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

Scotty James wins fifth X Games snowboard halfpipe title

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Scotty James doesn’t have Olympic gold, but he remains king of the X Games halfpipe.

James, the Australian snowboarder who took bronze and silver at the last two Olympics, earned his fifth Aspen gold, repeating as champ of the biggest annual contest under falling snow in the Colorado Rockies. Only the retired Shaun White has more X Games men’s snowboard halfpipe titles with eight.

Nobody on Friday night attempted a triple cork, which was first done in competition by Japan’s Ayumu Hirano last season en route to the Olympic title. Hirano placed sixth Friday.

“It was a tough night, pretty interesting conditions,” James said. “Had to adjust the game plan. The show goes on.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression over the course of a three-run jam session for the entire field rather than scoring individual runs.

Earlier, Olympic gold medalist Zoi Sadowski-Synnott of New Zealand repeated as women’s snowboard slopestyle champion, passing Olympic bronze medalist Tess Coady of Australia on the final run of the competition. Sadowski-Synnott, the only snowboarder or skier to win Olympic, world and X Games slopestyle titles, capped her finale with back-to-back 900s.

The competition lacked 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion Jamie Anderson, who announced her pregnancy last month.

Canada’s Megan Oldham landed the first triple cork in women’s ski big air competition history to beat Olympic silver medalist Tess Ledeux of France, according to commentators. Oldham, a 21-year-old ex-gymnast, was fourth at the Olympics.

Eileen Gu, the Olympic champion from China, did not compete but is entered in halfpipe and slopestyle later this weekend.

ON HER TURF: U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin on grief, loss, finding motivation

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Isabeau Levito wins U.S. figure skating title at age 15, followed by comeback stories

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Isabeau Levito won her first U.S. figure skating title at age 15, cementing her status as the new leading American woman to open the new Olympic cycle.

Levito, the world junior champion, tallied 223.33 points between two strong programs in San Jose, California. She distanced two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, who went 19 months between competitions due to foot and ankle injuries in 2021 and 2022 and scored 213.12.

Tennell was just two hundredths behind Levito after Thursday’s short but had multiple jumping errors in the free skate.

Levito followed her as last to go in the free and nailed the most pressure-packed performance of her young career, including the hardest jump combination done of the entire field. She didn’t receive a single negative mark from a judge for her 19 technical elements in her two programs.

Moments later, she was in tears backstage.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

“I was just so proud of myself for staying so calm and staying so focused, doing exactly what I aimed to do,” Levito, who hasn’t finished off the podium in more than 20 events dating to November 2016, said on NBC. “I’m ready to start bouncing off the walls.”

Amber Glenn, 23, placed third and will likely become the oldest U.S. women’s singles skater to make her world championships debut in at least 45 years. Glenn botched her 11th attempt to join the list of U.S. women to land a clean triple Axel (tally according to Skatingscores.com) but still moved up from fourth after the short program, passing Starr Andrews.

Last year, Glenn entered nationals as the fourth-ranked U.S. woman and a hopeful for the three-woman Olympic team. She placed 14th in the short program, competing unknowingly with COVID-19, then tested positive and withdrew before the free skate.

In 2021, Glenn was the U.S. silver medalist, yet passed over for a spot on the two-woman world team in favor of the more experienced Karen Chen, who finished 35 hundredths behind Glenn at those nationals.

Levito, Tennell and Glenn are expected to make up the team for March’s world championships, decided by a committee.

Gracie Gold, a two-time U.S. champion who was fifth after the short program, popped a pair of planned triple Lutzes and dropped to eighth.

None of the three 2022 U.S. Olympians competed. Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell retired. Chen is a student at Cornell and might not return.

Nationals continue Saturday with the free dance and pairs’ free skate, live on NBC Sports and Peacock.

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