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Tonga flag bearer guarantees medal if he makes 2020 Olympics in new sport

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UNITED NATIONS — Pita Taufatofua is not ready to reveal which new sport he has taken up for a 2020 Olympic run — “very soon,” he said — but the oiled-up, shirtless Tongan flag bearer made it clear.

“I can guarantee you … whatever that next sport is, if I qualify for the Olympics in that sport, I will medal in that sport,” he said while visiting the UN last Wednesday for the Youth Dialogue event.

Taufatofua, who became a viral hit at the Rio Opening Ceremony and then competed in taekwondo and cross-country skiing in back-to-back Olympics, has known his new sport for at least two months. He traveled extensively since the Winter Games ended three months ago but found the time to tailor training for it.

“What I’m going to present is a sport that’s much more aligned with being a Tongan and being a Pacific Islander,” Taufatofua said two months ago. “It’s aligned with the water, the sea. So, wait and see.”

Yet Taufatofua refused to rule out competing in taekwondo again.

“Once taekwondo’s in the blood it never leaves,” he said Wednesday. “I’m always going to be a taekwondo fighter. Who knows? Who knows what the next step is.

“It’s always about stepping things up. How do you make it even better? Maybe I’ll do two sports. Who knows? … Whatever the most complex thing that I can think of is, that’ll be what’s next.”

Taufatofua also refused to rule out a team sport like water polo, despite Tonga having no Olympic history in the event and a minute chance to field a team to attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

He also declined a suggestion that the new sport would be, like cross-country skiing, one with an easier route to qualify for the Olympics. Taufatofua finished 114th in his PyeongChang cross-country skiing race and lost by mercy rule in his Rio first-round taekwondo match.

“This is about the impossible,” Taufatofua said. “I’m not looking for an easy sport. I’m looking for a sport that’s aligned with me.”

Taufatofua confirmed he’s coming out with a book titled, “That Single Step,” based off the Lao Tzu quote, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

“It’s going to change people’s lives when it comes to creating new habits, getting to exercise, becoming a sportsman,” he said.

When will Taufatofua compete again? He said he doesn’t know. But he has put all of the weight back on that he shed for cross-country skiing.

And if he’s able to carry the Tongan flag at a third Opening Ceremony, he will definitely be shirtless again, in a similar outfit to what he wore in Rio and PyeongChang.

“When I went to Rio, I was told by some of our own people [dignitaries], don’t wear this, don’t wear that,” Taufatofua said. “We want you to wear a suit and a tie. I said no. I said, you were taught to wear that suit and that tie 50 years ago. I said, my ancestors go back 1,000 years. I want to wear what they wore because I’m representing them when I carry that flag. They said no, so we carried it in our bags and hid it under our uniforms when we walked in the backstages of Rio and pulled it out when they had no chance to kick us off the team. Then, afterwards, they [other people] said, whose idea was it? They [the Tongan officials] said it was ours. It was all of ours.”

The PyeongChang uniform is headed for the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. The Rio one is stuck on his wall at home, hung with extra significance.

“It’s where things changed for me,” he said.

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Simone Biles routing field, edging note card at U.S. Gymnastics Championships

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BOSTON — Simone Biles leads the field by a whopping 3.1 points halfway through the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. She beat the number at the bottom of the note card in her locker at the World Champions Centre in Texas by a much smaller margin.

No matter the perspective, Biles was more dominant on Friday night than during most of the Rio Olympic cycle. In just her second meet in two years. Nine months after returning to training after a 14-month break.

Biles tallied the highest score on every apparatus in the field and the world’s highest all-around score since Rio — 60.1 points. The second-highest score since Rio? Biles’ 58.7 from her comeback meet at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago.

“At Classics, I was still easing back into everything and kind of feeling the surroundings and getting used to competing again,” Biles, 21, said on the fifth anniversary of her first U.S. all-around title. “I feel like today I really embraced it.”

NATIONALS: Scores | TV/Stream Schedule

In the last Olympic cycle, Biles averaged a 1.94-point lead after the first day of nationals.

She rolls into the final day of competition Sunday, looking to become the first woman to win five U.S. all-around titles and the first non-teen to win since 1971. And send another message ahead of October’s world championships.

Morgan Hurd, who won the 2017 World all-around title in Biles’ absence, is in a distant second after four clean routines. The margin between Biles and Hurd is greater than the margin between Hurd and the eighth-place gymnast.

Asked to put her 60-pointer in perspective, Biles brought up the note card.

“I think it says 60 at the bottom,” said Biles, who hit 62.366 in Rio under a different scoring system.

Biles hit 60 points in a practice meet at her gym right before she left for the U.S. Classic. Her new coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, encouraged Biles to keep the visual reminder placed in her locker leading up to nationals.

“I wanted to show her that she could reach that score,” Laurent Landi said. “It’s not a big deal. If she does normal, she can be there.”

But nobody else can. Biles had 25.4 total points in difficulty on Friday. The next-highest gymnast (Hurd) had 22.7.

Biles essentially began the meet with a 2.7-point head start. She then was judged to have better overall execution than everybody else, even though she had the disadvantage of performing harder routines.

“She’s just mentally there,” said Riley McCusker, who led Biles going into the last rotation at the U.S. Classic and is in third place here. “She can take that time off and [be] physically there, too.”

BILES ROUTINES: Balance Beam | Floor Exercise | Uneven Bars | Vault 1 | Vault 2

Biles’ flaw in her comeback meet three weeks ago was the uneven bars. She fell trying a more difficult routine than in Rio.

On Friday, Biles nailed her bars set, receiving applause from Laurent Landi, who coached Madison Kocian to a bars silver in Rio.

Biles has never won a national title on bars. At the Olympics, she had the highest scores in the all-around on beam, floor and vault and the seventh-highest score on bars.

“She needs to go through more mental belief that she [belongs] at this level on the bars,” said Laurent Landi, a 40-year-old former French gymnast.

Landi insisted Biles was not at her best Friday. He noted her two overcooked tumbling passes on floor that cost her six tenths for going out of bounds. Imperfect landings on other events. He dismissed Biles’ lead and said he already has plans for upgraded routines before worlds, next year and possibly in the Olympic year.

“Sometimes when it’s difficult in the gym, we, my wife and I, try just to remind her who she’s trying to beat,” he said. “It’s herself.”

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GYM NATIONALS: TV/Stream Schedule | Where Are The Final Five?

Laurie Hernandez faces big decisions before comeback

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BOSTON — Laurie Hernandez still hopes to compete in 2019, but she must find a coach and a gym first. And transition from conditioning to regular gymnastics training.

“Kind of dipping my toe in the water,” she said Friday at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, where she is strictly a spectator.

Hernandez hasn’t competed since earning team gold and balance beam silver in Rio. Other than Simone Biles, she is the only member of the Final Five openly expressing a desire to return to elite competition next year.

“Because I’m still passionate about it,” she said. “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always loved it, and I still do. It’s still really important to me.”

Hernandez said she has been on gymnastics equipment every so often but not consistently. She has said hello to new U.S. high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster.

She hopes to pick Aly Raisman‘s brain about coming back. Raisman took almost a year off after the 2012 London Games, then trained for a full year before returning to competition in March 2015.

Unlike Raisman, Hernandez said there is no unfinished business from the Olympics that motivates her.

“I know what I’m getting myself into,” Hernandez said. “It’s kind of like curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought it back. Being 16, being so curious, not really knowing what I’m walking into, that was such an interesting experience [in Rio].”

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GYM NATIONALS: TV/Stream Schedule | Where Are The Final Five?