — and wrapped it up with an 11-1 win over South Africa on Sunday.

Its run came two years after Israel, then ranked 41st, beat South Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Cuba before bowing out of the World Baseball Classic. And one week after Israel finished fourth at the European Championship.

Israel’s roster at this week’s Olympic qualifier lacked many of the MLB veterans that it had at the World Baseball Classic. Israeli citizenship was not required at the WBC.

Its most recognizable player is Danny Valencia, an infielder who played parts of nine MLB seasons from 2010-18. Joey Wagman, its starting pitcher for its first and last games this week, plies his trade for the independent-league Milwaukee Milkmen.

MLB players are unlikely to feature at the Tokyo Games, but minor leaguers are expected to be eligible as in the past.

The rest of the Olympic field is likely to be nations from North America (such as the U.S., Cuba, Mexico or Canada) or Asia (South Korea, Chinese Taipei) or Australia.

Baseball will not be on the 2024 Olympic program but could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

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MORE: USA Baseball taps longtime catcher to be Olympic qualifying manager