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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Bernard Lagat commits to Olympic marathon trials, eyes age record

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Bernard Lagat, a 44-year-old, five-time Olympian, reportedly said he will race the Olympic marathon trials on Feb. 29 in a bid to break his own record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner.

“I feel like I can still improve,” Lagat said, according to Runner’s World. “I’m going to give it my best.”

Lagat, a two-time Olympic 1500m medalist, moved to the marathon after becoming the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history at the Rio Games, placing fifth in the 5000m.

He clocked 2:17:20 in his 26.2-mile debut at the 2018 New York City Marathon. He lowered it to 2:12:10 at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia on July 7 but did not previously commit to entering the trials.

If Lagat finishes in the top three at the marathon trials, he is in line to become the third-oldest U.S. Olympic track and field athlete in history. The oldest are race walker John Deni (49 years old in 1952) and hammer thrower Matt McGrath (48 years old in 1924), according to the OlyMADMen.

Lagat ranks outside the top 20 among U.S. marathoners in this Olympic cycle. The fastest are Galen Rupp (2:06:07), Leonard Korir (2:07:56, from Sunday’s Amsterdam Marathon) and Scott Fauble (2:09:09).

No American has competed in six Olympics in track and field. Lagat’s first two Olympic appearances were for Kenya.

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Natalie Geisenberger, Olympic luge champion, will not race this season

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For the first time in eight years, there will be a new World Cup women’s luge champion.

Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger — the seven-time defending champion and two-time defending Olympic singles gold medalist — announced that she isn’t sliding this season because she and her husband are expecting their first child in April.

“Our happiness is on the way,” Geisenberger said on her Facebook page.

Geisenberger plans to return next season and still has hopes to compete at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, where she could match fellow German great Georg Hackl’s feat of winning three consecutive singles golds.

With Geisenberger not sliding this season, the top returning women from last year’s World Cup standings now are Julia Taubitz of Germany and Summer Britcher of the U.S. — second and third, respectively, in 2018-19.

Geisenberger has a luge record-tying four Olympic golds in all, being part of Germany’s victories in the team relays in Sochi in 2014 and Pyeongchang in 2018 as well.

Her 49 World Cup singles wins are another record, and she’s one of two sliders to win seven consecutive World Cup titles — Austria’s Markus Prock took the men’s championships each year from 1990-91 through 1996-97.

Geisenberger’s break from sliding only adds to how the World Cup standings — and the German roster — will look very different this season. Dajana Eitberger, who was fourth in last season’s World Cup standings, is also pregnant and expecting a baby in February. And Tatjana Huefner, who was sixth overall last season, has retired.

Huefner won five consecutive World Cup titles before Geisenberger took over and began her seven-year streak of championships. Geisenberger earned medals 11 times in 12 singles races last year — six golds, four silvers and one bronze.

“We are so happy for you even though we will miss you this season!” two-time Olympic singles gold medalist Felix Loch of Germany wrote in a message to Geisenberger on Instagram.

Geisenberger has been in the top three of the World Cup standings in 12 consecutive seasons. She was third in 2007-08, finished second in each of the next four seasons, and then began her title streak in 2012-13.

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