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Oleg Verniaiev: I can beat Kohei Uchimura

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MONTREAL — Those 100 seconds in Rio had to be agonizing for Oleg Verniaiev.

The Ukrainian gymnast, after taking a critical step on his high bar dismount, waited and waited as judges tabulated his score for the final event of the Olympic all-around last year.

The crowd could have chewed nails wondering if Verniaiev would end Kohei Uchimura‘s seven-year reign atop the sport.

Turns out, Verniaiev wasn’t as optimistic.

“I knew that I will be the second [place], but still I had hope,” Verniaiev remembered in an interview Monday, via translator. “I was hoping.”

When Verniaiev’s score came up, Uchimura’s mom fainted in the stands.

Uchimura, who trailed Verniaiev by .901 going into the final rotation, outscored the leader by a full point. The Nagasaki native won by .099 to become the first gymnast to repeat as Olympic all-around champion in 44 years.

A year later, Verniaiev gets another shot at Uchimura at the world championships at the 1976 Olympic Stadium.

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Verniaiev was shaky in qualifying Monday. Out of bounds on floor exercise. A gigantic hop on his high bar landing.

Verniaiev didn’t even have the top qualifying score in his group. Cuban Manrique Larduet, the 2015 World silver medalist, was 1.268 points better.

“In principle, I thought that it could be worse,” said Verniaiev, who wished he had more competitions this season before worlds to work into peak shape. “But at the end of the day it’s not that bad.”

Verniaiev also said that he was better prepared for the Rio Olympics (and in better form) than any other competition in his life.

Still, he’s not ceding anything to Uchimura, who goes through qualifying Monday night ahead of Thursday’s final.

Uchimura, 28, is trying to become the oldest Olympic or world all-around champion in more than 50 years.

“If I accomplish my program so that my coach says everything is ideal, I know that I can beat him,” Verniaiev said. “If I will make mistakes, then it’s life.”

In Rio, Verniaiev could have joined some who cried foul over the scoring. Instead, he praised Uchimura in the post-event press conference, calling him the Michael Phelps of gymnastics.

The Ukrainian began doing gymnastics in kindergarten, sent to the sport by his parents as an outlet for overwhelming energy.

It wasn’t always easy in Ukraine. As recently as a month before 2015 Worlds, national team members didn’t have proper equipment to train floor exercise.

Verniaiev, who turned 23 on Friday, seemingly has plenty more opportunities for all-around gold. But few against the aging Uchimura, who may give up the all-around before the Tokyo Olympics to focus on one or two individual events.

Given that, how much would it mean for Verniaiev to end Uchimura’s reign in Montreal?

“To win this gold medal means, to me, to become a legend,” he said. “Kohei, of course, is a legend. There are not many such gymnasts in the world, but I’ll try to do something and be the first one.”

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Shelby Houlihan shatters American 5000m record

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Shelby Houlihan chopped 10.52 seconds off her own American 5000m record, clocking 14:23.92 at a Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet in Portland, Ore., on Friday night.

Houlihan, who was 11th in the Rio Olympic 5000m, has in this Olympic cycle improved to become one of the greatest female distance runners in U.S. history.

She first broke Shannon Rowbury‘s American record in the 5000m by 4.47 seconds in 2018. In 2019, she broke Rowbury’s American record in the 1500m by 1.3 seconds in finishing fourth at the world championships in 3:54.99.

On Friday, Houlihan and second-place Karissa Schweizer both went under the American record. Schweizer, 24 and three years younger than Houlihan, clocked 14:26.34, staying with Houlihan until the winner’s 61-second final lap.

“I knew Karissa was going to try to come up on me and take the lead. She does that every time,” Houlihan told USATF.tv. “I had decided I was not going to let that happen.”

Houlihan improved from 41st to 12th on the world’s all-time 5000m list, 12.77 seconds behind Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba‘s world record.

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Can T.J. Oshie, other established Olympic hockey stars hold on for 2022?

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T.J. Oshie will be 35 years old during the next Winter Olympics. Jonathan Quick will be 36. Now that the NHL is one key step closer to returning to the Winter Games, the question surfaces: which 2014 Olympians will have a difficult time returning to rosters in 2022?

Oshie was the last of the 14 forwards chosen for the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, beating out Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad, in part for his shootout prowess.

In group play against Russia, Oshie was memorably tapped by U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma six times in a shootout, including all five in the sudden-death rounds. Oshie beat Sergei Bobrovsky four times, including the game winner.

“After I went out for my third attempt, I figured I was going to keep going,” Oshie said, according to USA Hockey. “Each time I would look up to see what [Bylsma] had to say, and he would just give me a nod every time. I kind of started laughing toward shot five and six because it was getting kind of ridiculous.”

Oshie became known as “T.J. Sochi” on social media. President Barack Obama congratulated him on Twitter. The U.S. eventually lost to Canada in the semifinals and Finland in the bronze-medal game.

When the NHL chose not to send its players to the PyeongChang Winter Games, it may have spelled the end of Oshie’s Olympic career.

Consider that the oldest forward on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team was 29, six years younger than Oshie will be come 2022. A recent Olympic roster prediction from The Hockey Writers put Oshie in the “Just Missed Out” list.

NBC Sports NHL analyst Pierre McGuire has Oshie among the finalists for the last forward spots in his early U.S. roster prediction.

“I wouldn’t discount T.J. Oshie because shootout is still part of it,” McGuire said. “He still has his shootout moves, even though he’s not getting any younger.”

Quick, the unused third goalie in 2010, played 305 out of 365 minutes in net for the U.S. in Sochi. He was coming off a Stanley Cup in 2012 and en route to another one in 2014.

Since, he was sidelined by a knee injury that required surgery. He remains the Los Angeles Kings’ No. 1 goalie, which almost automatically puts an American in the Olympic roster discussion these days.

“Somebody like Jonathan definitely merits consideration just because of his achievement level over time, but I think he’d be the first person to tell you injuries have definitely affected him,” McGuire said of Quick, looking to become the second-oldest U.S. goalie to play in the Olympics after Tom Barrasso in 2002. “It’s not going to be easy for him.”

The U.S. could bypass Quick for three Olympic rookies in 2022. Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson and Ben Bishop have superior save percentages and goals-against averages and more games played than Quick since the start of the 2018-19 season.

A wild card is Spencer Knight, the 19-year-old No. 1 from the world junior championships who last year became the highest-drafted goalie since 2010 (No. 13 to the Florida Panthers). Knight would break defenseman Bryan Berard‘s record as the youngest U.S. Olympic hockey player in the NHL era.

The Canadian roster has traditionally been deeper than the U.S. The talent is overwhelming at center, led by Sidney CrosbyConnor McDavidPatrice Bergeron and Nathan MacKinnon. The Canadians must get creative if the likes of veterans Jonathan Toews and John Tavares will join them in Beijing.

Toews, then 21, was the best forward at the 2010 Vancouver Games and Canada’s only one on the all-tournament team. While Toews’ last NHL All-Star selection was in 2017, his last two seasons have been his best in terms of points per game since 2011.

“The one thing that Canada is very good at, they do it extremely well, they select players that fit roles,” McGuire said, noting Mike Richards shifting to the wing during the 2010 Olympics. “When you look at the overwhelming depth that Canada has, that’s going to be the thing that’s going that’s going to be very interesting to watch to see how it plays out at center.”

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