AP

Athletes warily embrace progress as USA Gymnastics evolves

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The dread was familiar. The fear too. They gripped MyKayla Skinner shortly after she decided to return to elite gymnastics last summer.

Skinner wasn’t worried about recapturing the skills that made her an alternate on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. A standout college career at Utah not only rekindled her love of the sport but served as a form of self care, the hyper intense pressure of performing for former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi replaced by the sense of joyousness she felt competing for the Utes.

That feeling of safety vanished as Skinner prepared for her first national team camp since deciding she would make a run at the 2020 Olympics.

She’d watched her friends and former teammates come forward to admit in open court they’d been abused by former national team doctor Larry Nassar, now serving what amounts to a life sentence for sexually assaulting gymnasts with his hands and possessing child pornography.

She kept an eye on USA Gymnastics as it stepped on one land mine after another in the aftermath as the lawsuits piled up and its role as the sport’s national governing body became tenuous at best. And while the organization believes it has taken positive steps to emerge from the rubble, Skinner wondered what was real and what wasn’t. She texted friend and reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles in hopes of finding clarity, worried about a bait and switch.

“I was like, ’I’m so scared to come to camp. Like, how is it with all the changes, new coaches and everything?″ Skinner said.

Biles, a Nassar survivor who has embraced her role as the the sport’s most influential voice since rocketing to stardom following her golden run at the 2016 Games, assured Skinner the vibe had shifted.

Sitting in a small conference room this week while preparing for the first national team camp of 2020, the Olympics just seven months away, the 23-year-old recently married Skinner admitted she’s still adjusting to the “new” USA Gymnastics.

“It’s just so weird coming into the gym and not feeling like, you know, ‘I’m going to die,’” she said. “Before it was like, ‘I’ve got to hit that routine or I’m going to get yelled at.’ So it’s just been really nice to kind of relax a little bit and be able to really focus on gymnastics and get to enjoy it more.”

There is a sense of lightness during practices that was hard to come by during Karolyi’s hugely successful but strident tenure.

The athletes no longer end each workout by lining up in order of height and offering a robotic, monotone “thank you” to the staff.

Upbeat music plays as they stretch. They talk openly and animatedly while waiting for their turn at each event, a decided departure from the near silence that was commonplace — and perhaps symbolic — of Karolyi’s authoritarian leadership style.

It’s one of the reasons Biles is “optimistic” about USA Gymnastics’ future. When asked why, her words sounded conciliatory even as her tone suggested she has no plans to stop calling out the powers that be when the moment requires.

“I feel like they’re working towards the right direction,” Biles said. “But there are still a lot of unanswered questions that a lot of us as survivors and as the community around us need. But for the most part, in the gym and what we do as a team, that’s going good.”

That wasn’t always the case under Karolyi. At turns brilliant and brutal, Karolyi’s near total control over the women’s elite program turned it into a powerhouse even as it left its athletes at times feeling powerless, the most decorated gymnast in the history of the sport included.

“With Martha you really feared (her) because she held your whole career in her hand,” Biles said. “And now I feel like you’re a little bit more forgiven because it’s such a hard sport and mistakes will be made but it’s how you rise from them and to learn to not do it again.”

A lesson USA Gymnastics itself is attempting to learn itself as it tries to recover from the largest sexual abuse scandal in sports history. The changes it has instituted since the summer of 2017 are both obvious and subtle.

It moved training centers twice, from the Karolyi Ranch in Texas — a decision reached only after Biles expressed outrage about possibly returning to a place she associated with Nassar’s behavior — to Evo Athletics in Bradenton, Florida, to The Gymnastics Company in suburban Indianapolis.

The rustic cabins at the remote ranch tucked into the Sam Houston National Forest have been replaced by hotel rooms near an interstate, a Starbucks and fast food restaurants. Coaches and athletes are prohibited from being alone together during trips to and from national team camps, forcing some to ride share or carpool upon arrival.

Perhaps most telling, the training tables inside The Gymnastics Company are situated right in the middle of the massive steel-structure, not tucked away in a corner.

“We didn’t want to create a back room,” high performance team coordinator Tom Forster said.

Those days are over.

