Simone Biles halfway to automatic Olympic berth at Trials; Gabby Douglas 7th

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Laurie Hernandez likes to joke that any gymnastics meet that includes three-time world champion Simone Biles is really just a race for second.

Hernandez is kidding, but not really.

For the last three years, there has been Biles and then everyone else. During the opening round of Olympic Trials on Friday night, “everyone else” drew as close to Biles as they have in a while, led by the electric 16-year-old Hernandez.

While Biles led the way as usual with a 61.850, Hernandez was just a point back at 60.850. The gap is sizable to be sure. It may even be insurmountable. Yet the fact Hernandez is in the same area code is a testament to her level of comfort on the biggest stage.

“You kind of have to act naive to it,” Hernandez said with a laugh. “This is just another meet. The arena is just bigger than usual.”

The stakes too.

While there were others — even Biles and defending Olympic champion Gabby Douglas — who had to tamp down the adrenaline or the mistakes (or both), Hernandez erased any lingering doubt about her readiness for Rio de Janeiro. Each of her scores on the four individual events ranked in the top five, including a beam routine that’s good enough to win Olympic gold on its own.

Heady territory for someone who turned 16 a month ago. Yet Hernandez seems to thrive on the pressure, pressure that ever so briefly seemed to get to Biles. The overwhelming favorite to win the all-around in Rio overshot her landing on vault and had to muscle her way through an awkward spin, a rare wobble during a skill coach Aimee Boorman said her star has been drilling “for weeks.”

Blame it on the adrenaline that comes with a spot on what could be the most loaded U.S. team in history on the line.

“What you saw was the adrenaline today,” Boorman said. “There were a lot of people that can’t reign in the adrenaline. I don’t think we need to change much of her gymnastics.”

Aly Raisman‘s continued her resurgence to the form she showed while winning three medals at the London Olympics while finishing third, followed by MyKayla Skinner in fourth.

National team coordinator Martha Karolyi is picking from an embarrassment of riches as she pieces together a squad that will head to Rio as the heavy favorite to win a second straight Olympic team gold. Karolyi, who is retiring after the games, said following the national championships last month that she already had five names in mind and doesn’t appear ready to break out an eraser just yet.

“The list is staying pretty solid,” Karolyi said. “Even with some mistakes here or there. We look for the potential and you look for the fact of what you see what the girls were able to do in the past also.”

Biles, Hernandez and Raisman appear to be in solid position while Douglas is still searching for the form that helped her win an eye-opening silver in the all-around to Biles at the world championships last fall. Douglas was only so-so at nationals and adjusted her coaching situation heading into Trials, with Christian Gallardo taking a more prominent role with less than a month to go before opening ceremonies.

Gallardo, who has served as Douglas’ co-coach along with Kittia Carpenter since Douglas moved to Buckeye Gymnastics in Columbus, Ohio two years ago, called the move a collective decision. Olympic rules only allow one personal coach on the event floor, and Douglas’ comfortability with Gallardo made the difference.

“We always thought it was a good idea, especially leading into trials,” Douglas said. “We do a lot of numbers and a lot of reps. He was always my coach in the gym and you can only have one coach on the floor. It just made sense.”

If there was any immediate impact on the decision, it didn’t show under the lights, a place where Douglas so often thrives. While Douglas was third on uneven bars, the event that first caught Karolyi’s eye five years ago, she was iffy elsewhere, her occasionally shaky night ending with a hop off the beam.

Douglas’ wobble may open the door for other candidates to slip into the group. Skinner put a strong 59.450, including top four scores on vault, beam and floor.

Madison Kocian and Ashton Locklear, who came into the trials as the leading candidate for the fifth spot, posted matching 15.750s on bars — the best of the night by far — with Kocian adding a steady 14.7 on balance beam.

There is no drama at the top, though there might be company for Biles.

The high-flying star hasn’t lost a meet since the summer of 2013 while cementing herself as the best gymnast of her generation. Though she’s still in a class by herself, she wasn’t quite as crisp as she was while winning her fourth national title in St. Louis two weeks ago. In a way, Biles is a victim of her own success. She’s separated herself from the rest of the world so completely that anything less than dominance seems like disappointment.

Biles, however, prefers not to look at it that way. She’s spent the better part of her life preparing for this moment. She’s not about to let it slip away. Yes she was a little amped on Friday. She’ll adjust.

“I feel like it’s a world selection camp except this one is a competition held publicly,” she said. “That’s fine. It’s like crickets out there (at selection camp). Here at least you have the crowd to pump it up. That’s what we train for.”

