‘Final Five’ moniker — and gold– delights Martha Karolyi

Martha Karolyi
AP
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RIO DE JANEIRO – The U.S. women’s gymnastics team won the Olympics by the largest margin in this scoring era. More impressively, they made Martha Karolyi cry.

“From my nature, I’m really not a sentimental person, honestly,” Karolyi said, deadpan, about 30 minutes after she wiped the tears. “I’m known for being really tough, so I felt like, what’s happening to me, really?”

Karolyi’s assembled squad of Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian delivered her overwhelming retirement gifts at the Olympic Arena on Tuesday afternoon.

First, they made good on everyone’s prediction of a gold-medal cakewalk, hitting 12 for 12 routines. They prevailed by 8.209 points over Russia and by 8.894 over China.

MORE: ‘Final Five’ run away with gold in Rio

The surprise came after the competition, between Biles’ final floor exercise and the victory ceremony.

Team captain Raisman walked up to Karolyi and confided in her the team nickname so many had been asking them to reveal. Anticipation had built to learn the follow-up to the popular Fierce Five moniker of 2012.

This year it’s the Final Five, Raisman told Karolyi.

The name honors the impending retirement of Karolyi, who at 73 will cede her national-team coordinator role following these Games after 15 years in charge. A successor hasn’t been named.

“I’m very proud and, yes, I cried,” were Karolyi’s first words to a group of American journalists after the victory ceremony. “I’m not sentimental, but when Aly told me the name of the team is the Final Five, that is the moment.”

MORE: How would Karolyi describe her Olympic gymnasts?

The name was Biles’ idea.

And fittingly, as the Texan has been the cornerstone of the program in this Olympic cycle, winning world all-around titles in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and leading the U.S. to dynasty status – five straight Olympic or world team titles dating to 2011.

Biles said Karolyi means “the world” to her.

“She’s pushed us harder than anyone else, harder than our coaches,” said Biles, who performed on all four events Tuesday and is the massive favorite for the Olympic all-around crown Thursday. “Every day in practice, even if you’re so close to perfection, she still tells you that you can be better. … She does it because she loves us. She just wants the best for us.”

Karolyi, who defected from Romania in 1981, is a walking history book of gymnastics. Her first of 11 straight Olympics were in 1976, when she and husband Bela coached Nadia Comaneci to gold in Montreal.

When Karolyi cried in front of Raisman on Tuesday, it marked her first time shedding tears at a Games since Comaneci’s perfect-10 performance 40 years ago.

“Because that was my first Olympics and first Olympic medal,” she said. “So those are so remarkable moments.”

Many will call this team the greatest ever after Tuesday night. Karolyi is inclined to agree.

“I almost would like to say yes, just if we think that we have the eight-point [margin over] the next team,” she said.

The current scoring system was implemented in 2006, so it is hard to compare eras.

It wasn’t that long ago that the U.S. women struggled during Romania’s reign.

After finishing sixth at the 1999 World Championships, Bela was lured out of retirement to revive the program.

He passed the baton to Martha in 2001, and slowly the Americans surged past the Romanians, Russians and Chinese. Monthly national-team camps at the peacock-and camel-filled Karolyi Ranch in New Waverly, Texas, provided the foundation.

The U.S.’ streak of five straight Olympic or world team titles is the best stretch of success since Romania won seven of nine Olympic or world titles between 1994 and 2004.

Before that, the Soviet Union won eight straight Olympic team titles from 1952 to 1980.

The Russian pipeline has been drying up. Romania didn’t even qualify a full team for Rio. China put all its eggs in the 2008 Beijing Olympic basket and then dropped off.

“I think at this moment we can say that United States dominates the world of gymnastics,” Karolyi said. “I think that’s probably comparable with the other era when first Russia was dominating and then Romania took over and dominated for several years.”

But can the U.S. sustain this level of dominance under the scrutinizing eyes of a different coordinator?

One constant will remain – those team camps at the Karolyi Ranch. USA Gymnastics recently purchased 36.2 acres of gymnastics facilities at the 2,000-acre ranch.

Martha and Bela plan to visit Romania in retirement, but the ranch will remain their permanent home.

“Maybe I pop in the gym and see if they are going in the right direction,” Karolyi said.

It wasn’t totally clear if she was kidding.

Bradie’s back: Tennell wows in U.S. Figure Skating Championships return from nightmare

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SAN JOSE, California — Bradie Tennell stood at the end boards, her back to the ice surface, her attention on trying to take in what her imposing coach, Benoit Richaud, was telling her in the final seconds before she took the ice for Thursday’s short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

It was hard for Tennell to stay focused on – or even hear – what Richaud was saying. A group of kids from U.S. Figure Skating’s development camp, who were sitting in the stands near Tennell, started screaming their lungs out when they were shown on the SAP Center video board. Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” was blasting at approximately 10 million decibels on the arena’s sound system.

“It was very distracting,” Tennell said, eschewing an athlete’s usual cliché about nothing being able to break her concentration. “But this past year has taught me nothing comes easy.”