During practice on Monday evening, Annie Heffernan, vice president of the women’s program, sat at a table with Kim Kranz, the organization’s first-ever vice president of athlete health and wellness.

President Li Li Leung, a former collegiate gymnast who came over from the NBA last spring, quietly walked among them, making small talk as she went. Forster — as approachable as Karolyi was aloof — gave the coaches a brief talk and then offered more smiles in 15 minutes than Karolyi did in a given year.

While gymnasts are still rewarded during camps for their performance, national team staff members now have the ability to honor an athlete for things that have nothing to do with chasing perfection.

“It could be an attitude, it could be sportsmanship,” Forster said. “It could be that they came back after that fall and did great. It’s not based on ‘this one’s the best, we have to acknowledge her.’”

The organization has stressed the need for open communication. The members of the 2019 World Championship team were asked to fill out a survey after the competition and share their thoughts on what worked and what didn’t. The same is done after team camps.

“They can complain about anything and anyone that they want to,” Forster said. “They can make it anonymous if they choose or they can say, ‘Hey I want feedback, or ’This is me, and I want to hear from you.’ They can do whatever they wish.”

Measuring any progress is tricky. The organization that long served as the gold standard for the U.S. Olympic movement has lost the benefit of the doubt. Even as it tries to prove how it has evolved over the last three years, the reality is things remain complicated.

Two coaches currently under investigation by U.S. SafeSport attended the camp with their athletes this week. Mediators are still trying to work through the bankruptcy petition USA Gymnastics filed in 2018 as a last-ditch effort to avoid decertification by the USOPC. Nassar survivors continue to call for the organization’s dissolution. Money is tight as sponsors wait for the legal process to play out. When the organization started placing equipment inside The Gymnastics Company, it had staffers do most of the lifting rather than hire professional movers.

All of which leaves the young women vying for an Olympic spot in an awkward position.

Most of the gymnasts in the senior elite program have no connection to Karolyi or Nassar, who was dismissed in the summer of 2015. Yet they find themselves serving as a beta test of sorts on whether the culture shift the organization is trying to bring about is actually happening.

Each of the 15 gymnasts interviewed by The Associated Press this week said they feel they have the freedom to express themselves without fear of retribution. Each believe their mental and physical health and safety is considered important. All of them, however, talked with a coach or a member of the USA Gymnastics staff within earshot.

It’s a lot for group of teenagers and 20-somethings to carry around. Yet it doesn’t appear overwhelming. When Grace McCallum inadvertently sailed off the uneven bars during training on Tuesday morning, her group broke out into laughter — McCallum included — as the three-time world championship medalist picked herself up off the mat.

Yet it was just one moment during one practice that happened to be conducted in front of reporters, photographers and video crews. Whether any of this new approach actually sticks will depend on what happens when the cameras aren’t around.

Much like the sport itself, the process will take dedication, discipline and the ability to address mistakes honestly. Two-time Olympic medalist Laurie Hernandez, however, is hopeful it can be done. She went nearly 3 1/2 years between national team camps after winning gold and silver in Rio. The difference between then and now is jarring. In the best way.

“Now we can truly enjoy each other’s company while just relaxing and enjoying our gymnastics,” Hernandez said. “That says a lot about the environment that’s being created for us. … it’s going to take a second. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not like we’re going to forget what happened before. But it’s getting there.”

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MORE: Investigators at home of Olympic gymnastics coach tied to Larry Nassar

Coco Gauff upsets 9th seed to start French Open

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Coco Gauff notched yet another impressive Grand Slam match win, taking out ninth seed Jo Konta in her French Open main draw debut on Sunday.

Gauff, a 16-year-old American, upset the Brit Konta, a 2019 French Open semifinalist, 6-3, 6-3 on the first day of play at Roland Garros despite 12 double faults. Konta had 41 unforced errors to 22 winners.

“Every match is a great win,” said Gauff, the youngest player in either singles draw. “I don’t really take anything for granted because I’m just happy to be playing. I don’t think maybe winning Slams, matches at Slams is something I’m used to. Especially, this is my first main draw Roland Garros. When I’m on the court. I can act like I’m used to it. When I’m off the court, I’m just happy to be here.”

The clay-court Slam was postponed from May due to the coronavirus pandemic, is being held with damp temperatures in the 50s and has limited spectators to 1,000 per day.

