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Simone Biles to headline post-Olympic gymnastics tour

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Simone Biles wants to bring gymnastics to the masses and plans to bring some of her friends along for the ride.

The Olympic and world champion is headlining a tour in the fall of 2020 that will be a mixture of sports and entertainment intended to inspire the next generation of female athletes. The “Gold Over America” tour will visit more than 35 cities, including Biles’ hometown of Houston as well as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The idea originated when Biles was in the early stages of her return to gymnastics in the fall of 2017 after taking a year off following her memorable performance at the 2016 Olympics, where she won four gold medals and five in all, becoming the face of her sport.

“When we found out I was coming back, we kind of sat down and talked about things I would want to do,” Biles told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “They said it could be as small as starting a perfume line or maybe as big as a tour. I was like, ‘Actually, that would be pretty sweet. That would be the coolest thing ever.’”

The women-only roster will reunite Biles with longtime friend Katelyn Ohashi. Ohashi and Biles competed against each other growing up. Like Biles, Ohashi — the 2012 junior national champion — had designs on competing at the Olympics before injuries sidetracked her elite career. She instead attended UCLA, helping the Bruins win the national title in 2018 and becoming a viral sensation last winter with her Michael Jackson-themed floor routine.

“She made her mark,” Biles said. “She put college gymnastics and gymnastics … back on the map. She has impacted a lot of female gymnasts and I think this really brings us full circle.”

The tour will also finally allow Biles to join forces with former UCLA coach Val Kondos Field. Biles verbally committed to compete for the Bruins before turning professional in 2015. Kondos Field, who retired last spring, will serve as executive producer and supervising choreographer for the tour.

Biles said the goal is to bring the sport closer to the audience and also to loosen things up a bit. The plan is to utilize giant video screens, pyrotechnics and an in-house DJ.

“We want this to be completely different,” Biles said. “There will be dancing. Hopefully trampoline. Something people have never seen before.”

Biles captured five gold medals at the 2019 World Championships to boost her career total to 25 medals overall, a record for both men and women. She is widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time, and her face has been at the forefront of television promos for the 2020 Olympics, where she will try to become the first woman in more than 50 years to repeat as all-around champion.

While there are times she admits she’s still processing her fame, she’s is starting to understand her influence on the sport. It’s one of the reasons she agreed to headline the tour.

“In a way, it’s scary,” Biles said. “But at this point I also feel like it’s really exciting to have a platform that I do and to be able to do some of the things that I’ve been blessed with. I think it’s a combination of both. So I don’t know. We went back and forth on if we wanted my name in it, but you never know. I think it’ll be OK.”

USA Gymnastics typically coordinates a post-Olympic tour of its own, though there are no plans for one in 2020. The organization remains in bankruptcy court as it tries to reach a resolution with athletes who were sexually abused by former national team doctor Larry Nassar, who abused gymnasts — Biles included — under the guise of treatment.

Biles said she hasn’t spoken to anyone at USA Gymnastics directly about her tour but added, “I know they’re aware about it and they’ve been pretty supportive.”

“Simone is an amazing athlete and person, and having her own tour will give her a stage to showcase her skills and talent, as well as those of other women,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement.

Just how many athletes will join Biles and Ohashi remains uncertain.

“We’re looking at the top of the line and the best gymnasts from elite and maybe we did think from around the world, but that gets really, really difficult just because of the visas and all of that stuff,” Biles said. “Right now in the circle I know a couple of college gymnasts and then elite gymnasts (who will be on the tour), like world class.”

Biles is in the midst of a recovery period following her record-breaking performance at the world championships. She said she anticipates returning to competition in April before the U.S. Championships, the Olympic Trials and then the Olympics next summer.

Then it’s likely off to retirement and a chance to make an impact far beyond the competition floor, a process that will start with the tour, where she will have her hand in selecting the group and helping put the show together.

“I feel like everyone’s creative vision coming together is very unique,” she said. “And so I think once we get together and we have a set plan on what we’ll do, it’ll be very exciting.”

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MORE: Simone Biles reveals one thing she cannot do: Wear all her medals at once

Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 19, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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