Five men’s gymnasts to watch at P&G Championships

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It’s fair to say this week’s P&G Championships heralds a new era for U.S. men’s gymnastics.

In the last six months, four Olympians effectively announced retirements.

That came on the heels of a change in leadership for a program that followed silver in 2004 and bronze in 2008 with fifth-place finishes in 2012 and 2016.

Gone are Jacob DaltonJonathan HortonDanell Leyva and John Orozco, who each made two Olympic teams and combined for double-digit Olympic and world medals. At times, they led squads that challenged world powers China and Japan.

The U.S. goes into this Olympic cycle without that kind of expectation. Not yet, at least.

“I think it’s good for the U.S. team, to be perfectly honest,” NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett said of the lack of familiar faces this week. “It gives some of the younger guys an opportunity to really step up and not be completely in the shadows.”

The year after the Games is all about individual goals. There is no team event at October’s world championships in Montreal.

Six men will be named for worlds either late Saturday night, after competition wraps up, or Sunday. That team should include a new U.S. all-around champion.

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Sam Mikulak, who took the last four national titles, is expected to compete on one or two out of six events at P&Gs. The two-time Olympian is working his way back from February Achilles surgery.

The other Olympian in the field, Rio pommel horse bronze medalist Alex Naddour, is not expected to factor into the all-around. He may focus on horse and still rings.

Mikulak and Naddour can still make the world team without competing on every apparatus.

The all-around “is going to be a three-person race between Yul Moldauer, Akash Modi and Donnell Whittenburg,” Daggett said.

Five men to watch in Anaheim this week:

Sam Mikulak
Two-time Olympian
Four-time U.S. all-around champion

Mikulak, 24, returned to skills training a little more than two months ago. Last month, he competed on one event at a qualifier, falling off the pommel horse. Still, Daggett is confident he will be a contender on high bar and parallel bars come world championships, seeking his first individual medal.

“He’s going to be the same Sam, is my guess,” Daggett said. “I’m not that surprised [that he’s back five months after surgery]. I would have been really surprised if he goes and does floor [exercise] and vaulting [this week]. But to take landings, I would say it’s a very doable thing for him to be at this point.”

Alex Naddour
Rio Olympic pommel horse bronze medalist
Two-time world championships medalist

Naddour, the only Olympic medalist in this field, is expected to compete through this Olympic cycle and up to the Tokyo Games, when he will be 29 years old. That’s in part because of a change in Olympic roster makeup that will incorporate two athletes who compete strictly in individual events and not for the team. Naddour’s pommel horse prowess might be enough to get him to 2020.

Naddour eyes his fifth national title on pommel horse and potentially his first on still rings.

Donnell Whittenburg
Rio Olympic alternate
Two-time world championships medalist

Two years ago, the linebacker-built Whittenburg seemed poise to make the Olympic team. He was second to Mikulak at the 2015 P&G Championships and the top U.S. all-arounder at those world championships (eighth).

But Whittenburg dropped to fourth and fifth in the all-around at last year’s nationals and Olympic Trials, moving onto the Olympic team bubble. It burst, and he went to Rio as an alternate.

“He says he’s never going to let that happen again,” Daggett said. “As an athlete, physically, he’s mind-blowing. His biggest challenge is always going to come on both high bar and pommel horse.”

Yul Moldauer
2017 AT&T American Cup winner

The rising University of Oklahoma junior upset Olympic all-around silver medalist Oleg Vernyayev to win the AT&T American Cup on March 4 in his first top-level international meet.

“His gymnastics is as error-free as anybody doing gymnastics right now,” Daggett said. “There have been gymnasts that can do well in the United States, and they just don’t hold up as well on the international front. That’ll never be the case with Yul.”

Akash Modi
Rio Olympic alternate
2017 NCAA all-around champion

Modi and Moldauer have traded victories in head-to-head competitions this year. Modi, who just completed his Stanford career, has the degree of difficulty edge on his Oklahoma rival. It’s just a matter of how clean he can be.

But one wonders if either Moldauer or Modi would have been able to keep a fully healthy Mikulak from a fifth straight national title. Mikulak won all four of his crowns despite never hitting all 12 of his routines at the two-day meet.

“To a healthy and error-free Sam, no, they’re not at that level,” Daggett said. “To be perfectly honest, in my opinion, an error-free Sam, the only person that was really at his level was [Olympic all-around champion] Kohei Uchimura and Vernyayev, I would say — Sam never had a flawless competition, but if he had.”

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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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