At gymnastics nationals, Olympians give it the college try

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TAMPA — For many star college athletes, August means easing back into campus life. But gymnasts Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles have unprecedented business ahead over the next two and a half months, starting with the U.S. Championships this week.

Carey and Chiles are the first U.S. Olympic female gymnasts to return to elite competition after a college season since NCAA gymnastics began in 1982. Leanne Wong, an Olympic alternate also coming off her freshman campaign, is another headliner this week.

The Tokyo veterans plan to vie for national titles on Friday and Sunday (broadcast schedule here), then bid at an October selection camp for a spot on the five-woman team for the world championships. Worlds are in late October and early November in Liverpool, England.

They would then have two months until the start of their sophomore NCAA seasons, should they keep the whirlwind going.

Some Olympians retire after the Games, or at least take a break. Others go compete in college, but never return to the more demanding elite level. Carey and Chiles want it all.

“I was pretty sure that, after the Olympics, I was going to be done [with Olympic-level gymnastics] and move on to college,” said Carey, the Olympic floor exercise gold medalist who attends Oregon State. “But I think just that whole [Tokyo] experience in general, I really just wanted to be able to experience it again.”

Chiles, who matriculated at UCLA after winning team silver in Tokyo, also has eyes on the 2024 Paris Games. Even though she’s had exhausting days at Westwood where she wondered what she got herself into.

“It’s hard being able to do online [classes], and then you have to be in person [for class] and then doing NCAA [gymnastics] and making sure you’re there with your team,” said Chiles, who said she didn’t take a break after April’s NCAA Championships. “I like challenges.”

For some Olympic sports, the NCAA can be a feeding system for the Olympics. Not women’s gymnastics, which looks very different in college than it does at the Games.

NCAA scoring is capped at 10.0 (similar to what the Olympics had through 2004), rather than the more open-ended international system. College places a greater emphasis on clean routines than the skill difficulty that might be necessary for international medals. It can be overkill to perform the most demanding elite skills in college when you’re competing weekly for most of the winter, a contrast from peaking for two or three meets a year as an elite. So gymnasts may switch to completely different routines than they performed in elite.

The last several U.S. Olympic men’s gymnastics teams included athletes who previously competed in college, and many who returned to school after the Games.

But it has been different for women. Before Tokyo, most Olympic female gymnasts were teenagers. For a collegian considering a return to elite training, that meant her primary competition for national team spots were athletes who weren’t balancing the two different types of gymnastics training, let alone competing every week in NCAA.

Up until last year, every U.S. Olympic female gymnastics star had to choose between NCAA eligibility and cashing in on professional opportunities. Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Nastia Liukin all turned pro in that era, forgoing college competition.

Name, image and likeness changed all that. Four of the six women on the Tokyo Olympic team competed collegiately last season, a record. Olympic all-around champion Suni Lee, a rising Auburn sophomore, plans to follow Carey and Chiles and return to elite competition in 2023. It has been more than a half-century since the only U.S. woman to compete at the Olympics, then compete in college and then compete in another Olympics.

Since, many women had to decide if and when to phase out of elite and into NCAA gymnastics. Some tried both at the same time.

In 2004, a 16-year-old Alicia Quinn did not make the Olympic team and signed a letter of intent to compete for UCLA. But before enrolling, she won the 2005 World title on floor exercise and decided to stick with elite gymnastics for a 2008 Olympic bid. That meant staying at home in Massachusetts and working with her elite coaches.

Quinn still wanted a college experience, so she joined the team down the road at Brown University, sometimes training at her elite gym in the morning and then driving to campus for Ivy League classes and practice.

“My [elite] coach [Mihai Brestyan] was like, look, just don’t let her do anything where she’s going to hurt herself,” Quinn said. “Mihai’s whole thing was education is really important. Put that first because, obviously, gymnastics doesn’t last forever. So he was on board with me going to school.”

A year after her one college season, Quinn made the Beijing Olympics and earned a team silver medal. She’s now one of three directors for the U.S. women’s national team program.

“Physically, it’s a toll,” Quinn said of doing college and elite. “I would tell [younger gymnasts], that’s great. Just know that it takes a lot of work and a lot of dedication.”

In 2015, Brenna Dowell placed second on floor exercise at the NCAA Championships as an Oklahoma freshman. She then chose not to renew her accommodation lease in Norman, deferred her sophomore season, went to the U.S. Championships that summer and competed at the world championships that fall despite not training elite skills during the January-to-April college season.

“I had nothing to lose because I got to keep my eligibility, and I could go back to college after taking my year off,” she said. “My bar routine was going to be twice as long [in elite], I’d have to add an extra floor pass, add an extra full twist on vault. Everything came back so easily.

“Leanne, Jade and Jordan and all the girls that are coming back, they’ve been doing elite gymnastics for so long, so this season of college gymnastics could actually be something that’s really good for them, because their bodies have had time off [from elite]. Retrain a skill, try to get rid of bad habits as you’re starting fresh.”

Elizabeth Price, a 2012 Olympic alternate, won the all-around at the 2014 American Cup and the 2014 Pacific Rim Championships. She looked like a contender for the 2016 Olympics. But she never had designs on Rio, nor second thoughts after enrolling at Stanford later in 2014.

“I was looking forward to that different phase of life,” said Price, who earned a biomechanical engineering degree, then got her master’s from Harvard in design engineering. “Even if my school hours were cut in half, I still don’t think it would have made much of a difference because for me personally at that time, I don’t think my body could have handled doing elite gymnastics on top of college gymnastics.”

