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Four thoughts off 2018 World Gymnastics Championships

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Four thoughts off the 2018 World Gymnastics Championships, where Simone Biles scribbled through the record book with medals on every event, including four golds, in her first international meet since the Rio Olympics …

1. Simone Biles, greatest athlete of 2018?
Many top sports countries have Sportsperson of the Year Awards, which usually honor athletes in individual sports. It’s a little different in the U.S., where team sports dominate, and there are multiple marquee year-end honors from the likes of Sports Illustrated and The Associated Press. Those outlets typically choose American athletes, but not always (see Johann Olav Koss and Martina Hingis, for instance).

Voters who take a close look for this year’s awards have a few deserving female candidates. Biles, the 2016 AP Female Athlete of the Year, is of course on that short list, after arguably the greatest meet of her career and the most trying year.

Biles returned to training under a new coach on Nov. 2, 2017, after a 14-month break. She still traveled frequently for sponsors until mid-December and struggled mentally as recently as May, coach Cecile Landi said, according to Olympic Channel.

“She was in the gym for two, three days, she started to feel better,” Landi said of last fall’s training, according to the report. “And then she had to start all over again, and she was like, ‘I tried, I think I need to quit. That’s it. It’s too hard.’ She would quit every three days.”

In January, she came forward as one of hundreds of Larry Nassar survivors. She and many other U.S. gymnasts trained for the major summer and fall meets while USA Gymnastics underwent leadership change after leadership change.

Biles returned to competition in July, then swept the gold medals at nationals for the first time in August. Then in Doha, she led the U.S. women to a sixth straight Olympic or world title, this time by the largest margin of victory under a 12-year-old scoring system. That was the first of her six medals in six events at worlds, a feat not seen in 31 years.

Others who had incredible years? Breanna Stewart, who led the Seattle Storm to the WNBA title and the U.S. to a world title. She was MVP of the WNBA regular season and WNBA Finals and the MVP of the world championship. Not much more one can ask of a basketball player.

There’s Swiss triathlete Daniela Ryf, who overcame jellyfish stings under both armpits minutes before the Kona Ironman World Championship last month. Ryf then shattered her course record by 20 minutes in perfect weather (the men’s course record also fell by nine minutes in Kona). Ryf also won her two other major races this year, taking 12 minutes off her Ironman European Championship course record and earning her fourth Ironman 70.3 world title.

Let’s not forget about the Winter Olympics, where the majority of dominating performances came from women (such as Ester Ledecká, Marit Bjørgen and Chloe Kim).

MORE: 2018 Gym Worlds Results

2. The U.S. women’s rebuilding was a reloading
The first worlds with a team event since the Olympics taught us that the U.S. is more dominant than ever, even with a whole new team aside from Biles. If Biles’ team-final scores are substituted for the U.S.’ fourth athlete from qualifying, the Americans still win by five points over Russia, nearly the margin of victory from 2015 Worlds.

Morgan Hurd confirmed this year that her 2017 breakout (with a world all-around title in Biles’ absence) was no fluke. She earned a medal of every color in Doha. Riley McCusker, after some errors in qualifying, had an uneven bars score in the team final bettered only by Biles of the 23 other gymnasts.

The other two world team competitors, Kara Eaker and Grace McCallum, were third and 11th, respectively, at the 2017 U.S. Junior Championships.

Some of the U.S.’ most promising gymnasts — including Ragan SmithEmma MalabuyoMaile O’Keefe and Gabby Perea— were significantly affected or sidelined altogether by injuries in 2018. Jade Carey, who last year went from not being an elite gymnast to earning two world championships medals, skipped worlds in favor of maximizing her Olympic team chances.

A comeback from any of the other Rio Olympians for Tokyo 2020 would be a daunting exercise.

3. Artur Dalaloyan, from kicked off the team to world’s best gymnast
Not Alexei Nemov. Not Paul Hamm. Not even Kohei Uchimura. None of those Olympic all-around champions accomplished what Dalaloyan did at a world championships — earning five medals in one week (Dalaloyan’s included all-around gold). Nobody had since Vitaly Scherbo in 1991.

The 22-year-old had no high-pressure, global experience before Doha. He was not on the Olympic team. Limited by a broken foot, he competed in one final at 2017 Worlds, finishing last on vault after getting into the event due to another gymnast’s injury.

In fact, Dalaloyan was once kicked off the national team for disciplinary reasons at age 15, according to the International Gymnastics Federation. He missed the Rio team after not taking the sport seriously upon his return to the Russian program.

