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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

Iran banned from judo for instructing athlete to withdraw rather than face Israel opponent

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Iran has been banned from international judo for instructing one of its athletes to withdraw from August’s world championships rather than face an Israeli judoka.

The International Judo Federation said Iran authorities instructing Saeid Mollaei to withdraw rather than face Israeli judoka Sagi Muki was “a serious breach and gross violation” of its code of ethics and the Olympic Charter.

IJF spokesman Vlad Marinescu said any ban won’t apply to the Tokyo Olympics. That’s because it’s the Iranian Olympic Committee, not the Iranian Judo Federation, which formally enters the Olympic team.

“We have been informed by IJF that they will launch a proper procedure giving all concerned parties the right to be heard,” an International Olympic Committee spokesperson said. “Should the issue become an Olympic issue we will take the result of this procedure into consideration.”

An IJF disciplinary commission said it “has a strong reason to believe that the Iran Judo Federation will continue or repeatedly engage in misconduct” given its history of similar actions with its athletes potentially facing Israelis.

Mollaei, a 2018 World champion, said he was afraid to return to Iran after disobeying those orders at worlds. He competed anyway but lost one round before a potential final with Muki.

“I want to compete wherever I can,” Mollaei said in a statement from the IJF. “I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.

“I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid.”

The IJF said it would help Mollaei prepare for next year’s Olympics, also in Tokyo. If Iran refuses to enter him, one option could be the International Olympic Committee-backed team of refugee athletes.

Iranian sports teams have for several decades had a policy of not competing against Israelis, which the country does not recognize. The IJF has said Iranians have thrown matches and used “questionable injuries” to avoid competing against Israelis.

Mollaei’s case came four months after judo officials hailed a breakthrough in relations with Iran, publishing a letter signed by Salehi Amiri pledging to “fully respect the Olympic charter and its non-discrimination principle.”

Back in August, Iranian Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar accused the IJF of trying to “create problems” with Mollaei, the IRNA news agency reported. He said Iran will send a protest letter to the IOC.

Iranian team manager Majid Zareian also criticized the IJF, saying “everything was set in advance to put Mollaei against a participant from (Israel).”

“They did not allow me to be present next to my athlete in exercise salon,” Zareian said. “After the competitions they changed hotel of Mollaei without my permission, against the regulations.”

He denied reports Iranian authorities had put pressure on Mollaei.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: Israel, judo federation hail letter from Iran; Tehran silent

Jacarra Winchester, after foe bites her, wins first wrestling world title

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Jacarra Winchester missed the Rio Olympic wrestling trials after tearing her knee playing soccer. She missed a medal at the 2018 World Championships after a semifinal-winning takedown was reversed.

There was no denying her on Wednesday.

Winchester, who picked up wrestling a decade ago as a high school junior, became the first American to earn a medal at the worlds in Kazakhstan this week. And it was gold.

She came back to beat Japanese Nanami Irie 5-3 in the final of the 55kg division, a weight class that is not on the Olympic program. Winchester must move to 53kg or 57kg next year.

But for now she can celebrate quite a journey. At 26, she’s one of the older wrestlers to become a first-time world champion. She believed she had what it took last year, when a reversed call kept her from the final and she subsequently lost a bronze-medal match.

Winchester, who has problems sleeping, said she replayed the end of that semifinal in her head ever since.

“There’s no reason why I should have gotten beat,” she said Wednesday. “Clearly I have what I need on the mat. I just need to change my mindset. … Just knowing you’re the best, pushing yourself and not letting anything get to me.”

That helped in Tuesday’s semifinals, where Winchester said her Turkish opponent bit her, pulled her hair and twisted her fingers. Winchester, who grew up in the Oakland, Calif., area, said that when she started wrestling she had no Olympic goals.

“I had a mindset of I’m not a quitter,” she said.

Earlier Wednesday, Adeline Gray reached Thursday’s 76kg final, where she will try to become the first American to earn five world titles.

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