Last year, MyKayla Skinner became the first American woman with college experience to make an Olympic team since Quinn. She retired after Tokyo.

This past April, Trinity Thomas of the University of Florida won the NCAA Championships all-around over the Olympic champion Lee.

Thomas did college and elite gymnastics back-to-back in 2019 and planned to do it again in 2020 before the pandemic shut down sports. She thought she would bid for the Olympic team in 2021, but sprained both ankles that NCAA season and announced her retirement from elite.

Thomas is now leaving the door open to a return to elite after deciding to come back for one more college season in 2023. Her motivation stems in part from seeing Carey, Chiles and her Gators teammate Wong try both.

“It does give me that extra kick in the butt, maybe that little bit more confidence that I can do it, too,” she said.

In Tampa this weekend, Carey and Chiles will experience what Price called “fighting from a different perspective.”

“You have to get back the skills that you hadn’t been training, also build up the endurance and strength that it requires to go to these competitions and compete significantly harder routines like you never left elite gymnastics,” Price said. “They’re fighting an uphill battle, but it’s been done before.”

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Germany goes 1-2 at bobsled worlds; Kaillie Humphries breaks medals record

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Kim Kalicki and Lisa Buckwitz gave Germany a one-two in the world bobsled championships two-woman event, while American Kaillie Humphries earned bronze to break the career medals record.

Kalicki, who was fourth at last year’s Olympics and leads this season’s World Cup standings, edged Buckwitz by five hundredths of a second combining times from four runs over the last two days in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Humphries, with push athlete Kaysha Love, was 51 hundredths behind.

Olympic champion Laura Nolte was in third place after two runs but crashed in the third run.

Humphries, 37 and a three-time Olympic champion between two-woman and monobob, earned her eighth world championships medal in the two-woman event. That broke her tie for the record of seven with retired German Sandra Kiriasis. Humphries is also the most decorated woman in world championships monobob, taking gold and silver in the two times it has been contested.

Humphries rolled her ankle after the first day of last week’s monobob, plus took months off training in the offseason while also doing two rounds of IVF.

“I chose to continue the IVF journey through the season which included a Lupron Depot shot the day before this race began,” she posted after her monobob silver last weekend. “My weight and body fluctuating all year with hormones, it was a battle to find my normal while competing again. I’m happy with this result, I came into it wanting a podium and we achieved it as a team.”

Love, who was seventh with Humphries in the Olympic two-woman event, began her transition to become a driver after the Games.

Worlds finish Sunday with the final two runs of the four-man event.

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Snowboarders sue coach, USOPC in assault, harassment case

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Olympic bronze medalist Rosey Fletcher has filed a lawsuit accusing former snowboard coach Peter Foley of sexually assaulting, harassing and intimidating members of his team for years, while the organizations overseeing the team did nothing to stop it.

Fletcher is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Thursday. One names Foley, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team and its former CEO, Tiger Shaw, as defendants. Another, filed by a former employee of USSS, names Foley, Shaw and the ski federation as defendants.

One of the lawsuits, which also accuse the defendants of sex trafficking, harassment, and covering up repeated acts of sexual assault and misconduct, allege Foley snuck into bed and sexually assaulted Fletcher, then shortly after she won her bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics, approached her “and said he still remembered ‘how she was breathing,’ referring to the first time he assaulted her.”

The lawsuits describe Foley as fostering a depraved travel squad of snowboarders, in which male coaches shared beds with female athletes, crude jokes about sexual conquests were frequently shared and coaches frequently commented to the female athletes about their weight and body types.

“Male coaches, including Foley, would slap female athletes’ butts when they finished their races, even though the coaches would not similarly slap the butts of male athletes,” the lawsuit said. “Physical assault did not stop with slapping butts. Notably, a female athlete once spilled barbeque sauce on her chest while eating and a male coach approached her and licked it off her chest without warning or her consent.”

The USOPC and USSS knew of Foley’s behavior but did nothing to stop it, the lawsuit said. It depicted Foley as an all-powerful coach who could make and break athletes’ careers on the basis of how they got along off the mountain.

Foley’s attorney, Howard Jacobs, did not immediately return requests for comment from The Associated Press. Jacobs has previously said allegations of sexual misconduct against Foley are false.

In a statement, the USOPC said it had not seen the complaint and couldn’t comment on specific details but that “we take every allegation of abuse very seriously.”

“The USOPC is committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Team USA athletes, and we are taking every step to identify, report, and eliminate abuse in our community,” the statement said.

It wasn’t until the Olympics in Beijing last year that allegations about Foley’s behavior and the culture on the snowboarding team started to emerge.

Allegations posted on Instagram by former team member Callan Chythlook-Sifsof — who, along with former team member Erin O’Malley, is a plaintiff along with Fletcher — led to Foley’s removal from the team, which he was still coaching when the games began.

That posting triggered more allegations in reporting by ESPN and spawned an AP report about how the case was handled between USSS and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is ultimately responsible for investigating cases involving sex abuse in Olympic sports. The center has had Foley on temporary suspension since March 18, 2022.

The AP typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they have granted permission or spoken publicly, as Fletcher, Chythlook-Sifsof and O’Malley have done through a lawyer.

USSS said it was made aware of the allegations against Foley on Feb 6, 2022, and reported them to the SafeSport center.

“We are aware of the lawsuits that were filed,” USSS said in a statement. “U.S. Ski & Snowboard has not yet been served with the complaint nor has had an opportunity to fully review it. U.S. Ski & Snowboard is and will remain an organization that prioritizes the safety, health and well-being of its athletes and staff.”

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages to be determined in a jury trial.