Kayla DiCello, debuting at American Cup, eyes junior-to-Olympics gymnastics jump

Kayla DiCello
Allison Cheng/USA Gymnastics
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The last 10 U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics teams included an athlete who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year. Kayla DiCello looks like the best hope to extend that streak this summer.

On Saturday, DiCello will become the first U.S. woman to make her senior-level debut at the prestigious American Cup in an Olympic year since 2004 (Courtney McCool). Coverage airs at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

“My next thing is to try and make a run for Tokyo 2020,” DiCello said after winning the U.S. junior all-around title last summer. “There will be some pressure.”

USA Gymnastics can enter two gymnasts per gender at the American Cup, its biggest annual international meet.

That DiCello will even suit up in Milwaukee is already a victory given the depth of the U.S. program. The other American in the field is 2017 World all-around champion Morgan Hurd, plus Sam Mikulak and Shane Wiskus in the men’s competition (5 p.m., NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app).

“It should give you a sense of confidence just to be selected,” said NBC Sports analyst Nastia Liukin, who competed at the 2005 American Cup in her first year as a senior. “Let that give you the confidence to think, OK, I totally belong here. And she totally does.”

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DiCello (pronounced Duh-CHELL-o), a high school sophomore from Boyds, Md., won the 2019 U.S. junior title with a score that would have placed third in the senior division behind Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee.

In 2016, Laurie Hernandez entered the Olympic year as the reigning junior champ. In 2012, Kyla Ross was the top rising junior. Each made the Olympic team before earning her driver’s license.

DiCello’s skills — her favorite event is uneven bars — remind Liukin of Ross, who is retired from Olympic-level gymnastics and is in her last season competing for UCLA.

“[DiCello] is powerful. She’s got great form, graceful,” Liukin said. “She does definitely have a little bit of everything.”

DiCello began tumbling at Hill’s Gymnastics Training Center in Gaithersburg, Md., around her second birthday, when her parents enrolled her in a mommy- and daddy-and-me class.

“At one point, one of the coaches tapped us on the shoulder and basically said, hey, you should put her in baby angels,” said her father, Matt.

“Angels” is described as an invitation-only class for ages 4-5 that leads into competitive programs at Hill’s.

“From that point, she just continued to love the sport and really get a good knack for it,” Matt said.

DiCello, who has three siblings (including two younger sisters in gymnastics), tried other sports such as swimming and ballet.

“If you ask her, she would say she enjoyed flying through the air,” Matt said. “Soccer — she was afraid of the soccer ball, so that sport didn’t last very long.”

Neither Matt nor wife Kecia had any gymnastics experience. But they found themselves fortunate to raise four kids seven miles from one of the most prestigious gymnastics centers in the country.

They began realizing this when toting their daughters to the gym and seeing photos of Dominique Dawes on the walls or the Magnificent Seven in the lobby.

“We never applied that to our kids,” Matt said. “We never knew what the potential could be.”

Now, DiCello is the backdrop of the Hill’s homepage with the slogan, “Teaching toddlers to Olympians for over 30 years.”

Kelli Hill coached the three-time Olympian Dawes, 2000 Olympian Elise Ray and 2004 Olympian Courtney Kupets.

“A first-year senior in an Olympic year is a very difficult position to be in,” Hill said after DiCello won the junior title. “We have talked about it. We know what’s ahead. We’re looking at what start values [routine difficulty] we’ll need. She knows we’re working on skills for senior.”

The Olympic team event size was cut from five to four for the Tokyo Games, but the U.S. should qualify two extra spots for gymnasts in individual events only. Jade Carey has all but locked up one of those two.

While team selectors will certainly be watching DiCello and Hurd on Saturday, the most important meets are the nationals and trials in June.

“Olympic trials is going to be more difficult than Olympics,” said DiCello, whose first Olympic memory was watching the 2012 Fierce Five take gold in London. “Ever since I started gymnastics, it’s always been a dream of mine to make it to the Olympics.”

The career span of an elite U.S. female gymnast rarely includes multiple Olympic runs. While Ross and Hernandez each made the quick jump to the Olympics, the other top juniors from those years (Katelyn OhashiJazmyn Foberg) suffered injuries, stepped away from elite competition and went the NCAA route.

DiCello, who has battled back and ankle injuries, is already committed to the University of Florida after she graduates high school in two years. What happens in the next few months could change all that. Success in an Olympic year leads to gymnasts turning pro (like Hernandez) or extending elite careers and deferring college (like Ross).

“Following the U.S. [Junior] Championships and the success she had there, then it started to become, not a realization, but an opportunity that sort of presented itself, saying, hey, you might have a shot,” at the Tokyo Olympics, Matt said. “It might be small, or it could be big, but you at least have a shot at it.

“It’s one of those things you can’t control. You have to look at it from a standpoint of this is your opportunity, take your best shot at this thing.”

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Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

Kendall Gretsch
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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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World champion skier Kyle Smaine dies in avalanche at age 31

Kyle Smaine
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Kyle Smaine, a retired world champion halfpipe skier, died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to NBC News, citing Smaine’s father. He was 31.

Smaine, a 2015 World champion in ski halfpipe, had been doing ski filming in Japan, sharing videos on his Instagram account over the past week.

The native of South Lake Tahoe, California, finished ninth in ski halfpipe at the 2016 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.

In 2018, Smaine won the fifth and final U.S. Olympic qualifying series event in ski halfpipe but did not make the four-man team for PyeongChang. His last sanctioned international competition was in February 2018.

Late Sunday, two-time Olympic champion David Wise won the X Games men’s ski halfpipe and dedicated it to Smaine.

“We all did this for Kyle tonight,” Wise said on the broadcast. “It’s a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend.”