U.S. men’s gymnastics team hits reset at P&G Championships

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The sprawling sleeve of tattoos running down Alex Naddour‘s left arm is unmissable. The American flag on the shoulder. The Olympic rings running down the inside of his forearm. They serve as a testament to the Olympic bronze medalist’s passion and his longevity.

Oh and if they happen to send a message to the sea of new faces the national team captain finds himself surrounded by these days, all the better.

At 26, Naddour admits he’s “kind of the old guy,” and he’s not wrong. The core of the 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams are hurt, retired or both. Jonathan Horton. Jake Dalton. Danell Leyva. John Orozco. Chris Brooks. All have moved on.

Four-time national champion Sam Mikulak is recovering from his second major Achilles injury. Donnell Whittenburg is searching to regain the form that made him an all-around finalist at the 2015 World Championships.

Naddour isn’t exactly healthy, either, just six months removed from an arm issue he suffered at a meet in February that will limit him to just pommel horse and rings when the P&G Championships begin on Thursday night.

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That’s fine. Naddour still has time. He’s well aware that he’s a bridge of sorts between the old generation and the next one.

“I want these guys to feel what we felt [when we came up],” Naddour said. “We looked up to those guys [before us] and hopefully these guys look up to me because I’m team captain. Hopefully they take what I have to say seriously and take my experience seriously to help them get ready for what they need to get ready for.”

Namely, returning the U.S. to international prominence. While the women’s program has become a podium-hogging machine over the last decade, the men have struggled with inconsistency. They finished fifth in the team finals in both 2012 and 2016.

Though there have been flashes of individual success — like Leyva’s bronze in the all-around in London and Naddour’s bronze on pommel horse in Rio — the Americans have been on a treadmill, one that cost national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika his job last fall.

Enter Brett McClure. The 2004 Olympic team silver medalist was appointed the “high performance director” in February and charged with providing a needed jolt. Consider the message received.

“He’s the type of person that’s not going to beat around the bush,” Whittenburg said. “If something is bothering him, he’s going to let you know straight up. If there’s a problem, how do we fix it? I feel like the last couple [Olympic cycles] I felt we were missing that stern leadership. Sometimes you can’t be the nice guy all the time.”

The men have borrowed a page from former women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi‘s playbook. Training camps are now treated more like competitions, with members of the national team and world championship teams flown in to watch. The goal is creating a more competitive environment.

“You’re saluting, and it’s like you’re at championships, so you have to do your best,” Naddour said. “It’s going to help the national team grow a lot quicker and adjust in those pressure situations.”

Good, because they’re coming. Even if Naddour, Mikulak and Whittenburg all make the world championships roster when it’s released after Saturday night’s competition, it leaves three spots for newcomers. No pressure or anything.

Yul Moldauer captured the AT&T American Cup in March, beating a field that included Olympic silver medalist Oleg Verniaiev. Akash Modi served as an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team and won the NCAA all-around title for Stanford this spring. Allan Bower and Eddie Penev are also in the mix.

The lights will come on. It’s time to get a gauge on how the strategic plan put in place after an underwhelming team performance in the Olympics is working.

“If the whole world watches this competition and is like, `we’ve got them,’ then boo us,” said Mikulak, who will compete on pommel horse and high bar. “The world doesn’t know what’s going on with USA Gymnastics until we show ourselves in this competition. I hope everyone competing has a good performance to show the world that we’re not as weak as we look to them.”

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Too early to say whether virus threatens Olympics, WHO says

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GENEVA (AP) — Despite a virus outbreak spreading from China, a top World Health Organization official said Tuesday it’s much too soon to say whether the Tokyo Olympics are at risk of being cancelled or moved.

Tokyo organizers and the International Olympic Committee have repeatedly said they have no contingency plans for the July 24-Aug. 9 Summer Games since the WHO declared a global health emergency last month.

The U.N. agency’s emergencies program director, Michael Ryan, said Tuesday the sporting event was “way too far” away to consider giving advice that would affect Tokyo’s hosting of the Olympics.

“We are not there to make a decision for that,” Ryan told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a news conference at WHO headquarters.

Geneva-based WHO has been in regular contact with the IOC in nearby Lausanne since the virus known as COVID-19 emerged in December.

“We don’t give them judgments,” Ryan said. “We assist them with their risk assessment. We will be working closely with them in the coming weeks and months.”

The death toll in mainland China due to the virus rose to almost 1,900 on Tuesday, with more than 72,000 confirmed cases.

The outbreak has caused numerous sports events in China to be canceled, postponed, or moved, including qualifying events for the Tokyo Olympics.

Chinese athletes and teams have also been unable to travel for some competitions. China sent a team of more than 400 athletes to the Rio Olympics. It won 70 medals, including 26 gold, to place second in total medal standings.

Around 11,000 athletes and many more team coaches and officials from more than 200 national teams are expected in Japan for the Olympics.

