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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Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s first Olympic track and field medalist, has coronavirus

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Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s lone Olympic track and field medalist, tested positive for the coronavirus, according to World Athletics and an Iranian news agency.

“We’ve received word from several Asian journalists that Iranian discus thrower Ehsan Hadadi has tested positive for coronavirus,” according to World Athletics. “[Hadadi] trains part of the year in the US, but was home in Tehran when he contracted the virus.”

Hadadi, 35, became the first Iranian to earn an Olympic track and field medal when he took silver in the discus at the 2012 London Games. Hadadi led through four of six rounds before being overtaken by German Robert Harting, who edged the Iranian by three and a half inches.

He was eliminated in qualifying at the Rio Olympics and placed seventh at last fall’s world championships in Doha.

Jordan Larson preps for her last Olympics, one year later than expected

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Whether the Tokyo Olympics would have been this summer or in 2021, Jordan Larson knew this: It will mark her final tournament with the U.S. volleyball team, should she make the roster.

“I’m just not getting any younger,” said Larson, a 33-year-old outside hitter. “I’ve been playing consistently overseas for 12 years straight with no real offseason.

“I also have other endeavors in my life that I want to see. Getting married, having children, those kinds of things. The older I get, the more challenging those become.”

Larson, who debuted on the national team in 2009, has been a leader the last two Olympic cycles. She succeeded Christa Harmotto Dietzen as captain after the Rio Games. Larson started every match at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

As long as Larson was in the building, the U.S. never had to worry about the outside hitter position, said two-time Olympian and NBC Olympics volleyball analyst Kevin Barnett.

“She played as if she belonged from the start,” he said. “They will miss her all-around capability. They’ll miss her ability to make everyone around her better. She’s almost like having a libero who can hit.”

Karch Kiraly, the Olympic indoor and beach champion who took over as head coach after the 2012 Olympics, gushed about her court vision.

“It’s a little dated now, but somebody like Wayne Gretzky just saw things that other people didn’t see on the hockey rink,” Kiraly said in 2018. “And I remember reading about him one time, and the quote from an opposing goalie was, oh my god, here he comes, what does he see that I don’t see right now? She sees things sooner than most people.”

Larson grew up in Hooper, Neb., (population 830) and starred at the University of Nebraska. She was a three-time All-American who helped the team win a national title as a sophomore. She had the opportunity to leave Nebraska and try out for the Olympics in 2008 but chose to remain at school for her final season.

She earned the nickname “Governor” as a Cornhusker State sports icon.

Larson helped the U.S. win its first major international title at the 2014 World Championship. She was also part of the program’s two stingers — defeats in the 2012 Olympic final and 2016 Olympic semifinals, both matches where the U.S. won the first set (and convincingly in 2012).

“It just gives me chills thinking about it now,” Larson said of the Rio Olympic semifinals, where Serbia beat the U.S. 15-13 in the fifth. “That team, we put in so much. Not just on the court but off the court working on culture and working on how are we best for each other. How can we be the best team? How can we out-team people? Certain teams have a better one player that’s a standout that we maybe didn’t have or don’t have. So how can we out-team the other teams? We had just put in so much work that was just heartbreaking.”

Larson and the Americans rebounded to win the bronze-medal match two days later.

“I don’t know anybody that didn’t have their heart ripped out. It was just a soul-crusher of a match,” Kiraly said of the semifinal. “More meaningful was what a great response everybody, including Jordan, mounted to the disappointment of that loss.”

The U.S. took fifth at worlds in 2018 and is now ranked second in the world behind China.

Larson spent the past club season in Shanghai. The campaign ended in mid-January. She hadn’t heard anything about the coronavirus when she took her scheduled flight back to California, learning days later that LAX started screening for it. Now, she’s working out from her garage.

Larson is in line to become the fifth-oldest U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball player in history, according Olympedia and the OlyMADMen.

Her decade of experience could go a long way to help the next generation of outside hitters, led by three-time NCAA champion and Sullivan Award winner Kathryn Plummer.

“If you’re coming into the USA program as an outside hitter, in the next year or the quad or the quad after that,” Barnett said, “the measuring stick is going to be Jordan Larson.”

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