“When you are 18 or 19 years old, it is difficult to lock yourself in the gym and only train. I wanted to have fun, dance with girls, go for walks, and much more,” Dalaloyan said earlier in 2018, according to the FIG. “I thought, ‘Why limit myself? After all, I’m already in the national team!’ Then I began to notice that the other guys were all progressing, and I was wasting time. When I realized that I really could not get to Rio, I discarded all unnecessary and went to work. It was like something clicked in my head. I really understood a very simple thing: I need gymnastics.”

4. Sam Mikulak changed by medal breakthrough
When Mikulak had his first medal miss at the 2013 World Championships, he said, “You’ve got to learn to lose before you can learn to win.” After Mikulak earned his first individual medal in his sixth Olympic/world champs appearance last week, he sounded like a changed athlete.

“It wasn’t the epitomizing moment that I thought it would be,” he said. “There’s a lot more to life than getting these things.”

Will that change how the 26-year-old approaches the sport? Who knows. In the summer, Mikulak was so invested in earning a medal that he said he couldn’t retire without one. It conjured images of Blaine Wilson pacing and racking during the 2004 Olympic team final. There was still some of that fire in Mikulak as he wore the high-bar bronze Saturday.

“I feel like I finally broke the barrier, and I’m going to go home, and I’m going to want to get more of these,” he said.

He certainly has the talent. Mikulak qualified for five individual finals at worlds, the most by a U.S. man since 1979. He would have earned an all-around medal if not for errors on his last and best event, high bar. He led an otherwise young U.S. men’s team to fourth place, the best it could have hoped for barring collapse from China, Japan or Russia. He did so after being limited at nationals and worlds in 2017 due to his second left Achilles tear in two years.

Next year, Mikulak can break his tie with Wilson with a sixth U.S. all-around title. Then in 2020, he can become the first U.S. male gymnast since Wilson to compete in three Olympics. Maybe, like Wilson, he can finally earn an Olympic medal in his third try.

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MORE: Why Simone Biles can win with two falls

Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 season in ski and snowboard sports

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Most ski sports don’t hold world championships in even-numbered years, but the coronavirus pandemic brought World Cup campaigns to an early conclusion two years ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

With the seasons over, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team is collecting goggles to provide to health-care workers.

Here’s what we learned in various sports:

ALPINE: Mikaela Shiffrin has company 

The U.S. ski star was on pace to win her fourth straight World Cup season trophy before her father’s sudden passing in early February. She planned to return in March with an outside chance at keeping her title, but the remaining races of the season were canceled. Italy’s Federica Brignone took the trophy, with Shiffrin second.

While Shiffrin held a substantial lead in the World Cup before her hiatus, she wasn’t as unbeatable as she was in the 2018-19 season, when she won a staggering 17 times. That’s an impossible bar to clear, but Shiffrin’s rivals made up enough ground to make future World Cup season titles and the career win record seem less certain than they seemed a year ago.

In Shiffrin’s final slalom race, a discipline in which she has rarely lost in recent years, she placed third behind Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova and Sweden’s Anna Swenn Larsson. Ten days before that, she was second to Vlhova, whose progress impressed Shiffrin. That marked that first time since 2014 that she lost two straight slaloms in the same season. (She was second in the 2016-17 season finale and second again in the 2017-18 season opener, then won 12 of the next 13 slaloms.)

Shiffrin’s ability to get on the podium in any race, no matter the discipline, will make her the World Cup favorite for years to come. But the big prize won’t be as easy as she has made it seem in recent years, and at 66 career victories, she’ll need time to catch Lindsey Vonn‘s women’s record of 82 wins and Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record of 86.

CROSS-COUNTRY: Diggins, Bjornsen stay in world’s elite 

Jessie Diggins will forever be remembered for winning the 2018 Olympic team sprint with Kikkan Randall as NBC’s Chad Salmela screamed “HERE COMES DIGGINS,” but she also has a strong World Cup resume that she continues to build.

Diggins finished sixth in the season standings for the second straight year, a drop from her second-place finish in 2018 but still comfortably in the top 10. She was joined there by Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, who eighth-place season put her in the top 10 for the second time.

Bjornsen led the three-stage season opener in Ruka, Finland, after taking third in the sprint and finished fourth overall, one place ahead of Diggins, who took third in the pursuit. Diggins added four more podium finishes before the end of the season.

NORDIC COMBINED: Norway takes control 

Jarl Magnus Riiber won his second straight World Cup title at age 22, with fellow Norwegian Joergen Graabak taking a career-high second. Two more Norwegians were in the top six Jens Luraas Oftebro (fourth) and Espen Bjoernstad (sixth). 

