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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

Alina Zagitova wins Rostelecom Cup; Gracie Gold withdraws

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova dominated the Rostelecom Cup, while Gracie Gold withdrew before Saturday’s free skate at her first competition in 22 months, citing emotional stress.

Zagitova skated a flawed free, but still totaled 222.95 points and prevailed by 24.94 over countrywoman Sofia Samodurova. Zagitova qualified for December’s Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual international competition, which takes the top six skaters from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Gold, coming back from treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder, was in last place of 10 skaters after struggling with jumps in Friday’s short program.

Gold, a Sochi Olympian and two-time U.S. champion, later tweeted that she withdrew because competing in the free skate would be damaging to her mental health and confidence.

“It was a difficult decision to make, but ultimately I need to put my mental health first and focus on the big picture,” was tweeted from Gold’s account. “Looking forward, I need to keep improving both my physical and mental condition. I thought checking into treatment last fall was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but skating my short program last night might have topped it. I do not want to undo the tremendous progress I’ve made in these last few months.”

The Grand Prix season continues next week with Nathan Chen headlining Internationaux de France, the last event before the Grand Prix Final.

ROSTELECOM CUP: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Zagitova, 16, is undefeated in three events this season and owns the world’s top overall score (238.43) by a whopping 14.12 points. However, Japanese 16-year-old Rika Kihira has the highest total on the Grand Prix of 224.31.

Zagitova struggled Saturday with the difficult triple Lutz-triple loop combination and doubled a flip at the end of her free skate.

Her primary rival last season, countrywoman Yevgenia Medvedeva, has finished second or third in her four competitions in the last year and likely must reach the podium next week in France for a chance at the Grand Prix Final and her first matchup with Zagitova since PyeongChang.

It’s likely that no U.S. woman makes the Grand Prix Final for a third straight year, after never previously going back-to-back years without a qualifier. U.S. champion Bradie Tennell likely must win in France to reach the Final.

Earlier Saturday, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu won the men’s event, hours after twisting his right ankle in a hard practice fall. Hanyu hopped on a crutch backstage and said he is uncertain for the Grand Prix Final and Japanese Nationals later in December. More here on Hanyu’s day.

Russian favorites Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin won the pairs’ and ice dance titles, respectively, qualifying for the Grand Prix Final.

Tarasova and Morozov, two-time world medalists, posted 220.25 points, moving up to No. 2 in the world behind French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who were not in the Rostelecom field. None of the Olympic pairs’ medalists are competing this fall. Earlier Saturday, Tarasova received five stitches after cutting her chin in a practice crash into the boards.

In dance, Stepanova and Bukin tallied 199.43, keeping them close to U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue in the world rankings. Those two couples face off for the first time this season at the Grand Prix Final.

The top returning couple this season, French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, competes next week at the top international level for the first time since winning a third world title in March. They are not eligible for the Grand Prix Final after withdrawing from last week’s NHK Trophy due to Cizeron’s back injury.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE 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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MORE: Ashley Wagner on her competitive future, coaching

Yuzuru Hanyu wins Rostelecom Cup, hops on crutch to press conference

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Yuzuru Hanyu won Rostelecom Cup by nearly 30 points, then hopped on a crutch backstage.

The double Olympic champion twisted his right ankle in a hard practice fall Saturday morning, then several hours later had the highest-scoring free skate with three quadruple jumps.

Hanyu said he is uncertain for the Grand Prix Final in three weeks — and a showdown with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno and, likely, world champion Nathan Chen according to The Associated Press.

“It really hurts,” Hanyu said, according to Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “This injury made me change my program, and sadly I couldn’t perform the way I wanted. I could have done better.”

ROSTELECOM CUP: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Hanyu apologized to a TV camera following his free skate, after falling and popping an Axel on his last two jumps.

Last November, Hanyu damaged right ankle ligaments in a practice fall, forcing him off the ice for more than a month. He said this injury is not as bad. Still, coach Brian Orser said “it was a big question” whether Hanyu would withdraw before the free skate, according to Olympic Channel.

Hanyu endured, taking out the quadruple loop that he fell on in practice but still adding 10 points to his lead from Friday’s short program. For the first time in nine seasons, Hanyu won his two Grand Prix Series qualifying events, cruising into December’s exclusive, six-skater Grand Prix Final.

Georgian Morisi Kvitelashvili took second, followed by Japanese Kazuki Tomono.

Two other men who came to Moscow with Grand Prix Final hopes — Russian Mikhail Kolyada and Canadian Keegan Messing — struggled in Friday’s short program and could not get onto the podium, placing fourth and fifth. They won’t be at the Final, assuming Chen finishes in the top six at next week’s event in France.

Rostelecom Cup continues later Saturday with the free programs for ice dance, pairs and women, streaming live on NBC Sports Gold.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Ashley Wagner on her future, role as coach