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

Grigory Rodchenkov, Russian doping whistleblower, still lives in fear

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His head covered in a black balaclava, adjusting dark goggles obscuring his eyes, Grigory Rodchenkov grows anxious if any part of his face can be seen.

Exposing Russia’s state-sponsorship doping scheme forced Rodchenkov into hiding in the United States five years ago. Revealing his current identity is still too risky for the chemist turned whistleblower, even in a video interview from an undisclosed location.

“It’s my security measures because I have physical threats to be assassinated,” Rodchenkov told The Associated Press. “And I want to live.”

Evidence from Rodchenkov that has already turned Vladimir Putin‘s Russia into international sporting outcasts continues to be used in cases against athletes along with data from his former laboratory in Moscow.

“Putin, he is quite logical. He separates opposition in two ways — enemies … betrayers,” Rodchenkov said. “I am falling in the betrayers’ category and all betrayers should be beheaded, cut, dead. So there is no doubt that he wants me to be dead.”

It has not deterred him from documenting his life story in “The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire,” revisiting how he conspired with his country to corrupt sports and then tries to show contrition by turning star witness.

Rodchenkov was the brains behind the Duchess cocktail of anabolic steroids and cover-up that turned Russia into a medal machine at the home Olympics in Sochi in 2014, topping the standings with 13 gold medals before disqualifications.

Russian spies ensured the Duchess would not be detected in doping tests as FSB agents used a hole in the wall of the Sochi laboratory to swap out the dirty samples with clean urine at night.

“For me, it was the end of doping control,” Rodchenkov said. “If we can do it, why others cannot?”

The doping cover-up extended beyond the Winter Olympics, into the Summer Games, Paralympics, world track and field championships and every major sport.

Some Russians were barred from competing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to blanket bans on countries.

So Russian athletes can still compete on the international stage if they can show they are clean, despite a four-year ban from major international sporting events being imposed on the nation last year for a fresh cover-up, including tampering with data gained from Rodchenkov’s former lab in Moscow.

“Sport is a part of Putin’s politics and showing to the West how good Russia is,” Rodchenkov said. “You cannot trust Russia. You cannot trust the certification authorities, and (anti-doping) laboratories cannot be allowed to be restored within the foreseeable future.”

Especially now, according to Rodchenkov, following constitutional changes allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030,

“Until 2036,” Rodchenkov said, “no trust.”

But why now trust Rodchenkov as he presents a virtuous image at odds with his deep collusion with the state to cheat?

“When you are laboratory director and you have 50 employees and you are reporting to your high ups at the ministry, I could not even think about morals,” he said, dismissing concerns about any long-term damage to the health of athletes he allowed to be pumped with steroids.

“It’s extremely debatable and still ungrounded,” he said. “We see the generation who is now in the end of their lives of 70s and 80s, which are still … in a good physical condition after steroid programs.”

Go back four decades and Rodchenkov was starting out in a Soviet system learning how to manipulate doping controls.

“I had honestly, I’m sorry, but I had huge feelings of accomplishment,” he said. “Those athletes I helped to (win) were extremely talented and I could not understand, with the coach, how he or she may lose to others. The only explanation was doping. Then using some programs, we won gold medals. Honestly it was like leveling the field.

“Again, ‘morals’ is maybe vocabulary from American life but not from Soviet and Russian. In (the) Soviet (Union) it was the Soviet moral, in Russia there is no morals.”

It helps when the athletes are compliant.

“This is the huge problem of the militarization of Russia sport,” Rodchenkov said. “They follow orders, they are disciplined but they cannot tell the truth because they have given the oath to the Russian state and consider foreigners as potential enemies or even actual enemies. That’s why in Russia there are three ways – lying, cheating and denying.”

Rodchenkov has had to convince the world he has shed those ways and is coming clean. More of the cases he helped to cover-up could soon come to light after the World Anti-Doping Agency shared data – of samples tested up to 2015, and tampering that continued into 2019 – that was retrieved from the Moscow testing lab at the heart of the state-backed doping program.

“The problem is that the people from outside cannot understand what is going on inside sports,” he said. “Only whistleblowers could do that. But in corrupted countries you have to escape and we need to be preserved.”

For Rodchenkov that means living a life constantly in fear of being recognized as happened on a train in the US.

