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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

Nathan Chen on his way to defending World Championship title, Jason Brown in silver medal position

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Nathan Chen set up his World Championship title defense well, sitting in first place after the short program on Thursday in Saitama, Japan.

“That was fun,” his coach Rafael Arutunian told Chen in a hug as he walked off the ice.

Chen opened with a triple Axel, hung onto the landing of his quadruple Lutz, and ended with a quad toe, triple toe combination. He scored a season’s best 107.40 points to lead the field by a whopping 10.59 points.

“I’m very happy with my short program today,” Chen said in a press conference. “There’s always things that I can do better. Everything that I did, I did as best as I could. I hope to continue that into the long program.”

Chen is looking to become the first U.S. man to win back-to-back World titles since Scott Hamilton did so four times, from 1981-1984. Only six American men have won multiple World Championships. Chen is currently juggling school and skating, and his spending his spring break from Yale University at worlds.

In second place after the short program, Jason Brown also scored a season’s best 96.81. He opened with a triple flip, then a triple Axel, and a triple Lutz, triple toe combination to be in medal contention.

“I’m super pleased with today’s performance,” Brown said. “I’ve been working really hard this season building my consistency with my coaches.”

In a surprise finish, neither of Japan’s home favorites are in gold medal position after the short program — though they are within striking distance.

In his first competition since his November injury, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu scored 94.87 points and is in third place. Hanyu turned his planned quad Salchow into a double but recovered to cleanly execute his triple Axel. His quad toe, triple toe combination was also called clean.

Saitama, Japan is the site of his first World Championship title from 2014 and this year he is vying for his third world title. Ahead of the start of this season, Brown moved to Toronto to train under Brian Orser, where Hanyu also trains. Brown added in the press conference that Hanyu has pushed him daily to be a better skater, while Hanyu returned the compliment and said Brown has inspired him, too.

“I’m basically very disappointed with my short program,” Hanyu said through an interpreter during the press conference. “I made a very big mistake. I aim to reflect back and figure out what I can do better for my free skate. I will look at everything I can do to improve upon my performance.”

Hanyu also said that he hopes to continue to compete against Chen — this is their first meeting since PyeongChang.

Hanyu and countryman Shoma Uno are skating on home ice in Japan, showing off the country’s depth of skating.

Uno, meanwhile, skated to “Stairway to Heaven” and fell on his opening quad flip attempt. He pulled off a subsequent quad toe, double toe combination (though it was a planned quad-triple) and triple Axel through the remainder of the program.

Fresh off his first major victory at the Four Continents championships in February, Uno scored 91.40 points and is currently in sixth place.

Full results are here.

Last months’ bronze medalist at Four Continents, Vincent Zhou, skated two quads in the short program and scored 94.17 points. The third U.S. man in the field had a clean quad Lutz, triple toe combination but his quad Salchow was called under-rotated, something he’s struggled with all season. He is in fourth place ahead of the men’s free skate on Saturday.

Two-time world bronze medalist Jin Boyang earned 84.26 points in the short program and is in ninth. He finished in 19th at last year’s championships following a fourth place in PyeongChang.

Canada’s Keegan Messing, who qualified for December’s Grand Prix Final, fell on his opening quad toe attempt. He didn’t add a combination to his triple Axel or triple Lutz but earned 82.38 and is in 13th place.

The rhythm dance gets underway on Thursday at 11 p.m. ET.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating Championships | Sui Wenjing, Han Cong recapture world pair title | Alina Zagitova leads after ladies’ short program

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Sui Wenjing, Han Cong recapture world pair title

AP
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China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong captured their second World Championship title in on Thursday in Saitama, Japan.

The Olympic silver medalists only returned to major international competition a month ago, winning Four Continents in February. They skipped the fall season due to Sui’s lingering foot injury. Sui and Han won the 2017 world title after two years of silver medals.

They were sitting in second after the short program behind Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, but scored 155.60 points in their clean free skate for a winning total overall score of 234.84 points. They also set the highest free skate score for the season en route to gold.

“We are very happy to have shown our best performance and to win this Championship. We had a tough time we could not prepare so well and did not have much time to practice. Our coaches and our team gave us a lot of support and we knew we can make it and get the title. Winning the second time was harder and it was a team effort,” Sui said, according to the ISU.

Tarasova and Morozov scored 147.26 in the free skate for 228.47 total points total, both season’s bests. They took home silver medals, to add to their 2017 bronze and 2018 silver medals from worlds.

Their Russian teammates Natalya Zabiyako and Aleksandr Enbert also skated a season’s best free skate, tallying 144.02 points and a total overall score of 217.98 points to capture the bronze, their first World medal.

Full results are here.

French pair Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres squandered their chances at a gold medal after the short program, where a messy performance left them in seventh place.

The Grand Prix Final gold medalists and European champions scored 146.52 in the free skate to finish with 215.19 points overall, landing in fifth place. Without anything to lose, they skated a relatively clean performance: James doubled a plan triple toe, double toe, double toe combination and put her foot down on the landing of the throw triple Salchow.

“We won’t give up until we get the World title,” the pair told the ISU. “The Worlds hasn’t been our best friend, but every time we come back stronger.”

The lone American pair at worlds, Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, celebrated exuberantly in the Kiss and Cry with coaches Peter and Darlene Cain, Ashley’s parents. Despite Cain’s fall on the throw triple Salchow in the free skate, they finished in ninth place. They scored 126.88 in the free skate for 193.81 points overall.

By staying within the top-10 overall, the U.S. national champions secured two quota spots for the U.S. at the 2020 World Championships. The pair told NBCSports.com/figure-skating that was their goal all season, even with Cain’s concussion in December nearly derailing those plans.

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WE DID IT✌🏻✌🏻⁣ Goals for the season:⁣ •Win National title✅⁣ •Top ten at our first World Championships✅⁣ •Earn the two spots back for Team USA pairs✅⁣ We feel truly honored to be here in Japan and competing on behalf of Team USA! This season has been a pretty wild ride and it wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing team around us! Thank you to our coaches, our trainers, my family, my fiancé, US Figure Skating staff, the spectators, and all of our training mates back home! ⛸ “Whenever you find yourself doubting how far you can go, just remember how far you have come. Remember everything you have faced, all the battles you have won and all the fears you have overcome.” #WorldFigure

A post shared by Ashley Elizabeth Cain (@icegirlash) on

Also of note: Great Britain’s Zoe Jones, 39-year-old mother of three, competed with partner Christopher Boyadji. Jones is a former singles skater who retired in 2001 before coming back to the sport as a pair skater in 2014. They skated personal best scores in the short program, free skate and overall total and finished 17th in Japan.

The men’s short program gets underway at 3 a.m. ET Thursday.

MORE: How to watch the World Figure Skating Championships | Men’s Preview

As a reminder, you can watch the world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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