Larisa Iordache, Simone Biles
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Larisa Iordache, once Simone Biles’ closest rival, chases comeback

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Nobody has challenged Simone Biles in international gymnastics quite like Larisa Iordache. As Biles prepares to finish her career at the Olympics next year, Iordache hopes to join her there, which would be quite an achievement.

Iordache, a 23-year-old Romanian, recently announced she plans to compete later this year for the first time since 2017 and three surgeries. The circled competition is the European Championships in Azerbaijan in December, rescheduled from early spring.

Though Romania failed to qualify a team for Tokyo, Iordache can secure an individual Olympic spot for the nation via her all-around result at Europeans.

“I went through a lot of difficult moments,” in recent years, Iordache said via email through Romania’s gymnastics federation, “but I never gave up to the idea of doing gymnastics. It was hard to perish so long, but now I’m fine. I can say that I like what I do so much, so I decided to give myself another chance to prove myself that I can do it.”

Iordache is the last remaining link to the nation’s storied women’s gymnastics history — 10 straight Olympic team medals from 1976 through 2012.

Romania failed to qualify a women’s team for the Olympics in 2016 and 2020. For Rio, the nation could send just one female gymnast of its choosing.

It opted for Catalina Ponor, the triple 2004 Olympic champion hanging on for one final Games. Iordache, a 2012 Olympian sidelined by two surgeries for a broken finger and a concussion in the lead-up to Rio selection, went to Brazil, too. As the alternate.

Unfortunate, given Iordache still owns the distinction of being the closest of any gymnast to beating Biles at a global championship. At the 2014 Worlds, Iordache finished .466 shy of Biles in the all-around. Since, Biles won the Rio Olympics and three more world titles, all by at least one point.

“To be honest, I never thought about the competition between athletes,” Iordache, who also took bronze in the 2015 World all-around, said when asked about competing against the American. “I always tried to prepare and implement my own exercises in a safe way.”

Iordache endured after Rio. She won the Romanian national title in September 2017 and arrived at the world championships in Montreal that autumn as a medal favorite.

All of the Olympic medalists were absent. Biles on a break from competition. Raisman made Rio her last competition. Russian Aliya Mustafina became a mom. Iordache had the best credentials of anyone in the field.

In warm-up for the qualifying round, Iordache tore an Achilles. She was carried off the floor and later wheeled out in a chair. She has not been seen in competition since. She underwent surgery in October 2017, another one a month and a half later and a third in September 2018.

Though she never quit gymnastics, the thought crossed her mind. Then she considered the alternative, giving up a sport that first piqued her interest at age 5. When Iordache was 11, a Romanian newspaper ran a story about her with the headline “The New Nadia.”

“When I’m in the gym I forget everything about what is happening around me, and the feeling I have in these moments is the one I can’t meet in my daily life,” she said. “I try to take advantage of this feeling as much as I can.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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Sam Mikulak to retire from gymnastics after Tokyo Olympics

Sam Mikulak
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Sam Mikulak, the U.S.’ top male gymnast, said he will retire after the Tokyo Olympics, citing a wrist injury and emotional health revelations during a forced break from the sport due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It does sound like some pretty crazy news, but there’s a lot of factors that go into it,” Mikulak said in a YouTube video published Sunday night. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about it during quarantine.”

The 27-year-old is a two-time Olympian, six-time U.S. all-around champion and the only active U.S. male gymnast with Olympic experience.

Mikulak said he noticed significant wrist inflammation last year that was temporarily healed by a November cortisone shot. But during quarantine, the wrist worsened even though he wasn’t doing gymnastics. He took a month off from working out, but the wrist didn’t heal.

He thought for a time that he might not return to gymnastics at all. A doctor told him he would need cortisone shots for the rest of his career.

“At that point, it was really made for me that this has to be my final year of gymnastics because I don’t want to ruin myself beyond this sport,” Mikulak said.

Mikulak also noted realizations from the forced time out of the gym. He learned that he’s much less stressed while not doing gymnastics, a sport he began at age 2. Mikulak’s parents were gymnasts at Cal.

“For so long, I’ve been sacrificing, and I’m sick of it,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to being able to be free from gymnastics and being able to do all these things that I’ve been putting off in my life for so long.”

Mikulak realized a career goal in 2018 when he earned his first individual world championships medal, a bronze on high bar. He wants to cap his career with a first Olympic medal in Tokyo, then, perhaps, become a coach or open his own gym.

Mikulak recently got engaged to Mia Atkins, and they got another puppy, Barney.

“Everything I’ve done in gymnastics is enough for me right now,” said Mikulak, who plans to document the next year on YouTube. “I was actually somewhat happy that I was able to come to that type of decision because for so long I felt like gymnastics really wasn’t going to be fulfilling until I’ve gotten my Olympic medal. And during quarantine, I had this whole revelation where, you know what, I am happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life, and I’m not doing gymnastics, so even if I don’t accomplish these goals, I am still going to be so damn happy.”

MORE: Simone Biles’ closest rival chases comeback

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April Ross, Alix Klineman complete perfect, abbreviated AVP season

April Ross, Alix Klineman
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April Ross and Alix Klineman consolidated their position as the U.S.’ top beach volleyball team, completing a sweep of the three-tournament AVP Champions Cup on Sunday.

Ross, a two-time Olympic medalist, and Klineman won the finale, the Porsche Cup. They won all 12 matches over the last three weekends, including the last 14 sets in a row, capped with a 21-18, 21-17 win over Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil in Sunday’s final.

“It feels like we’re midseason in a normal year,” Ross said on Amazon Prime. “I can’t believe it’s over.”

The AVP Champions Cup marked the first three top-level beach volleyball tournaments since March, and a replacement for a typical AVP season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The setting: on the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center parking lot without fans and with many health and safety measures.

AVP is not part of Olympic qualifying. It’s unknown when those top-level international tournaments will resume, but Ross and Klineman, ranked No. 2 in the world, are just about assured of one of the two U.S. Olympic spots.

According to BVBinfo.com, they’re 10-0 combined against the other top U.S. teams — Claes and Sponcil and triple Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, who are likely battling for the last U.S. Olympic spot.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who do not play on the AVP tour, have a lead for the last spot more than halfway through qualifying, which runs into June.

Earlier in the men’s final, Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb kept 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena from sweeping the Champions Cup. Bourne and Crabb prevailed 21-17, 15-21, 15-12 for their first AVP title since teaming in 2018.

Bourne, who went nearly two years between tournaments from 2016-18 due to an autoimmune disease, and Crabb redeemed after straight-set losses to Dalhausser and Lucena the previous two weekends. Crabb guaranteed a title on Instagram days before the tournament.

“Those guys are the best in the world, and they make you look bad at times, but we’re relentless,” Bourne said on Amazon Prime. “You’re going to have to play the best volleyball in the world to beat us every time.”

Bourne and Crabb, Dalhausser and Lucena and Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb (Trevor’s younger brother) are battling for two available U.S. Olympic spots in Tokyo.

MORE: Team Slaes looks to end Kerri Walsh Jennings’ Olympic career

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