Madison Kocian
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At U.S. Gymnastics Trials, it’s a fight for one spot in Rio

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Technically, there are five spots available on the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team that will be unveiled on Sunday night at the end of Olympic Trials. But not really. And Ashton Locklear knows it.

“We all do the math in our heads,” Locklear said. “I think you kind of have to. You need to know what’s going on around you.”

Barring injury or a catastrophic drop in form, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez are heading to Brazil next month.

That leaves one position open — maybe — the one Locklear and good friend Madison Kocian will try to convince national team coordinator Martha Karolyi they’re worthy of during what may be the most important 48 hours of their athletic lives.

No pressure or anything.

“I definitely need to prove myself,” Locklear said. “I definitely need to show consistency.”

It’s a testament to the depth of the powerhouse program Karolyi has built that the only real lingering drama with less than a month to go before the games centers around who will serve as the anchor on uneven bars. The top choices are the fluidly elegant Locklear — who helped the U.S. to team gold in the 2014 world championships — and the precise Kocian — who won gold on her favorite event at the 2015 world championships.

Both provide compelling arguments. Locklear’s cumulative uneven bars score during the two preliminary meets leading up to Olympic Trials was 0.3 better than Kocian’s total. Yet Kocian provides Karolyi with flexibility in the all-around, heady territory considering she broke the tibia in her left leg just above the ankle at the end of February.

“I didn’t really think it was going to be fractured or anything,” Kocian said. “I went to doctor, he told me it was fractured. I melted down. I broke into tears. I didn’t know what that meant for me.”

What it meant for the 18-year-old Texan was two weeks in a cast, another two on crutches while wearing a protective boot and six-plus weeks of limited training while most of the crowded elite field — really, if the U.S. were allowed to field two five-woman teams it would turn the race for gold into an intramural — kept pressing forward.

“I drove myself crazy in the beginning,” Kocian said. “It was really hard. I had to stay off bars 3-4 weeks, I’d never stayed off that long.”

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In a way, it may have been a blessing. Sure, sitting for the better part of two months was difficult. It also gave her a chance to recharge mentally, no small thing in a world where the relentless grind of training can wear occasionally wear down bodies and motivation in equal measure.

Kocian believes she’s “more focused than ever,” buoyed by her strong performance at the U.S. championships two weeks ago, where she finished fifth in the all-around thanks in part to a floor routine she and her coaches basically threw together on the fly.

“It was important for her to prove besides being a bars specialist she is a steady competitor on floor and beam,” Karolyi said.

Kocian was planning on vaulting at Olympic Trials but was told by Karolyi not to bother out of fear it may affect her still tender ankle.

“She told my coaches she didn’t want to take any risks,” Kocian said. “She knows it’s not really worth it right now. It’s not really going change my position on the team.”

Kocian isn’t sounding presumptuous, but she knows her best shot at making an impact on a team heavily favored to defend the gold it won so easily in London four years ago is on bars, beam and floor. The vault will be there in case the U.S. should need it.

That’s not the case for the 18-year-old Locklear, whose career path was altered when she fractured her L4 vertebra in 2013. She spent months in a brace and when she was finally cleared soon realized floor exercise and vault weren’t exactly ideal ways for someone with lower-back issues to spend their free time.

So she focused on bars and beam, figuring the extra practice time would give her an advantage. It was a risky strategy, the gymnastics equivalent of a high school senior applying to just one college in hopes of getting accepted.

Locklear is well aware that Karolyi has five women in mind and can name four of them pretty easily. It’s that last one, though, that will be tricky. Maybe it’s Locklear. It’s more likely it’s Kocian. At least, at the moment. And that’s where things can get stressful.

“It’s hard because we’re really good friends and we both want each other to do their best,” Locklear said. “I’m pretty sure she watches me too. We’re competitive with each other but we’re best friends too.”

The friendship will be tested this weekend, though in the big picture the decision will hardly impact the American’s chances of standing atop the podium after team finals on Aug. 9.

The difference between Locklear and Kocian can be measured in small fractions. The U.S. won the 2012 Olympics and 2014 and 2015 world championships by at least five points. Whoever makes the team will likely come home with a gold medal — possibly more than one — in their suitcase.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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Mikaela Shiffrin runner-up in Lake Louise downhill

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LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — Here’s a scary thought for her competition: Mikaela Shiffrin is still getting comfortable with the intensity and the speed of the downhill.

That’s why podium finishes are still a little surprising even to her.

The American three-time overall World Cup champion finished runner-up to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria in a downhill race Saturday. Schmidhofer cruised through the course in 1 minute, 49.92 seconds to edge Shiffrin by 0.13 seconds. Francesca Marsaglia of Italy wound up third.

Schmidhofer has four career World Cup wins, with three of them arriving at Lake Louise.

Known as a tech specialist, Shiffrin is steadily getting up to speed in the speed events. This was Shiffrin’s fourth career World Cup podium finish in the downhill, which includes a Lake Louise win in 2017.

So, does Shiffrin anticipate this kind of downhill success?

“No, no, no,” the 24-year-old from Colorado said. “It’s certainly not normal (for a downhill podium). Even racing downhill doesn’t feel normal. But I feel every year like I have more experience and get more comfortable.”

Shiffrin currently sits at 62 World Cup wins, which ties her with Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second-most on the women’s side. Lindsey Vonn had 82 wins before her retirement.

“I’m certainly more comfortable with the long skis,” Shiffrin said of downhill racing. “Right now, it’s enjoying it, because speed is a little bit extra for me. My goal is to be able to succeed in speed as well. It’s making the transition and trying to have fun with it.”

Czech Republic skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka finished fourth Saturday. She was the surprise winner of Friday’s season-opening downhill, which was delayed and shortened by heavy snowfall on the mountain. The race Saturday was restored to its full length.

Next up, a super-G on Sunday.

“It’s always been a little bit tricky for me from downhill skis to super-G skis and to change the timing a little bit,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to have fun.”

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