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

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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

Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 18, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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