In women’s Nordic combined, which is on track to become an Olympic event, U.S. athlete Tara Geraghty-Moats was a close second to Russia’s Stefaniya Nadymova.

READ: Geraghty-Moats has eyes on 2026

SKI JUMPING: U.S. women shut out 

A decade after leading the charge to get women’s ski jumping in the Olympics and eight years after teenager Sarah Hendrickson won the World Cup, the U.S. women went a whole season without an athlete picking up World Cup points. Hendrickson postponed her retirement but competed only on the Continental Cup this season.

U.S. women also won two of the first three ski jumping world championships Lindsey Van in 2009 and Hendrickson in 2013.

In men’s jumping, Austria’s Stefan Kraft edged out Germany’s Karl Geiger to reclaim the World Cup title he last held in 2017. Geiger’s previous career best was 10th in 2019. Japan’s Ryoyu Kobayashi, last year’s champion, took third.

FREESTYLE SKIING: Blunck keeps flying

U.S. halfpipe skier Aaron Blunck followed up his second straight world championship in 2019 with his first World Cup season title. Blunck won both events in the U.S. — December’s competition at Copper Mountain and February’s event at Mammoth Mountain. 

Colby Stevenson (slopestyle) and Alexander Hall (big air) were second in their events. Hall won twice, landing a switch left double 1800 to win in the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park. Stevenson also won at the X Games in Aspen.

In women’s competition, 18-year-old Marin Hamill was second in slopestyle, and Jaelin Kauf finished in the top three for the third straight year.

French skier Perrine Laffont had a dominant season in women’s moguls, winning all six regular moguls events and two of four dual moguls, to take her second straight World Cup title.

SNOWBOARDING: Corning wins in Atlanta and in World Cup

Atlanta’s SunTrust Park hosted a World Cup big air competition, with Chris Corning and Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi winning. Corning also won in Cardrona, New Zealand, and took his second big air season title to go along with slopestyle titles in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

Dusty Henricksen was third in World Cup slopestyle on the strength of a win at Mammoth Mountain, followed by fellow U.S. teen Justus Henkes.

U.S. women’s snowboarders Jamie Anderson and Julia Marino won the only World Cup slopestyle events each one entered. Anderson also won the X Games slopestyle.

Olympic and world halfpipe champion Chloe Kim sat out the season after breaking an ankle in March 2019 and enrolling at Princeton.

BIATHLON: Never count out Dunklee 

Susan Dunklee hasn’t had great success on the World Cup circuit since taking a world championship silver medal in 2017, when she finished a career-best 10th in the World Cup, but she once again took world championship silver in the sprint at Antholz.

Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Boe won the men’s World Cup title despite missing two weeks after the birth of his first child, edging Frenchman Martin Fourcade by two points to spoil the seven-time World Cup champion’s final season.

Boe won his second straight World Cup title, as did Italy’s Dorothea Weirer in the women’s competition.

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Simon Ammann ramps up for one more run at Olympic ski jumping

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Simon Ammann, the Swiss ski jumper who gained fame for his resemblance to Harry Potter in 2002 and went to win all four Olympic ski jumps on North American soil this century, has walked back talk of retirement and now says he wants to continue through the 2022 Olympics.

Ammann won the normal hill and large hill in Salt Lake City in 2002. European ski jumpers don’t necessarily get attention from U.S. talk shows, but the 20-year-old Ammann had two things that set him apart. First, his wins were tremendous upsets. Second, he looked like Harry Potter.

He wound up appearing on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” which makes him a wild-card connection in the Kevin Bacon game the peripatetic actor was the other guest on the show that night, and Ammann happily posed with Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick after the show.

Eight years later, Ammann duplicated the feat in Vancouver. This time, he left behind the Harry Potter glasses behind, though he made an enthusiastic walk through the mixed zone wearing comically oversized sunglasses that made him look like the Buggles’ Trevor Horn in the “Video Killed the Radio Star” video, the first music video on MTV.

In 2010, his victories weren’t quite as unexpected. He won the World Cup season title that year, sandwiched between two second-place finishes.

In 2002, on the other hand, he took off from the Olympic hill at Park City having never won a World Cup event. His two wins in the Olympics were his first two in any international competition in the FIS database.

Ammann has also had success in major competition in Asia. He took gold and silver in the 2007 world championships in Sapporo, Japan, the first two of his four career world championship medals. He also won a World Cup event in Sapporo in 2010.

In recent years, though, Ammann hasn’t been competitive on the World Cup circuit. He has been on the podium only once since 2015. Since taking his last major-event medal in 2011, his best result in the world championships was seventh place in 2013.

But he’s already shown he can, like Harry Potter, conjure a surprising performance.

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