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Five female gymnasts to watch at world championships

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Female gymnasts to watch at the world championships, which begin with qualifying Tuesday, followed by the all-around final Friday and apparatus finals on Saturday and Sunday in Montreal (no team event) … 

Ragan Smith, U.S.
P&G Championships All-Around Champion
AT&T American Cup Champion

Leader of the U.S. team of four that includes zero Olympians, a first at worlds since 2007. Hopes rest on the 17-year-old coached by 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal Burdette to extend a U.S. streak of six straight all-around golds (Jordyn WieberGabby Douglas and Simone Biles four times).

With none of the Olympic all-around medalists returning, it would be no surprise if Smith does take gold. She won the U.S. all-around title by a whopping 3.4 points (greater than Biles’ average winning margin). Her title at the American Cup came despite a fall. Could challenge for beam and floor exercise medals, too.

Larisa Iordache, Romania
2014 World All-Around Silver Medalist
2015 World All-Around Bronze Medalist

The best gymnast to not compete in the Olympics last year. Romania, which earned team medals at every Olympics from 1976 through 2012, failed to qualify a full team for Rio. The nation was allowed one gymnast, and the federation chose triple 2004 Olympic champion Catalina Ponor over Iordache, who was coming off a broken finger.

Iordache finished fourth, second and third in the three world championships all-arounds won by Biles in the last Olympic cycle. She came back last month to win the World University Games all-around over a field that included Rio fifth-place finisher Ellie Black. She is Smith’s biggest competition Friday.

MORE: World Champs broadcast schedule | Male gymnasts to watch

Sanne Wevers, Netherlands
Olympic Balance Beam Champion
World Balance Beam Silver Medalist

The only woman to win gold over Biles in Rio. Wevers, a 25-year-old twin, became the oldest female Olympic gymnastics champion since 1968 with her surprise beam title. As the only returning Rio medalist, Wevers would seem a medal favorite, but she was fifth at the European Championships in April.

Maria Paseka, Russia
Two Olympic Vault Medals: Silver in Rio, Bronze in London
World Vault Champion

The only woman at worlds who earned medals at each of the last two Olympics. Paseka is a vault specialist. It’s the only apparatus Russia used her for at the Rio Games, where she was coming off a back injury. Though Biles and vault star Hong Un-Jong of North Korea won’t be at worlds, Paseka’s medal hopes are uncertain. She was fourth at the European Championships and third at the World University Games.

Oksana Chusovitina, Uzbekistan
Two Olympic Medals: 1992, 2008
Oldest Female Olympic Gymnast Ever — 41 in Rio

The great Chusovitina debuted at worlds in 1991, winning gold with the Soviet Union team. She has since competed at a record seven Olympics with three different teams — Unified Team, Germany and Uzbekistan — and an eighth is not out of the question. Chusovitina has long focused on vault, where she won 10 Olympic or world medals, the most recent in 2011. However, Chusovitina last qualified for the eight-woman vault final at worlds in 2013.

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MORE: U.S. names women’s gymnastics team for world champs

Alex Zanardi, auto racer turned Paralympic champion, has 5-hour surgery to rebuild face after crash

Alex Zanardi
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SIENA, Italy (AP) — Italian auto racing champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi underwent a five-hour surgery Monday to reconstruct his face following a crash on his handbike last month.

It was the third major operation that Zanardi has had since he crashed into an oncoming truck near the Tuscan town of Pienza on June 19 during a relay event.

Dr. Paolo Gennaro of Santa Maria alle Scotte Hospital in Siena said the operation required three-dimensional digital and computerized technology that was “made to measure” for Zanardi.

“The complexity of the case was fairly unique, although this is a type of fracture that we deal with routinely,” Gennaro said in a hospital statement.

After the surgery, Zanardi was returned to the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma.

“His condition remains stable in terms of his cardio-respiratory status and grave in terms of his neurological status,” the hospital medical bulletin read.

The 53-year-old Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in an auto racing crash nearly 20 years ago, has been on a ventilator since the crash.

Zanardi suffered serious facial and cranial trauma, and doctors have warned of possible brain damage.

Zanardi won four gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. He also competed in the New York City Marathon and set an Ironman record in his class.

Last month, Pope Francis penned a handwritten letter of encouragement assuring Zanardi and his family of his prayers. The pope praised Zanardi as an example of strength amid adversity.

Shawn Johnson East shares struggles with body image, prescription drugs

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Shawn Johnson East, a 2008 Olympic gymnastics champion, detailed past struggles with body image and prescription drugs and reflected on her eating disorder as an elite athlete, to show there is hope to others in difficult situations.

“It all started with pregnancy and having my daughter,” East, who had daughter Drew in October, said on TODAY on Monday. “I had so many people asking me questions about how did pregnancy affect you mentally and how did you get your body back after having your daughter. I couldn’t answer that without giving a greater and a larger story.”

East first went public about her undiagnosed teenage eating disorders in 2015, three years after retiring from the sport. She said she limited herself to 700 calories per day and didn’t tell her parents.

In a June YouTube video, Johnson said she also binged and purged, including while dating future husband Andrew in the mid-2010s. And that she had depression and anxiety in 2011, when she returned to competition for the first time since the Beijing Games.

“I thought it would fix all of my problems,” East said of returning to gymnastics for a 2012 Olympic bid.

When East won “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009, she “hit a very low spot” going through puberty on national TV. She said she gained 15 pounds after the 2008 Olympics and started taking medications and drugs “to look like I did at the Olympics.” It included fad diets, diuretics and a three-week stretch of eating nothing but raw vegetables.

“Most pain of my entire life because I couldn’t digest anything,” she said.

At some point in 2011, East began feeling burned out. She was back to eating too few calories and overtraining. An unnamed USA Gymnastics doctor prescribed her Adderall “to lose more weight, have more energy and be more successful in gymnastics.” She took “heavy doses.”

“It helped my performances, but there were massive consequences to it,” she said. “I continued to compete into 2012, where I just started to get depressed.

“I was overdosing on Adderall. I was overdosing on any medication that wouldn’t be caught by USADA.”

Adderall was a banned substance in competition without a therapeutic use exemption, but was legal outside of competition.

“I was so controlled by other people’s opinions that I wouldn’t live up to that Olympic standard that I did anything to get it back and I could never have it back,” East said. “I didn’t learn that until later on.”

East’s mental hurdles re-emerged when she had a miscarriage in 2017. She blamed herself, believing her unhealthy lifestyle in the past was a contributor.

“Our natural inclination is to say, what did I do? And what did I do wrong?” she said. “It haunted me. I felt like I had sacrificed everything for an Olympic medal to not actually get the dream I had wanted my entire life [to have a child].”

With the help of a nutritionist and therapist and her husband, she conquered the demons through her 2019 pregnancy and childbirth.

“Having gone through a whole pregnancy and knowing that I felt confident through the whole thing, I feel like I’ve climbed Everest,” she said.

MORE: Why Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson went 8 years without talking

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