Simone Biles, Olympic champions on U.S. dream team for Rio

Leave a comment

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Simone Biles wouldn’t let herself believe it. Not until she heard from national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, even if the Olympic dream she had been chasing for most of her life was locked down long ago.

So the three-time world champion waited for Karolyi to call her name late Sunday night at the end of an emotionally draining Olympic Gymnastics Trials. It didn’t matter that Biles’ spot was already secure after capturing the all-around, extending a long streak that shows no signs of abating. Biles needed to hear Karolyi say the words.

“It’s very unreal,” Biles said. “I’m sure it will hit me.”

The 19-year-old pegged as the next It Girl when the Rio Games begin next month has about three weeks to deal. It shouldn’t be a problem. Modesty aside, she has been prepping for this moment since she turned her first back handspring.

Besides, after what she and the rest of the five-woman team endured over the weekend, what awaits in Rio doesn’t seem so tough.

“A lot of athletes say the Olympic Trials is the hardest part and once you get to the Olympics it’s autopilot,” Biles said. “You turn on a switch and you go.”

Something Karolyi is counting on. She relied on equal parts experience and potential while putting together a squad expected to come home with copious amounts of hardware.

Biles will be joined by defending Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas, three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman and newcomers Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez to form a team that will arrive in Brazil as the gymnastics equivalent of the Dream Team that Michael Jordan led to basketball gold 24 years ago, long before any members of Team USA were born.

Ashton Locklear, Ragan Smith and MyKayla Skinner will be the alternates after getting through what Karolyi called one of the most difficult selection processes of her remarkable career.

Karolyi jotted down a list when the process began months ago, the same one she presented on Sunday night. While there was temptation to change it — particularly as Douglas struggled to regain the form that made her a champion in London — she never did.

“When you really put everything, you put down what lineup you have for the team and what will be (in the finals) we still felt, all of us on the selection committee, that this is the best combination,” Karolyi said.

A combination that includes Douglas, who hopped off beam during both rounds at trials and has openly talked about her sagging confidence. The 20-year-old adjusted her coaching staff between last month’s national championships and the trials, a move Karolyi said caused “confusion” in Douglas’ training.

There will be no confusion when Douglas arrives to work out with the national team in Texas later this week. Karolyi will be in charge and she will expect Douglas to respond as she did last fall, when she shook off sluggish preparations to capture silver at the 2015 world championships behind Biles.

“If we put Gabby in regimented training with daily planning and daily assignments and training plans, she’ll see improvement just like we did last year,” Karolyi said. “That’s why she made the team even with the mistakes she had in the competition.”

Ultimately it was the event that first helped Douglas first catch Karolyi’s eye years ago — the uneven bars — that made her the first Olympic champion to return for the next games since Romania’s Nadia Comaneci in 1980. Douglas was seventh in the all-around, but her two-day total of 30.350 on bars was third-best at the trials behind Kocian and Locklear and her ability on other events gives Karolyi flexibility.

It’s heady territory to be sure, though it didn’t always feel like it for Douglas. She took a moment to compose herself at the end of a nomadic quadrennium that saw her become a star and bounce across the country from Iowa to Los Angeles back to Iowa and then Ohio in search of a gym.

“It was close, definitely, and that’s always going to be in the back of my mind,” Douglas said. “I feel like that’s really going to motivate me to push in the gym and really work hard and no matter what I’m not giving up.”

The Americans haven’t lost a major international competition in six years, the gap between themselves and the rest of the world hardening along the way. Anything less than sending Karolyi into retirement with gold would be a “Miracle On Ice”-level upset.

The only real drama heading into the final night of trials centered on who would join Biles. The precocious 16-year-old Hernandez — who admits she’s too naive to know any better — continued her rapid ascension to perhaps the best threat to Biles’ long run at the top. Her best event is the balance beam, a 45-second test of nerves that she treats like a workout on the beach. Her score of 15.7 is gold-medal worthy if she can repeat it in Rio.

Raisman’s spot ended a remarkable resurgence in recent months. She had a forgettable performance at the world championships last fall — failing to make an individual event final — and seemed to be in the middle of the pack as recently as March.

Not anymore. The 22-year-old — nicknamed “grandma” as the oldest member of the team — stormed her way through two run-up events to trials and kept it going on Sunday night. Kocian, a world champion on uneven bars, rode the strength of a 15.9 on Sunday night to give herself just enough breathing room over Locklear.

There were tears in the aftermath as the team celebrated in a sea of confetti. They did their best to enjoy the moment, but they are aware the real test awaits.

“I think we can all get better,” Biles said. “I know I can get better. I’m saving it for Rio.”

MORE: Why Douglas made coaching adjustment

Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose so far Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!