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Ragan Smith leads U.S. women in gymnastics worlds qualifying

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MONTREAL — With words of advice from Aly Raisman, four U.S. women began the new Olympic cycle by qualifying for world gymnastics championships finals Wednesday night.

“She texted all of us today, we were in a group chat,” said Ragan Smith, who qualified second into Friday’s all-around final at the 1976 Olympic Stadium. “She said have fun, show off, just do what you do in training and trust your training.”

It helped.

“It always helps,” said Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate. “At Olympic Trials, whenever I was there, she always calmed me down and stuff and cheered for me. She was the leader of the five girls [captain of the Olympic team]. She always helped every single one of us.”

Smith and Morgan Hurd led the way Wednesday, qualifying second and sixth into the all-around final.

WORLDS: All women’s finals qualifiers

Smith, the U.S. all-around champion in August, fell off the balance beam but was otherwise fairly clean. She also had the top floor exercise score.

Smith scored 55.932 overall, one thousandth of a point behind Japanese leader Mai Murakami.

“I had a few mistakes, but pretty good,” Smith said. “I don’t really care about the scores right now.”

Hurd, who was sixth at the P&G Championships in August while coming back from elbow surgery, scored 54.832.

She also qualified second into the balance beam final but put her knee down on a floor exercise pass. She beamed afterward.

“It’s a big, glowing orb inside me,” said Hurd, a 16-year-old in her first year a senior gymnast.

Everyone starts from zero in the finals.

Ashton Locklear, also an Olympic alternate, and Jade Carey, in her first year as an elite gymnast, made the eight-woman uneven bars and vault finals Saturday, respectively. 

Carey also qualified third into Sunday’s floor final with Smith, while Hurd is in the beam final.

The Americans, with no Olympic experience, are competing against a new international field.

Zero Rio Olympic champions are in the finals, with most of the gold medalists taking the year off, including every member of the Final Five.

Romanian Larisa Iordache, perhaps the closest woman to a rival to Simone Biles in the last Olympic cycle, tore her Achilles in warm-up and withdrew.

Iordache entered as a co-favorite with Smith. Smith competed a few hours after Iordache and was unaware that her biggest threat was already out.

Now, Smith has an even greater chance of extending the U.S. run of Olympic and world all-around titles dating to 2011 (Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles).

Locklear, who was edged out for an Olympic spot by Madison Kocian, scored 14.566 on uneven bars.

She qualified sixth into that final, which includes China’s Fan Yilin, who was part of a four-way tie for gold in 2015.

On vault, Carey soared on her Amanar, taking one big step on the landing, and averaged 14.849 for the two vaults.

Only one woman outscored her in qualifying, reigning world champ Maria Paseka of Russia.

Uzbekistan’s Oksana Chusovitina, who last year became the oldest female Olympic gymnast ever at 41, was the eighth and last qualifier into the vault final.

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WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule | ScoresWomen to Watch | Men to Watch

Punahou, Barack Obama’s school, produced Olympic talent in 4 sports

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Some high schools have a swimming tradition. Others produce great ice hockey or water polo players. The Punahou School in Honolulu, private and K-12, is best known for a student who also played basketball — its most famous graduate, Barack Obama.

Also this: Dating to Obama’s tenure in 1976, at least one Punahou student went on to make the last 11 U.S. Summer Olympic teams.

And with the addition of skateboarding and surfing to the Olympic program, there are former Punahou students among the best in the country in four different Olympic sports, plus another Paralympic sport.

“One of my favorite things about going to Punahou was that I felt like I was surrounded by a lot of excellence,” said Carissa Moore, the reigning world champion in surfing and a Punahou grad. “A lot of my friends are some of the smartest girls, women. … The whole school, everyone is doing something.”

Moore, 27, qualified for the U.S. Olympic team with her fourth world title last year. Heimana Reynolds is the reigning world champ in park skateboarding.

Brothers Taylor and Trevor Crabb are on different beach volleyball teams ranked among the top three in the country. Erik Shoji is a veteran libero and Micah Ma’a a promising setter and outside hitter for the U.S. indoor volleyball team.

Shelby Baron is a Rio Paralympic wheelchair tennis player who is now ranked third in the country.

It’s possible that they could all qualify for the Tokyo Games, which have been postponed to summer 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Punahou, whose name means “the New Spring,” referencing renewal and a spring at the center of the campus, bills itself as the largest single-campus independent school in the U.S. and reportedly the oldest west of the Mississippi.

It was founded in 1841 with a first class of 15 students who were children of congregational missionaries. Now, it has more than 3,700. Annual tuition is $26,000, though there are financial aid options.

“This used to be an elite school, you know. Mostly rich. Predominantly Caucasian,” said Eric Kusunoki, who was Obama’s homeroom teacher for four years as part of his four decades working at Punahou. “But then when I stepped foot here, I said, wow, you know, it’s so diverse. Hawaii’s golden people, you know.

“It’s [a] very cosmopolitan campus and very reflective of what Hawaii is like.”

The school has been compared to Stanford. Sports Illustrated ranked it the No. 1 high school athletic program in 2008, replete with an eight-page magazine spread, and again in 2009. The magazine deemed it a “76-acre citadel of academic and athletic excellence where Aristotle meets Duke Kahanamoku.”