“I’m pretty sure this is my first ever pro tournament, maybe even tournament in general, playing in weather like this,” said Gauff, noting she warmed up for 20 minutes before going on court so she could walk in with a sweat.

Gauff, the 2018 French Open junior champion, gets Italian qualifier Martina Trevisan in the second round after playing a match in leggings for the first time in about six years.

She’s coming off an impressive last year-plus, reaching the fourth round at the most recent Wimbledon and Australian Open. In between, she became the youngest WTA tournament champion since 2004. She recorded wins over Venus Williams and Naomi Osaka.

Gauff will bid over the next nine months to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team outright by being among the top four Americans in WTA rankings after the 2021 French Open. Therefore, her result at this French Open will not count toward Olympic qualifying.

She is currently ranked 51st overall and eighth among Americans.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Sunday, Williams finished her 2020 with a third first-round loss in as many Grand Slam tournaments — 6-4, 6-4 to Slovakian Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.

With the WTA’s autumn Asian swing canceled, Williams said she won’t play before next season starts in Australia.

Williams, 40 years old and ranked 76th, will need a scintillating start to 2021 to make the U.S. Olympic team in singles. She is currently the 14th-highest-ranked American. If she doesn’t make it in singles, Williams (or Gauff) could be chosen as a doubles-only player for the Tokyo Games.

Top seed Simona Halep took the last 10 games of her 6-4, 6-0 win over Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo. Halep, who is on a 15-match win streak dating to February, could play Gauff in the quarterfinals.

On the men’s side, Stan Wawrinka swept Andy Murray 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 in a battle of three-time major champions and a rematch of their life-changing 2017 semifinal in Paris.

“I need to have a long, hard think about it,” Murray said. “I don’t feel like the conditions are an excuse for it.”

It marked Murray’s first match on clay since that semi, won by Wawrinka in five sets. After that match three years ago, Wawrinka underwent two knee surgeries and Murray had two hip surgeries. Neither has made a Grand Slam semifinal since, and Murray nearly retired due to hip problems.

U.S. men went 3-0 on Sunday after winning one match total at the 2019 French Open.

The most notable victor: Sebastian Korda, the 20-year-old son of Czech 1998 Australian Open winner Petr Korda and brother of Nelly Korda, the world’s second-ranked female golfer.

Korda beat Italian veteran Andreas Seppi 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 to become the youngest U.S. man to win a French Open main-draw match since 18-year-old Andy Roddick defeated Michael Chang in 2001.

Korda, after his first tour-level win, gets John Isner in the second round.

Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, each trying to tie Grand Slam singles titles records, play first-round matches on Monday.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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Julian Alaphilippe wins world road race title with late attack

Julian Alaphilippe
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Julian Alaphilippe became the first Frenchman to win a road cycling world title in 23 years, attacking late and holding on to prevail by 24 seconds in Imola, Italy, on Sunday.

Alaphilippe, who wore the Tour de France yellow jersey for 16 stages between the last two years, went clear from a star-filled group at the top of the last climb with about eight miles left of a 160-mile day.

“It was a dream of my career, you know,” said Alaphilippe, whose best previous worlds finish was eighth. “I came here with, for sure, a lot of ambition. It’s just a dream day for me.”

Belgian Wout van Aert took silver, followed by Swiss Marc Hirschi in a five-man bunch sprint for the last two medals. Van Aert also earned silver in the time trial on Friday.

Slovenian Primoz Roglic, who was second in the Tour de France, finished sixth in the same time as the silver and bronze medalists after more than six and a half hours of racing.

The top American was Sepp Kuss in 52nd place, 12:35 behind.

Full results are here.

The last Frenchmen to win world titles were Laurent Brochard (road race) and Laurent Jalabert (time trial) in 1997.

Slovenian Tadej Pogacar, who won the Tour de France last Sunday, attacked with 26 miles left. He led by as much as 25 seconds before being reeled back in with about 13 miles to go.

The cycling season continues with the last two Grand Tours, each starting later than normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Giro d’Italia begins Oct. 3, and the Vuelta a Espana starts Oct. 20, before the Giro finishes.

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MORE: A more equal future for women’s cycling? Lizzie Deignan has high hopes