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Olympic age rule stirs reaction from gymnastics community

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In an interview last week, USA Gymnastics Chief Programs Officer Stefanie Korepin acknowledged an International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) decision regarding an Olympic age eligibility rule created a lot of debate within the sport’s community.

Days later, half of the U.S. women’s team that was sent to the 2019 World Championships voiced their opinions.

The FIG has had a rule since 2000 that female artistic gymnasts must turn 16 or older in that year to compete in the Olympics (and now for world championships in all the non-Olympic years). When the Tokyo Olympics were postponed until 2021, the FIG faced a decision: keep the Olympic field under 2020 terms, or let those turning 16 in 2021 into the fold. It chose the latter in April.

“I see both sides of the coin,” Korepin said. “On one hand, many of our athletes, the Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of our athletes, and they peak at a specific time. And to have that pool of athletes that they have to compete against for the Olympics changed can be really difficult. But, on the other hand, there are really incredible young athletes who now have an opportunity that they didn’t have before, so we’re excited for them. It’s definitely a mixed bag of emotions, how we feel about it.”

NBC Olympics analyst Nastia Liukin, who won the 2008 Olympic all-around title after being one year too young for the 2004 Athens Games, said before the FIG ruling that she was glad she wasn’t a decision-maker. “I don’t know if there is a right decision,” she said.

Three members of the current U.S. women’s gymnastics team said they disagreed with the FIG decision.

MyKayla SkinnerJade Carey and Sunisa Lee, half of the U.S. team sent to the 2019 World Championships, opined in a wide-ranging YouTube question-and-answer on Skinner’s channel published Monday.

“I think that it was wrong,” said Carey, the lone U.S. gymnast who has already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. “If they’re still going to call it the 2020 Olympics [the Games in 2021 will still be called Tokyo 2020], then everything needs to stay the way that it was going to be.

“No hate towards any of the juniors now. But it’s just not fair to us because now there’s a whole bunch more athletes that could now go. … They’ve been pacing for 2024, and now they’re all just, all of a sudden, try to do it for this one year that they weren’t trying for in the first place.”

Lee, the 2019 U.S. all-around silver medalist behind Simone Biles, said it was really unfair. Skinner, an alternate at the 2016 Olympics and 2019 Worlds who is clinging to one more year of elite gymnastics at age 23, said she hoped the FIG decision could be changed. 

Biles, the lone gymnast considered a lock for the Olympic team (other than Carey), has not publicly shared her opinion. One of her coaches, Cecile Landi, did.

“I have NOTHING against the 2005 generation but I don’t agree with this decision,” was tweeted from Landi’s account on April 9. “It will be the 2020 Olympics so the rules should remain the same as THIS YEAR.”

Konnor McClain is considered by many the U.S.’ top 15-year-old gymnast who just became Tokyo Olympic eligible. Her mom, Lorinda, was surprised the FIG made her eligible and kept the early 2021 goal modest — to earn a place at the Olympic Trials.

“Making it to the trials would be great and keeping that 2024 path on track,” she said. “This [age decision] all made it a little hard because we were on a slow pace. We were working for 2024, so this kind of threw a wrench in our spokes.”

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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.

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

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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.

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