Japan has experienced the most significant outbreak of the virus outside of China, on the cruise ship Diamond Princess docked in quarantine at Yokohama in Tokyo Bay.

During a 14-day isolation that ends Wednesday, 542 cases have been identified among more than 3,700 passengers and crew.

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For Mike Eruzione, Al Michaels, it’s no miracle that 1980 Olympics endure

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Mike Eruzione has been reminded on a daily basis about the Miracle on Ice for nearly four decades. While playing celebrity golf tournaments. At speaking engagements. Or that time he auctioned his jersey and stick from the Soviet game to a 9-year-old boy named Seven.

Eruzione, now 65, likes to open conversations with one anecdote about meeting strangers, which he repeated in a call with reporters last week.

“The stories I hear, 40 years later, it’s depending on their age — I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated, I remember where I was on 9/11. I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up. And I remember where I was when we won,” Eruzione said. “And I always say, ‘We? I didn’t know you were on the team.’

“But people felt a part of it. … It’s nice to know that people remember and share some great stories about what we did so long ago.”

The captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team owns a last name that means “eruption” in Italian. Eruzione scored the decisive goal in the U.S.’ 4-3 win over the Soviet Union en route to a shock gold medal during the Cold War in Lake Placid, N.Y.

NBCSN airs a 30-minute special marking the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice on Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. ET. It will feature a conversation between Olympic primetime host Mike Tirico and Al Michaels, the play-by-play voice of the game dubbed by Sports Illustrated the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.

Eruzione has grandchildren now. Three of them skate at the Mike Eruzione Center in his hometown of Winthrop, Mass.

“They don’t even know who Mike Eruzione is,” Eruzione said of the 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds, “but they know about the Miracle.”

All credit to the U.S. Olympic team of 20 players between ages 19 and 25, back when the NHL did not participate in the Olympics. The Soviets were essentially a team of professionals. The nation won the previous four Olympics and throttled the U.S. 10-3 in a pre-Olympic exhibition at Madison Square Garden.

Enter Michaels, calling hockey at the Lake Placid Winter Games alongside Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden. Michaels, then 35, said he was assigned the sport because he had the most hockey experience on the ABC Olympic talent roster — one game. He called the 1972 Olympic hockey final by himself.

Feb. 22, 1980: As the U.S. led the Soviet Union 4-3 and the final seconds ticked down, one word came to mind: miraculous.

“It got morphed into a question and quick answer, and away we went,” Michaels said.

Eruzione said he didn’t learn of Michaels’ call — “Do you believe in Miracles? Yes!” — until two weeks after the Olympics. He didn’t watch the game broadcast until years later.

“I never thought it was a miracle, but it was a catchy phrase and it sounded right,” Eruzione said, noting he preferred Michaels’ call in the final comeback win over Finland to clinch the gold: “This impossible dream comes true.”

Team members since gathered often — to light the 2002 Olympic cauldron in Salt Lake City, for fantasy camps in Lake Placid and for coach Herb Brooks‘ 2003 funeral. Eighteen of the 20 players are scheduled to reunite this weekend in Las Vegas.

Absent will be Mark Pavelich, who was jailed last year on assault charges and ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial. And Bob Suter, who died in 2014 of a heart attack at age 57.

It was Suter’s death that motivated Eruzione and others to commemorate the 35th anniversary together in Lake Placid. It was believed to be the first time all living players were together in Lake Placid since the 1980 Winter Games.

Eruzione said that the 2004 film “Miracle” introduced the team to a new generation. Now at many of his speeches, the majority of Eruzione’s audience was born after 1980.

“I’ll say, how many people watched the movie ‘Miracle,’ and almost everybody raises their hand,” he said. “So I think what the movie did for us as a team was kind of rejuvenated our team as far as people knowing who we were and what we are and what we were about.”

NFL coaches set up “Miracle” viewings for their teams before games. Michael Phelps watched it for motivation at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Phelps told relay teammates, “This is our time,” before they beat rival Australia. An ode to Brooks’ pregame speech before the Soviet game.

Michaels, whose 13-year-old grandson won an October hockey tournament in Lake Placid, said he watched “Miracle” last week for the first time in about a decade. He helped do voiceovers in production more than 15 years ago, though the original Lake Placid audio was used for his signature call.

“The great thing is, in a way, when you watch it back or you watch highlights back, you almost become like in the third person, like somebody else is doing this and announcing this game,” Michaels said. “I exult the way I think most of the country did and do when they see highlights of it. So it’s kind of an out-of-body experience in a way, but it’s a beautiful thing.”

After Eruzione shared his tale of strangers’ memories, Michaels added one of his own.

“One of my favorite stories is Mike Eruzione calling me maybe eight to 10 years ago and saying, ‘The greatest thing about this is every time I come home and maybe I’m a little down, I need a little pick-me-up, I’ll put the tape in,'” Michaels said. “‘Every time I shoot, the puck goes in. It will forever.'”

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