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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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Ginny Fuchs hopes to emerge from OCD, tearful Olympic experience

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None of the boxers at this week’s U.S. Olympic Trials competed at a prior Olympics, but flyweight Ginny Fuchs remembers the specifics of her one Olympic experience in Rio.

Fuchs, who won the 2016 Olympic trials but failed to clinch a spot at the Games in international qualifiers, was nonetheless named team captain and brought to Rio as a sparring partner.

She had mixed feelings. Watching from the crowd as Claressa Shields repeated as Olympic champion on the final day of the Games was motivating. Fuchs had toyed with turning professional but, after talking to Shields, decided to forge another four years as an amateur for another chance to become an Olympian.

The Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony, two weeks before that Shields final, was too much for Fuchs to bear. She could not stay in the Athletes’ Village nor march with the U.S. delegation at the Maracana.

“I remember watching the Opening Ceremony at the place I was at with everybody,” she said. “I couldn’t watch. It was hard for me to watch. I went back to my room, cried and went to bed.”

Fuchs is favored to win the 51kg/112-pound division this week at Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Lake Charles, La., with finals streaming live on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday (4-7 p.m. ET). It’s one of five women’s Olympic weight classes, up from three in 2012 and 2016, the first two editions of the Games for female boxers.

No boxer can clinch an Olympic spot this week, but failing to make a final would all but end Tokyo hopes.

Fuchs’ toughest opponent in this Olympic cycle — which included an undefeated 2017 and a 2018 World bronze medal among more than 130 fights — may be herself. Fuchs has been open about struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It started in fifth grade.

“I can remember the first time I was on the school bus, and I was looking at the ground and looking at everybody’s backpacks on the floor,” said Fuchs, a 31-year-old from the Houston area. “And an instant thought came in mind, like, Oh my god. Everybody’s backpack is getting contaminated by this dirty floor on the bus.”

She cited a more recent example: spending up to 40 minutes washing her hands searching for that “perfect clean feeling.” Fuchs found boxing via a boyfriend after she was kicked off the LSU cross-country running team as a freshman walk-on for damaging school property in a prank.

She said the disorder hit her hardest this year. In January, she was driving to a Walmart three times a day to buy cleaning supplies, according to The New York Times.

She underwent intensive therapy and skipped October’s world championships, where she could have established herself as a clear Olympic gold-medal favorite.

“I still am going to probably do therapy for the rest of my life,” Fuchs said. “Maybe not as intense as I’m doing it right now, but it’s almost like training for boxing.

“You’ve got to keep training to keep winning in boxing. So I’ve got to keep training my OCD thoughts and how to handle and manage it. … Boxing is giving me hope almost. Like OK, outside the ring and in my room and the bathroom, I feel like [OCD] controls me and feel trapped. But I have this environment in this space in the gym, in the boxing ring, where I can be myself. And not let it attack me in a way where I can still enjoy life and not be trapped.”

Should Fuchs make the final of her division in Lake Charles, she will advance to a January camp and tournament, after which the U.S. roster for Olympic qualifying will be named.

If selected, Fuchs would head to a North and South American Olympic qualifying event in early spring in Buenos Aires to clinch the spot she could not secure four years ago. If necessary, she could get a second chance at a global qualifier in May in Paris.

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Yulia Efimova has lawyer ready if Russia ban affects her

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Yulia Efimova, the Russian swimmer who earned two Rio Olympic silver medals after initially being excluded from the Games for serving a prior doping ban, is bracing for another legal fight after the latest sanctions against her nation.

On Monday, Russia was banned from the 2020 and 2022 Olympics and the next four years of world championships in Olympic sports due to more recent anti-doping violations. However, its athletes can still compete as neutrals, if meeting specific anti-doping criteria, similar to how they did at the PyeongChang Winter Games.

Efimova was initially barred from the Rio Olympics under an IOC mandate that any Russian who previously served a doping ban would be ineligible due to the country’s anti-doping violations at that time.

Efimova appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which ruled that IOC stipulation unenforceable. She went on to earn 100m and 200m breaststroke silver medals and develop a rivalry with American Lilly King, who said Efimova should not have been eligible.

It’s unclear from Monday’s ruling whether Efimova will be allowed to compete as a neutral, should Russia accept the sanctions or any appeal to CAS by the nation be denied.

“I will behave in a similar way,” to 2016, Efimova said, according to RT.com. “I have already hired a lawyer. There is a rule that a person can’t be punished twice for the same offense. If you violate a driving code or instigated a brawl you will not be punished twice for that. I hope it will work, but I cannot be sure of [a positive outcome].

“Right after my race at the Rio Games, I said that this doping controversy was not over, it was just the beginning, and we would have problems in the future. It was quite clear. And with every new year the situation is only getting worse and worse.”

Efimova, 27 and the two-time reigning world 200m breast champion, was banned 16 months between 2013 and 2015 after testing positive for a steroid. A FINA panel ruled that Efimova was not intentionally trying to cheat but was negligent in failing to read the label of a GNC store supplement.

“Yes, long ago I made a doping violation,” Efimova said this week, according to RT. “But there are a great number of U.S. and European athletes who have a similar situation regarding doping, and they are competing without any restrictions. If you want to introduce those regulations, they must be equally applied to all athletes, not only Russian competitors.”

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