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, Great Britain.

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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Kenenisa Bekele still eyes Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, but a duel must wait

Kenenisa Bekele
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LONDON — Kenenisa Bekele made headlines last week by declaring “of course I am the best” long distance runner ever. But the Ethiopian was fifth-best at Sunday’s London Marathon, finishing 74 seconds behind Kenya’s Amos Kipruto.

Bekele, 40, clocked 2:05:53, the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. He was with the lead pack until being dropped in the 21st mile.

But Bekele estimated he could have run 90 to 120 seconds faster had he not missed parts of six weeks of training with hip and joint injuries.

“I expect better even if the preparation is short,” he said. “I know my talent and I know my capacity, but really I couldn’t achieve what I expect.”

Bekele is the second-fastest marathoner in history behind Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own world record by clocking 2:01:09 at the Berlin Marathon last week.

“I am happy when I see Eliud Kipchoge run that time,” Bekele said. “It motivates all athletes who really expect to do the same thing.”

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Bekele’s best time was within two seconds of Kipchoge’s previous world record (2:01:39). He described breaking Kipchoge’s new mark as the “main goal” for the rest of his career.

“Yes, I hope, one day it will happen, of course,” Bekele said. “With good preparation, I don’t know when, but we will see one more time.”

Nobody has won more London Marathons than Kipchoge, a four-time champion who set the course record (2:02:37) in 2019. But the two-time Olympic marathon champion did not run this year in London, as elite marathoners typically choose to enter one race each spring and fall.

Bekele does not know which race he will enter in the spring. But it will not be against Kipchoge.

“I need to show something first,” Bekele said. “I need to run a fast time. I have to check myself. This is not enough.”

Kipchoge will try to become the first runner to win three Olympic marathon titles at the Paris Games. Bekele, who will be 42 in 2024, has not committed to trying to qualify for the Ethiopian team.

“There’s a long time to go before Paris,” Bekele said. “At this moment I am not decided. I have to show something.”

So who is the greatest long distance runner ever?

Bekele can make a strong case on the track:

Bekele
Four Olympic medals (three gold)
Six World Championship medals (five gold)
Former 5000m and 10,000m world-record holder

Kipchoge
Two Olympic medals
Two World Championship medals (one gold)

But Kipchoge can make a strong case on the pavement:

Bekele
Second-fastest marathoner in history
Two World Marathon Major victories

Kipchoge
Four of the five best marathon times in history
Two-time Olympic marathon champion
12 World Marathon Major victories

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Yalemzerf Yehualaw, Amos Kipruto win London Marathon

Yalemzerf Yehualaw
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Ethiopian Yalemzerf Yehualaw became the youngest female runner to win the London Marathon, while Kenyan Amos Kipruto earned the biggest victory of his career in the men’s race.

Yehualaw, 23, clocked 2:17:26, prevailing by 41 seconds over 2021 London champ Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya.

Yehualaw tripped and fell over a speed bump around the 20-mile mark. She quickly rejoined the lead pack, then pulled away from Jepkosgei by running the 24th mile in a reported 4:43, which converts to 2:03:30 marathon pace; the women’s world record is 2:14:04.

Yehualaw and Jepkosgei were pre-race favorites after world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya withdrew Monday with a right hamstring injury.

On April 24, Yehualaw ran the fastest women’s debut marathon in history, a 2:17:23 to win in Hamburg, Germany.

She has joined the elite tier of female marathoners, a group led by Kenyan Peres Jepchirchir, the reigning Olympic, New York City and Boston champion. Another Ethiopian staked a claim last week when Tigist Assefa won Berlin in 2:15:37, shattering Yehualaw’s national record.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first Olympic women’s marathon champion in 1984, finished Sunday’s race in 3:20:20 at age 65.

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Kipruto, 30, won the men’s race in 2:04:39. He broke free from the leading group in the 25th mile and crossed the finish line 33 seconds ahead of Ethiopian Leul Gebresilase, who said he had hamstring problems.

Kipruto, one of the pre-race favorites, had never won a major marathon but did finish second behind world record holder Eliud Kipchoge in Tokyo (2022) and Berlin (2018) and third at the world championships (2019) and Tokyo (2018).

Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest marathoner in history, was fifth after being dropped in the 21st mile. His 2:05:53 was the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. Bekele ran his personal best at the 2019 Berlin Marathon — 2:01:41 — and has not run within four minutes of that time since.

The major marathon season continues next Sunday with the Chicago Marathon, headlined by a women’s field that includes Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich and American Emily Sisson.

London returns next year to its traditional April place after being pushed to October the last three years due to the pandemic.

MORE: Bekele looks ahead to Kipchoge chase after London Marathon

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