Kahanamoku, the Olympic swimming champion and surfing pioneer, never attended Punahou.

But several famous athletes are among the alumni. Like Michelle Wie, Manti Te’o and Obama, who played one season of varsity basketball on the Buff n’ Blue’s 1979 state title team.

In fact, Obama wrote in his autobiography that the lure of Punahou helped keep him in the States with his grandparents rather than flying back to Indonesia with his mom.

Obama, needing a financial aid scholarship to attend, toured the campus with his grandfather before the fifth grade. “Gramps grabbed me by the arm. ‘Hell, Bar,’ he whispered, ‘this isn’t a school. This is heaven,’” Obama wrote.

“He wasn’t a big standout,” Kusunoki said of the student they called Barry. “But yet everybody knew him. He was well-liked, well-known, but he did it real subtly.”

Others followed Obama with athletic success. Reynolds was a skateboard prodigy, profiled by the local NBC affiliate as a 10-year-old before leaving Punahou after 10th grade. He switched to online classes to accommodate all his traveling for competition.

Skateboarding and surfing are not sanctioned high school sports in Hawaii. Moore still won a record 11 National Scholastic Surfing Association titles. In her spare time, she was such a convincing tour guide for prospective Punahou students that admissions officers called her “The Closer,” according to SI.

“I have heard this,” Moore said, smiling when told the nickname. “It wasn’t really ever a big thing for me, but yes, I would bring potential prospects that would come to the school and stuff and give them tours.

“It’s just a beautiful environment to learn. It’s a very comfortable, free environment. The best part of this community is they’re going to support you in chasing your dreams.”

Moore said she was classmates with Taylor Crabb, one half of the U.S.’ top-ranked men’s beach volleyball team. Taylor’s mom, Paula, a champion canoe racer, has been a Punahou P.E. teacher since Obama was there. Taylor and partner Jake Gibb have been competing against Taylor’s older brother, Trevor, and Tri Bourne for Olympic beach volleyball berths.

It’s possible both Crabb brothers, who grew up a five-minute walk from the Punahou campus, can make it to Tokyo.

“Whenever someone says, oh, I went to Punahou, the first thing someone says is, oh, it’s where Barack Obama went,” said Trevor, who won a state basketball title and goes back to campus about once a year to see the old gym.

Shoji’s father, Dave, was the University of Hawaii’s women’s volleyball coach for 42 years, capturing four national titles and retiring in 2017 as the winningest coach in NCAA history. Ma’a won four state titles in volleyball at Punahou and others in football and basketball. At 22 and fresh out of UCLA, he was the second-youngest U.S. player at the 2019 Volleyball Nations League.

Both Trevor Crabb and Moore said you wouldn’t know it by walking around campus that Obama once roamed the grounds. He contributed to just one of a reported 505 state championships in the school’s history, a record for any state.

“There’s nothing up there yet,” of the 44th U.S. President, Moore said, “but it’s definitely something the school is very proud of.”

MORE: Hockey field to hospital ward: Olympian’s life amid coronavirus pandemic

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IOC, sport federations in talks about Tokyo Olympic age rules

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The International Olympic Committee and Olympic sport federations hope to finalize any adjustments to age rules for the Tokyo Games within the next two weeks.

Two sports’ rules stand out in particular.

Since the 2000 Sydney Games, an age minimum in artistic gymnastics requires female Olympians to turn 16 years old or older in the Olympic year (men must turn 18, though the age rule is less of a factor for top male gymnasts). As such, Tokyo Olympic eligibility rules state all female artistic gymnasts must be born Dec. 31, 2004, or earlier.

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) can choose to keep the Dec. 31, 2004, deadline. Or it could keep the 16 or older mandate by moving that date to Dec. 31, 2005 for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. The federation hasn’t announced its plan.

Its decision could impact U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team selection. At least one woman who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year made the last 10 U.S. Olympic teams. That includes Kyla Ross, the 2011 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist who made the 2012 Olympic team. And Laurie Hernandez, the 2015 U.S. junior all-around champion who made the 2016 Olympic team.

The 2019 U.S. junior all-around champion, Kayla DiCello, turned 16 on Jan. 25. The 2019 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist, Konnor McClain, turns 16 on Feb. 1, 2021. Under the 2020 Olympic eligibility rules, McClain is 32 days too young for the Tokyo Games. If the birthdate deadline is moved one year forward, McClain would be eligible.

Another sport facing an age decision: men’s soccer. Olympic men’s soccer tournaments are limited to players who turn 23 or younger in the Olympic year with three over-age exceptions. Similar to the FIG, FIFA can keep its 2020 deadline of Jan. 1, 1997. Or it can keep its under-23 mandate and move the birthdate deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

“You can imagine there’s a logic to looking at that, having the same athletes or teams that achieved the qualification place to be the ones taking part next year, but aiming to confirm that with the respective federations,” IOC sports director Kit McConnell said Thursday.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, was born Sept. 18, 1998, and thus will be unaffected. Same goes for French superstar Kylian Mbappe, born Dec. 20, 1998.

Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus was born April 3, 1997, and would become an over-age exception if the birthdate rule is moved to Jan. 1, 1998.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

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