Gabby Douglas searches for old magic at Olympic Trials

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — This was not supposed to be part of the story reigning Olympic champion Gabby Douglas had in mind when she set her sights on Rio.

A revelation in London four years ago, Douglas figured her bid for another shot at glory would be easy. Hard to blame her considering the way she so effortlessly reached the top of the podium in 2012, a soaring victory that made her a crossover star.

“I came back and said, ‘Yes, this is going to be cake,'” Douglas said.

For a stretch last fall and this spring, it was. A silver medal in the all-around at the 2015 world championships showed her return was hardly just vanity run amok. Her professional effort while capturing events in New Jersey and Italy in March stirred inevitable comparisons to her sprint to Olympic gold.

Yet sometime over the last month, the momentum stalled. The Douglas that hopped off the beam in frustration during the first night of Olympic Trials on Friday hardly looked like she was having a good time. Her all-around total of 58.550 puts her seventh heading into Sunday’s finale, when the five-woman team expected to dominate the Summer Games will be announced.

Douglas described her effort as “just OK” when she knows much more is required. While the Olympic spot that once seemed automatic is still well within reach, the 20-year-old acknowledges the pressure has gotten to her. She figured she would have no trouble handling it when she returned to competition in March 2015.

“I think there’s more expectations now than there were before,” she said. “I’ve just got to go out there and just do it, not just shy away and test the water. I’ve got to dive in.”

That wasn’t a problem earlier in her career, when her fearlessness made her seem impervious to the stage. But after a so-so effort at national championships in St. Louis two weeks ago — when her fourth-place finish was well behind Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez and Aly Raisman — Douglas decided to tweak her coaching situation. She made Christian Gallardo her primary coach, a role Kittia Carpenter had been filling since Douglas began training at Buckeye Gymnastics in Columbus, Ohio, two years ago.

Douglas emphasized the decision was pragmatic, not personal. Gymnasts are allowed one coach on the event floor at the Olympics, and Gallardo — who had been splitting the duties with Carpenter — seemed a more natural fit to handle various responsibilities like spotting her during routines.

Many of Douglas’ peers on the national team, though, are still training with coaches they’ve been with since turning their first back handspring. Douglas has become a bit of a nomad over the last six years, moving from Virginia Beach to Iowa to California then back to Iowa before starting fresh in Columbus. The fact she’s prospered despite near constant change is a testament to her talent, which seems to thrive when the stakes are raised.

That’s what happened in 2012. It’s what happened last October, when she shook off lethargic training to finish a strong second to Biles at worlds. Douglas thought it would happen at nationals and trials too. And it hasn’t. At least not yet.

“I would be, ‘No, I’m fine. I can do this. When competition rolls around, I got it,'” she said. “The performances were OK. I was too relaxed. I got too far behind.”

Douglas believes she’s spent too much time focusing on “the wrong thing,” unable to completely block out the noise that seems to follow her wherever she goes. When she appeared too serious during national championships, social media lit up with criticism. In some ways, the detractors weren’t wrong.

“I lost the joy,” she said. “I forgot what it means to go out and have fun, and it’s catching up.”

Douglas presents a complex challenge for national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who seems intent on giving Douglas every opportunity to get right. Two weeks after saying it’s how athletes are doing now — and not their gaudy resumes — that matters most in picking the team, Karolyi clarified her standards when pressed about Douglas’ lingering sluggishness.

“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,” Karolyi said.

Karolyi gave Douglas a brief pep talk as they walked off the floor Friday, one Douglas needed badly.

“I was kind of crushed after, and when she came over, she was like, ‘OK, everything’s good,'” Douglas said. “I’m just going to go on to Sunday and bang it out.”

Probably a good idea if she wants to erase any lingering doubt in Karolyi’s mind.

The sloppy ending to her otherwise steady performance Friday, when she wobbled near the end of her beam routine and was unable to save it before jumping to the floor in frustration, left her visibly shaken. The girl whose life has literally become a reality show — “Douglas Family Gold” just wrapped its first season on the Oxygen Network — is hoping for one more dash of the magic that once came so naturally.

“I don’t want to finish like this,” Douglas said. “I don’t want to finish with St. Louis being not good and trials being OK. I really want to finish on a high note and not let myself go down.”

MORE: Nastia Liukin, Tim Daggett recap first night of Olympic Trials

FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

Gabriel Jesus
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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

MORE: Noah Lyles details training near woods, dog walkers

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”