U.S. women’s gymnastics team, sans Simone Biles for first time in a decade, eyes world title

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The last time a U.S. women’s gymnastics team competed on the highest level without a single Simone Biles routine, it was near the start of the program’s decade of dominance at the 2012 London Games.

There is no Biles on the entry list for the world championships that start with qualifying Saturday in Liverpool, England. There is no Suni Lee, who succeeded Biles as Olympic all-around champion in Tokyo. Both are on indefinite, possibly permanent, breaks from elite gymnastics.

There is also no Konnor McClain, who won the U.S. all-around title in August, then withdrew from world championships team consideration with a back injury.

Yet the U.S. is still favored to win a sixth consecutive world team title dating to 2011, which would break its tie with Romania for the longest streak in history, for a combination of reasons.

Russia, which relegated the U.S. to silver at the Olympics, is banned due to the war in Ukraine. The American team of five is reliable, stocked with veterans.

“The beauty of this women’s team is that they might not have a Simone that is in a different stratosphere from the world, but they’ve got a high floor,” said NBC Sports’ John Roethlisberger, a three-time Olympian.

GYMNASTICS WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

The U.S., set for the team final on Tuesday, still boasts one of the top two gymnasts of the entire field in Liverpool: Shilese Jones, who considered quitting elite gymnastics after placing 10th in the all-around at last year’s Olympic Trials.

An American woman won every Olympic or world all-around title from 2011 through the Tokyo Games, with Biles gobbling six of those 10 crowns. Angelina Melnikova, who snapped that streak at last October’s worlds, is absent this year due to the Russia ban.

Still, an American victory in the all-around is more in doubt than in the team event. That’s because of Brazilian Rebeca Andrade, who took a close silver to Lee in Tokyo and passed on doing the all-around at last year’s worlds.

Andrade and fellow veteran Flavia Saraiva lead a Brazilian group that could win the nation’s first team medal at an Olympics or worlds. At the last worlds with a team event in 2019, Brazil placed 14th, failing to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

Now, Brazil is right up with podium regular China to challenge the Americans, should they make mistakes. At the peak of the Biles-led era, the U.S. won a team competition by more than eight points. That margin meant U.S. gymnasts could have fallen on half of their routines and still prevailed.

That is not the case anymore, evidenced by Russia’s victory at the Tokyo Olympics, where Biles withdrew with the twisties after her opening vault.

“Certainly they don’t have this aura of invincibility,” Roethlisberger said. “But I think they maybe have a little bit of a, I don’t want to say chip on their shoulder, because I don’t know if they think about it that in-depth. But, ‘Hey, we’re still the best, and we’re going to show you.'”

Given the absences of Biles, Lee and McClain, the U.S. might not be favored if not for the recent proliferation of gymnasts balancing elite gymnastics with NCAA gymnastics, which have different scoring systems and, usually, different routines.

Tokyo medalists Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles, plus 2021 World all-around silver medalist Leanne Wong, make up three-fifths of the U.S. team. All are coming off their freshman years and are expected to return to college competition this winter and early spring. No U.S. woman has competed at an Olympics, then competed in college and then made it back for another Olympics since NCAA women’s gymnastics began in the early 1980s.

Like the women, the U.S. men compete in a major team event for the first time since their stalwart (the retired Sam Mikulak) stepped away from competition.

They, too, will benefit from the absence of Olympic champion Russia, which likely opens up a place on the podium below Japan and China. The U.S. last earned a men’s team medal in 2014.

Brody Malone, who supplanted Mikulak as the top U.S. male gymnast last year, leads a team that’s a mix of youth and experience with a major strength on vault and a concern on high bar. Keys in the three-up, three-count team final on Wednesday will be limiting mistakes on those first two high bar routines before Malone and from the leadoff man on pommel horse.

“If those three routines can somehow get a 13 or above,” Roethlisberger said, “I think they’re going to win a medal.”

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Olympic flame to travel by sea for Paris 2024, welcomed by armada

Paris 2024 Olympic Torch Relay Marseille
Paris 2024
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The Olympic flame will travel from Athens to Marseille by ship in spring 2024 to begin the France portion of the torch relay that ends in Paris on July 26, 2024.

The torch relay always begins in the ancient Olympic site of Olympia, Greece, where the sun’s rays light the flame. It will be passed by torch until it reaches Athens.

It will then cross the Mediterranean Sea aboard the Belem, a three-masted ship, “reminiscent of a true Homeric epic,” according to Paris 2024. It will arrive at the Old Port of Marseille, welcomed by an armada of boats.

Marseille is a former Greek colony and the oldest city in France. It will host sailing and some soccer matches during the Paris Olympics.

The full 2024 Olympic torch relay route will be unveiled in May.

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Paris 2024 Olympic Torch Relay Marseille
Paris 2024

Mikaela Shiffrin heads to world championships with medal records in sight

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Before Mikaela Shiffrin can hold the World Cup wins record, she can become the most decorated Alpine skier in modern world championships history.

Shiffrin takes a respite from World Cup pursuits for the biennial world championships in France. She is expected to race at least four times, beginning with Monday’s combined.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup victories in 23 starts this season, her best since her record 17-win 2018-19 campaign, but world championships do not count toward the World Cup.

Shiffrin remains one career victory behind Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s record 86 World Cup wins until at least her next World Cup start in March.

Shiffrin has been more successful at worlds than at the Olympics and even on the World Cup. She has 11 medals in 13 world championships races dating to her 2013 debut, including making the podium in each of her last 10 events.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

She enters worlds one shy of the modern, post-World War II individual records for total medals (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt won 12) and gold medals (Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson won seven).

Worlds take place exactly one year after Shiffrin missed the medals in all of her Olympic races, but that’s not motivating her.

“If I learned anything last year, it’s that these big events, they can go amazing, and they can go terrible, and you’re going to survive no matter what,” she said after her most recent World Cup last Sunday. “So I kind of don’t care.”

Shiffrin ranks No. 1 in the world this season in the giant slalom (Feb. 16 at worlds) and slalom (Feb. 18).

This year’s combined is one run of super-G coupled with one run of slalom (rather than one downhill and one slalom), which also plays to her strengths. She won that event, with that format, at the last worlds in 2021. The combined isn’t contested on the World Cup, so it’s harder to project favorites.

Shiffrin is also a medal contender in the super-G (Feb. 8), despite starting just two of five World Cup super-Gs this season (winning one of them).

She is not planning to race the downhill (Feb. 11), which she often skips on the World Cup and has never contested at a worlds. Nor is she expected for the individual parallel (Feb. 15), a discipline she hasn’t raced in three years in part due to the strain it puts on her back with the format being several runs for the medalists.

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