It was a year of injuries, re-injuries, new injuries. A year when the two-time U.S. champion had been physically unable to compete for a spot on a second Olympic team in 2022. A year when Tennell turned her life inside out, moving to France to train with Richaud, only to have more setbacks.

“I’ve definitely had my share of bumps in the road on the way here,” Tennell said. “This was a very long time in the making.”

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

This was finishing second in the short program, a whisker behind event favorite Isabeau Levito. This was a Tennell performance marred only by unexpected mistakes on spins, her last of seven elements in the short program. This was a statement to anyone who wondered if she could be a factor in the sport again.

“I’m back, baby,” she said, her uncharacteristic bravado tempered by a laugh.

Richaud agreed.

“People can see the job we did, see the improvement,” Richaud said. “Clearly the message tonight is Bradie is one of the best skaters in the world.”

Her skating had a greater maturity and finesse, with striking flow and attention to details of hand movement and body position. She has vowed not to take a pass on any moment in her programs, knowing every second can produce more points.

“I’m a new and improved Bradie,” she said. “I don’t put a limit on myself.”

Tennell opened with a solid triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, the first time she had landed that combination cleanly since her victorious 2021 Nationals. She followed that with a strong triple flip and a good double Axel. A slip on her flying sit spin and a flawed combination spin would cost her the points that dropped her behind Levito, 73.78 to 73.76, going into Friday night’s free skate.

“Made a couple silly mistakes on spins,” Tennell said. “I think I got too excited.”

So as pleased as Tennell was with the result, she once again heard the two voices that quarrel inside her head. One says be satisfied just by being able to compete again; the other wants to win.

“One was jumping up and down with pompoms,” Tennell said. “The other was, ‘But you didn’t get the (highest) spin levels.'”

Starr Andrews was third at 68.97, her highest finish in any segment of the six nationals in which she has competed. Five years ago in this building, Andrews, then 16, had made a dazzling senior debut while finishing sixth, but she has struggled to build on that promise.

“Of course, I wondered if that was going to happen again,” Andrews said.

Andrews helped relive that past glory by wearing the same sparky carmine unitard she had in 2018.

“It was kind of a full circle,” Andrews said. “It was really amazing to be out there again. I felt really comfortable and confident.”

Tennell, too, had created a career-defining moment at this arena in 2018, winning the national title after having finished ninth a year before and going on to earn an Olympic team event bronze medal.

“This is where all my skating craziness started,” she said.

She, too, expressed a feeling of having come full circle. Yet another moment was on her mind as the auditory craziness swirled over her while Richaud, whom Tennell calls “a commanding presence,” was trying to keep her calm by repeating things he had told her earlier this season, when her return to competition had been fraught with poor performances.

Tennell was thinking about the 2019 Nationals in Detroit, when she had won the short program but coped poorly with an unexpected distraction before the free skate.

“I couldn’t get my focus back after that,” she said.

The result was a desultory fourth in the free skate, second overall and a pledge to learn from it.

“I’ve always said to myself if that happened again, I would handle it better,” she recalled.

And she did.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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2023 Australian Open men’s singles draw, scores

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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At the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic can win a men’s record-extending 10th Australian Open title and tie Rafael Nadal for the most men’s major singles titles in history.

Djokovic was PointsBet Sportsbook’s pre-tournament favorite despite being seeded fourth after missing last year’s Australian Open and U.S. Open because of his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

He now faces No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in Sunday’s final, also with the No. 1 ranking on the line. Tsitsipas made his fifth Grand Slam semifinal and second final, still seeking his first major title. Every other man in the Open Era (since 1968) to make it to both of those rounds that many times has won a Slam except Todd Martin.

Djokovic’s stock in Melbourne rose after Nadal, the defending champion and top seed, was injured and ousted in the second round by American Mackenzie McDonald. The next day, the No. 2 seed, Norwegian Casper Ruud, was knocked out by American Jenson Brooksby.

Djokovic won three consecutive Australian Opens after a fourth-round defeat in 2018. He is bidding to move one shy of the overall record 11 Australian Open singles titles held by Margaret Court and become the second man to win any major 10 times.

The other man to do it is of course Nadal, who owns 14 French Open crowns. Nadal also owns the men’s record 22 Grand Slam singles titles overall, just one ahead of Djokovic.

Last year, Nadal won the Australian Open on the heels of a chronic foot injury that had him questioning coming back to tennis at all. He also overcame foot problems to win the French Open, then reach the Wimbledon semifinals before withdrawing with an abdominal muscle tear.

Starting with his U.S. Open fourth-round defeat, Nadal went 1-6 in his seven matches leading into the Australian Open. He beat Jack Draper in the first round this year, but was swept by McDonald amid a hip injury in the second round.

This is the first Australian Open since Roger Federer‘s retirement. Also missing: the injured world No. 1 and U.S. Open champion Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, who at 19 became the youngest men’s Grand Slam champion since Nadal’s first title at the 2005 French Open.

MORE: Australian Open Women’s Draw

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2023 Australian Open Men’s Singles Draw

2023 Australian Open Men's Singles Draw 2023 Australian Open Men's Singles Draw 2023 Australian Open Men's Singles Draw 2023 Australian Open Men's Singles Draw