Russia wins first men’s gymnastics world team title since Soviet breakup

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STUTTGART, Germany — Russia earned its first world men’s gymnastics team title since the breakup of the Soviet Union, while the U.S. just missed the podium to extend its longest global medal drought this millennium.

Russia overtook China, the top men’s gymnastics nation of the last 20 years, on the final rotation and ended up winning by a comfortable .997. Japan took bronze, followed by the U.S. and Great Britain in a repeat of places three through five from 2018.

The Chinese led by 1.394 points going to the last rotation on high bar, but Sun Wei fell on the first routine. Russia seized the opening, moving ahead by .506 after its first of three gymnasts performed.

A year ago, a mistake from Russian leader Nikita Nagornyy on the very last routine on high bar handed China the title by .049, the smallest winning margin in an Olympic men’s or women’s team final since the perfect-10 scoring system was replaced in 2006. On Wednesday, Nagornyy closed it out with a stuck high bar finale.

Russia’s last Olympic title came in 1996, when it boasted the likes of future Olympic all-around champion Alexei Nemov and future world all-around champion Nikolai Kryukov. Its last world title came in 1991, when its roster included Nastia Liukin‘s father, Valeri, and Vitaly Scherbo, a Belarusian who went on to win six golds at the 1992 Olympics.

Here, Russia has similar star power: Nagornyy, who qualified first into Friday’s all-around, and the defending all-around champion Artur Dalaloyan.

“For a whole year I couldn’t sleep soundly because I didn’t have that medal. A year ago we let it go with our errors when we were competing with the Chinese,” Dalaloyan said, according to an Associated Press translation, after embracing the Chinese team, including Sun, who was in tears and hiding his face in his jacket.

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The U.S. extended its longest span without an Olympic or world team medal since a 17-year break from the 1984 Olympics to 2001 World Championships. The Americans’ last medal was a bronze in 2014.

The Americans were not expected to make the podium after struggling to a seventh-place finish in qualifying. Russia, China and Japan have been in a class of their own in this Olympic cycle.

The U.S. had no falls in a team final for the first time since 2015 but were still a considerable 3.581 points out of bronze.

“We performed to our expectations,” two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak said. “We didn’t really think we had the start value [degree of difficulty] to get into that medal podium spot.”

The U.S. must hope to benefit from the change from a five-person team to a four-person team in Tokyo.

It relies largely on Mikulak, who has the ability to challenge the world’s best when he hits. His all-around score Wednesday — 86.931 — would have placed second in the qualification round.

Mikulak fell four times in qualifying, scored 81.598, and thought he would miss Friday’s 24-man all-around final. He stopped watching the final nations compete and began playing Roomscape on his computer. Teammate Akash Modi informed him that he made the final in the last spot on a tiebreaker. Scores reset for finals.

“I was sweating real hard,” he said. “The gym gods were looking out for me.”

The other U.S. men — Yul Moldauer, Trevor HowardShane Wiskus and Modi — have no Olympic experience and a fraction of Mikulak’s accolades.

If as few as two Americans can step up in difficulty and consistency in the next 10 months, the U.S. could return to the medal-challenging status it had in the last four Olympic cycles.

“It will be difficult for us to jump up enough to be in that same realm,” U.S. head coach Mark Williams said. “We have to sort of rely on some other teams to have problems, which isn’t a great strategy, but it’s also better than feeling like you don’t get to the finals.”

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Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

MORE: Looking back at Yuna Kim’s 10-year gold medal anniversary

Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Nathan Chen is surprised, grateful and posing questions about figure skating’s restart

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Steven Nyman, top U.S. downhiller, faces another obstacle

Steven Nyman
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Steven Nyman, the active U.S. leader in World Cup downhill wins, tore his right Achilles in a training crash and had surgery earlier this week in Mt. Hood, Ore.

“I am moving forward,” was posted on Nyman’s social media. “I’ve been through this before and have full intention to comeback [sic] and compete through the next Olympics.”

Nyman raced in three Olympics and owns three World Cup downhill victories.

He turns 40 during the next Winter Games in Beijing in 2022, when he will be three and a half years older than any previous U.S. Olympic Alpine skier.

Nyman missed the PyeongChang Olympics after a pair of major injuries: blowing out his left knee in a January 2017 downhill race crash and tearing his right ACL in downhill training in January 2018. He also tore his left Achilles in 2011.

He raced the last two seasons with a best World Cup finish of fifth in Val Gardena, Italy, site of all of his World Cup wins in 2006, 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. men’s program is in the midst of its longest World Cup downhill victory and podium droughts this millennium — none since Travis Ganong‘s win in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Jan. 27, 2017.

MORE: Alpine skiing World Cup plans earlier season start with fewer fans

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