Sam Mikulak ‘the best loser’ on rough day at gymnastics nationals

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BOSTON — Sam Mikulak is in first place halfway through the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, but it feels like rock bottom.

“I can’t really do much worse than today,” he said. “The fact that I’m in first right now speaks that it really wasn’t too good of a day for anyone.”

Mikulak, a two-time Olympian, fell twice in six routines on the first of two nights of competition at TD Garden on Thursday. He’s in first largely because the other favorites struggled, too.

Mikulak still leads by 1.05 points over Akash Modi going into Saturday, when he can become the second man to win five U.S. all-around titles since 1970 (Blaine Wilson, 1996-2000).

Defending champion Yul Moldauer was sixth, gingerly shuffling off the floor with a back injury. Full scores are here.

“You don’t want to win on days like this,” said Mikulak, who came off high bar and pommel horse but said he wasn’t affected by a back injury that forced him to take last week very light in training. “I want to be able to slam routines and have it come down to the wire. That’s when it’s really exciting and intense, because everyone’s doing their best, and you want to beat people at their best. Not because you were the best loser.”

The only Olympian in the field hoped the first night would show where he stood among a new generation of gymnasts. After winning all four U.S. all-around titles in the last Olympic cycle, Mikulak only competed on two of six events at the 2017 Nationals following an Achilles tear.

Mikulak, who at 25 would be the oldest U.S. champion since David Durante in 2007, wasn’t pleased with much Thursday except his floor exercise. He finished the routine with a triple twist, the same element that caused his torn Achilles in February 2017, and motioned to pump up a crowd lacking energy.

Mikulak was supposed to vie with the 2017 champion Moldauer, a rising University of Oklahoma senior, for the all-around in Boston. But Moldauer trails by 2.4 points. He fell off the pommel horse, too, and sputtered to close out the night with major errors on parallel bars and high bar.

Moldauer said afterward that he was affected by a cracked disk plate in his back that has bothered him since the NCAA season in the spring. It hurt every time he bent forward.

“He’s experiencing a tremendous amount of tightness, and, despite some pretty heroic efforts, it clearly effected him tonight,” his coach, Mark Williams, tweeted. “We will reevaluate on Saturday.”

Moldauer said he discussed a little bit with Williams about not doing the all-around this week.

“But we weren’t going to let that [the back injury] just get in the way,” he said. “When you come to the championships, you need to do six events. You need to do all-around both days. You need to show what you have if you want to prove yourself to be on that team.”

The world championships team.

Gymnasts are competing not only for national titles this week but also to impress a selection committee for worlds.

In a change from recent years, the five-man roster for October’s worlds in Doha will not be named this weekend. Instead, eight men will be chosen for a September selection camp to determine the world team and three alternates. Results from nationals and the camp will be weighted equally, so there is still some pressure to perform well now.

Mikulak and Moldauer could mess up here and at the camp and still make that team. They are the most established American gymnasts.

Mikulak has been the best American over the last five years, though he has yet to earn an individual Olympic or world medal. Moldauer was the only U.S. men’s medalist at last year’s worlds (floor exercise bronze).

Nobody else stepped up in a big way Thursday. The U.S. men were fifth at the Rio Olympics and at the last worlds with a team event in 2015. That marked the first back-to-back global championships without a medal since 2006 and 2007.

“We don’t really want Team USA to look like it did today at the world stage,” said Modi, an Olympic alternate who didn’t fall Thursday but stumbled, hopped and had leg separation. “Not that everyone looked very bad, but it was not sharp. It wasn’t the crisp and polished gymnastics that we really want to be known for.”

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Alex Zanardi, auto racer turned Paralympic champion, has 5-hour surgery to rebuild face after crash

Alex Zanardi
AP
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SIENA, Italy (AP) — Italian auto racing champion-turned-Paralympic gold medalist Alex Zanardi underwent a five-hour surgery Monday to reconstruct his face following a crash on his handbike last month.

It was the third major operation that Zanardi has had since he crashed into an oncoming truck near the Tuscan town of Pienza on June 19 during a relay event.

Dr. Paolo Gennaro of Santa Maria alle Scotte Hospital in Siena said the operation required three-dimensional digital and computerized technology that was “made to measure” for Zanardi.

“The complexity of the case was fairly unique, although this is a type of fracture that we deal with routinely,” Gennaro said in a hospital statement.

After the surgery, Zanardi was returned to the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma.

“His condition remains stable in terms of his cardio-respiratory status and grave in terms of his neurological status,” the hospital medical bulletin read.

The 53-year-old Zanardi, who lost both of his legs in an auto racing crash nearly 20 years ago, has been on a ventilator since the crash.

Zanardi suffered serious facial and cranial trauma, and doctors have warned of possible brain damage.

Zanardi won four gold medals and two silvers at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. He also competed in the New York City Marathon and set an Ironman record in his class.

Last month, Pope Francis penned a handwritten letter of encouragement assuring Zanardi and his family of his prayers. The pope praised Zanardi as an example of strength amid adversity.

Shawn Johnson East shares struggles with body image, prescription drugs

Shawn Johnson
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Shawn Johnson East, a 2008 Olympic gymnastics champion, detailed past struggles with body image and prescription drugs and reflected on her eating disorder as an elite athlete, to show there is hope to others in difficult situations.

“It all started with pregnancy and having my daughter,” East, who had daughter Drew in October, said on TODAY on Monday. “I had so many people asking me questions about how did pregnancy affect you mentally and how did you get your body back after having your daughter. I couldn’t answer that without giving a greater and a larger story.”

East first went public about her undiagnosed teenage eating disorders in 2015, three years after retiring from the sport. She said she limited herself to 700 calories per day and didn’t tell her parents.

In a June YouTube video, Johnson said she also binged and purged, including while dating future husband Andrew in the mid-2010s. And that she had depression and anxiety in 2011, when she returned to competition for the first time since the Beijing Games.

“I thought it would fix all of my problems,” East said of returning to gymnastics for a 2012 Olympic bid.

When East won “Dancing with the Stars” in 2009, she “hit a very low spot” going through puberty on national TV. She said she gained 15 pounds after the 2008 Olympics and started taking medications and drugs “to look like I did at the Olympics.” It included fad diets, diuretics and a three-week stretch of eating nothing but raw vegetables.

“Most pain of my entire life because I couldn’t digest anything,” she said.

At some point in 2011, East began feeling burned out. She was back to eating too few calories and overtraining. An unnamed USA Gymnastics doctor prescribed her Adderall “to lose more weight, have more energy and be more successful in gymnastics.” She took “heavy doses.”

“It helped my performances, but there were massive consequences to it,” she said. “I continued to compete into 2012, where I just started to get depressed.

“I was overdosing on Adderall. I was overdosing on any medication that wouldn’t be caught by USADA.”

Adderall was a banned substance in competition without a therapeutic use exemption, but was legal outside of competition.

“I was so controlled by other people’s opinions that I wouldn’t live up to that Olympic standard that I did anything to get it back and I could never have it back,” East said. “I didn’t learn that until later on.”

East’s mental hurdles re-emerged when she had a miscarriage in 2017. She blamed herself, believing her unhealthy lifestyle in the past was a contributor.

“Our natural inclination is to say, what did I do? And what did I do wrong?” she said. “It haunted me. I felt like I had sacrificed everything for an Olympic medal to not actually get the dream I had wanted my entire life [to have a child].”

With the help of a nutritionist and therapist and her husband, she conquered the demons through her 2019 pregnancy and childbirth.

“Having gone through a whole pregnancy and knowing that I felt confident through the whole thing, I feel like I’ve climbed Everest,” she said.

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