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

Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC.

“We look forward to hearing Paris’ presentation at the IOC Executive Board in March 2020,” an IOC spokesperson said in an email when asked for comment on Paris’ choice.

Tahiti beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

Jordan Thompson
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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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