“It was a student,” he recalled. “I told him, `Forget you are meeting me, yes it’s me, don’t tell anyone.’ … I disappeared again.”

MORE: Russia track and field faces expulsion if it misses deadline

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Noah Lyles, more world champs race in Monaco; TV, live stream schedule

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Noah Lyles headlines a bevy of world champions slated for the first full-on Diamond League meet of the abbreviated track and field season, live on NBC Sports on Friday.

Monaco hosts the strongest fields of any meet since the world championships 10 months ago. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBC Sports Gold air coverage on Friday at 2 p.m. ET.

Reigning world champions include Lyles (200m), Grant Holloway (110m hurdles), Donavan Brazier (800m) and Sam Kendricks (pole vault), and those are just the Americans.

Swede Mondo Duplantis, who twice raised the pole vault world record in February, takes on Kendricks in Monaco. Distance stars Sifan Hassan, Hellen Obiri, Beatrice Chepkoech, Timothy Cheruiyot and Joshua Cheptegei dot the fields, too.

The Diamond League season was due to start in April, but the coronavirus pandemic halted large-gathering track meets until now. Repurposed versions of Diamond League meets in Oslo and Zurich were held the last two months with fewer events and athletes and some entrants racing from different countries.

After Monaco, more Diamond League meets are scheduled for Stockholm (Aug. 23), Lausanne (Sept. 2), Brussels (Sept. 4), Naples (Sept. 17), Doha (Sept. 25) and China (Oct. 17).

Here are the Monaco entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:40 p.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
2:03 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
2:05 — Women’s High Jump
2:12 — Men’s 800m
2:17 — Women’s Triple Jump
2:19 — Women’s 5000m
2:42 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
2:50 — Women’s 100m
2:57 — Men’s 1500m
3:07 — Women’s 400m
3:13 — Men’s 5000m
3:32 — Men’s 200m
3:39 — Women’s 100m
3:47 — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 1:40 p.m.
The top field event of the meet includes the reigning Olympic champion (Brazil’s Thiago Braz), reigning world champion (Kendricks) and the world-record holder (Duplantis, who must be the favorite here). Kendricks and Duplantis already went head-to-head this spring, competing virtually from respective home pole-vault setups. Kendricks took their first six head-to-heads, back when Duplantis was a teenager, but the Louisiana-born Swede won all four of their indoor duels in February. Duplantis is the clear Tokyo Olympic favorite until proven otherwise.

Men’s 800m — 2:12 p.m.
The top four from the 2019 World Championships are entered. Brazier, 23, caught fire the last year. He broke the American record to win the world title. He broke his own American indoor record in February. Then, last month, Brazier took 1.33 seconds off his 1500m personal best. Nobody in the Monaco field has beaten Brazier since the start of 2018.

Women’s 5000m — 2:19 p.m.
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in world champion at 1500m and 10,000m, but she’s lost four of five meetings with two-time world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya at 5000m. Hassan appears to be gearing up to race the 5000m in Tokyo, though, saying last month her eye was on a 1500m-5000m Olympic double had the Games been held this year. The 1500m preliminary heats and the 5000m final are separated by about 12 hours at the Olympics next year. Also in this field: three-time Olympian and former American record holder Shannon Rowbury, set for her first Diamond League race in nearly three years and since the birth of daughter Sienna.

Men’s 1500m — 2:57 p.m.
Last we saw Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in a 1500m, he led wire-to-wire en route to a 2.12-second victory in the world championships final. Only one man has beaten Cheruiyot in three years, countryman Elijah Manangoi, who is provisionally suspended due to whereabouts failures. The Monaco field does include Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen (second-fastest man of 2019), Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha (indoor mile world-record holder), Pole Marcin Lewandowski (world bronze medalist) and Craig Engels (2019 U.S. champion who was 10th at worlds).

Men’s 200m — 3:32 p.m.
Lyles and younger brother Josephus Lyles go head-to-head for the first time since January 2017. Noah has lost just one outdoor 200m since placing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials coming out of high school. Josephus, primarily a 400m sprinter in his developmnt, last month took a half-second off a five-year-old 200m personal best. His new best time — 20.24 seconds — would have placed third at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships behind Noah (19.78) and Christian Coleman (20.02).

MORE: Trayvon Bromell’s return from destruction, death to sprinting

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