VIDEO: Why Gabby Douglas made coaching adjustment for Trials

At U.S. Open swim meet, teens make a splash with Olympic trials on horizon

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While Olympic and world champions Katie LedeckySimone Manuel and Chase Kalisz notched expected victories at the U.S. Open on Thursday, a trio of teenagers lowered personal bests to further establish their Tokyo Olympic hopes.

At the top domestic meet of the winter, Alex WalshCarson Foster and Kieran Smith each earned runner-up finishes, but their performances stood out in the big picture: looking at June’s Olympic trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

Walsh, a rising Nashville high school senior, took 2.23 seconds off her 200m individual medley best. She clocked 2:09.01, overtaken by .17 by Melanie Margalis, the Rio Olympic and 2019 World Championships fourth-place finisher.

Full meet results are here.

Walsh moved from fifth-fastest in the U.S. this year to No. 2 behind Margalis, passing Olympic and world championships veterans Ella EastinKathleen Baker and Madisyn Cox. Of those swimmers, only Eastin was also in Thursday’s final.

Walsh joined her younger sister, Gretchen, in Olympic qualifying position based on 2019 times. Gretchen, 16, ranks fourth in the U.S. in the 100m free this year. The top six in that event at trials are in line to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool.

The Walshes could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in pool swimming after Dana and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Foster, 18, continued his ascent Thursday in taking second to Kalisz in the men’s 200m IM. The world junior champion lowered his personal best in the prelims and the final, getting down to 1:57.59. Foster passed Ryan Lochte, who is nearly twice his age, in Thursday’s final and in the 2019 U.S. rankings. Only Kalisz and Michael Andrew have been faster among Americans this year.

Foster is trying to become the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut. Foster, who has been breaking Phelps national age-group records since he was 10, committed to the University of Texas in March 2018, two years before he graduates high school in Ohio.

Then there’s Kieran Smith, now a prime candidate to fill a huge void in the 400m freestyle. Zane Grothe is the only American ranked in the top 20 in the world this year.

Smith, a 19-year-old from the University of Florida, took 2.29 seconds off his lifetime best on Thursday to jump from outside the top 10 to No. 2 in the U.S. on the year. Smith was already ranked No. 2 in the country in the 200m free.

Two more runners-up in the 50m freestyles — Erika Brown to Manuel and Zach Apple to Brazilian Bruno Fratus — lowered personal bests to move to No. 3 in each U.S. ranking list this year.

The U.S. Open continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET with live coverage on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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Nathan Chen distances Yuzuru Hanyu in Grand Prix Final short program

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A brilliant Nathan Chen outscored a flawed Yuzuru Hanyu for a fourth straight head-to-head program, taking a 12.95-point lead at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, on Thursday.

Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, tallied 110.38 points going into Saturday’s free skate. He landed a quadruple Lutz, triple Axel and quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination.

It’s the highest short program score in the world this season, leading the American to say “wow” in the kiss-and-cry area. His coach, the often-gruff Rafael Arutyunyan, banged his knee against his pupil’s.

Hanyu, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, hit a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel but then stepped out of a quad toe landing. He therefore failed to include a required jumping combination and ended up in second place.

“I wanted to do a great performance and do a good competition against [Chen], but that didn’t happen this time,” Hanyu, who was without longtime coach Brian Orser, or any other coach, said through a translator. Hanyu said Orser was busy last week, so he chose to use his lone accreditation on another coach who had travel delays.

Hanyu is not out of title contention. His world-leading free skate score this season is 16.61 points better than Chen’s best free skate from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Chen is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, but this is just his second head-to-head with Hanyu in that span. Chen defeated Hanyu at March’s world championships, where the Japanese megastar was likely affected by an ankle injury.

After Thursday’s program, Chen repeated what he said before the competition: he still feels like he’s chasing Hanyu.

“Yuzu is like the goat, he’s the greatest of all time, really,” Chen said. “So, to have this opportunity to be able to share the ice with a guy like that, someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time, someone that I’ve watched grow up through the junior ranks when I was like a baby, it’s really cool to be able see him now. It’s really cool to even just be able to see him person.”

The Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual event outside the world championships, continues Friday with the rhythm dance, women’s short and pairs’ free skate. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

Earlier in pairs, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong took their first step toward a first Grand Prix Final title. The Olympic silver medalists tallied 77.50, leading Russians Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy by .85 going into Friday’s free skate.

Sui and Han were imperfect, with Sui putting her hand down on a throw triple flip landing. They are undefeated in this Beijing Olympic cycle and own the world’s top total score this season.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the six-team Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

Grand Prix Final
Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 110.38
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 97.43
3. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 96.71
4. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.78
5. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 81.32
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 80.67

Pairs’ Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 77.50
2. Aleksandra Boikova / Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 76.65
3. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 75.16
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 71.48
5. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 69.67
6. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 67.08

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