Kara Eaker

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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Simone Biles breaks gymnastics worlds medals record, gets 5 golds this week

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STUTTGART, Germany — Simone Biles‘ routine this week that no fans saw took place hours before she competed.

Her mom, Nellie, said she made up Biles’ hair in the mornings at the world championships, her first time doing so regularly at a major competition in several years. In the last Olympic cycle, her parents were allowed little contact with her at major international meets.

That policy changed in her comeback after 14 months away from training post-Rio.

“It’s a great bonding experience,” Nellie said before her daughter won her fourth and fifth gold medals to close the meet on Sunday, breaking the record for career world medals and giving her 25 total, including 19 golds. “Whatever is on my mind, I can tell her. I can get a feel for how she’s feeling.”

Nellie had little to tell Biles before what were likely the final world championships events of her career.

She doesn’t come across as stressed,” at this meet, Nellie said, noting what makes this year unique from her five previous Olympic or world competitions. “It’s how calm she is and how confident she is with her skills.”

GYM WORLDS: Finals Results

Biles, who became the first gymnast to earn five golds at a single worlds since 1958, said before the meet she’s 99 percent sure she won’t be back for 2021 or later.

Nellie sent her off into Sunday’s balance beam and floor exercise finals with one of her two go-to phrases: “Just like practice.” The other, which Nellie often tweets at Biles, is “Be the best Simone,” a nod not to get caught up in others’ expectations.

They couldn’t be higher heading toward Tokyo.

For the first time in at least 30 years, perhaps ever, the most recognizable U.S. athlete in Tokyo among sports whose biggest competition is the Olympics will be a gymnast.

After five golds here, there will be talk of Biles trying to become the second woman to earn five golds at a single Games. The other was 1988 East German swimmer Kristin OttoKatie Ledecky and Simone Manuel could also have a say here.

A little reflection: When Biles won her first four world championships medals in 2013, including all-around gold, any expectations had to be held in check. At the time, this stat was key: the previous 10 years, 10 different women had been the top U.S. all-around finisher at the season’s biggest meet. And no U.S. woman had made back-to-back Olympic teams since 2000. Could Biles possibly keep up that level of gymnastics for another three years?

One of her coaches even doubted it. Aimee Boorman, who guided Biles from age 7 through the Rio Games, tweeted on Sunday, “When @Simone_Biles won her first World’s AA title, my co-coach was worried that she had peaked too early for Rio. My response was “maybe she will become the greatest of all time”. So proud of you today (and all days) Simone!”

It’s well-documented that Biles came back stronger off that well-deserved break. She’s introduced new skills on the balance beam, floor exercise and vault, yet decided she needed neither eponymous beam nor vault skill, which carry more difficulty points, in this weekend’s event finals.

“This is probably my best worlds performance I’ve ever put out,” she said.

The motivation and drive are still there, too. In winning the beam Sunday, Biles leaped out of her chair when she saw that her score eclipsed 15 points. Biles is determined to perform a strong beam routine in Tokyo, given she grabbed the apparatus to keep from falling in the Rio Olympic final and dropped to bronze.

Biles has little to say when asked about the significance of 25 world medals. What’s more important to her than all of them, which are kept in a safe, and the daily records are the skills she’s introduced that are named after her in the Code of Points.

“When you’ve had so much success in the sport, what brings you back in the gym is something original, different stuff. It’s not just winning,” said Laurent Landi, who with wife Cecile has coached Biles since she returned to the gym in November 2017. “When they [gymnasts] get older, and when they achieve as much as she did, this is a great way to motivate her to come back in the gym.”

The family and coaches will fly back to Texas soon. Biles expects her mom to throw her usual post-worlds party. It has included a DJ and bartender in the past. Now 22, Biles can enjoy all of it. And maybe find time to put the last six years in perspective.

“Everybody has to end it some time,” she said, looking ahead. “You can’t keep going for the rest of your life. I feel like I just want gymnastics to be part of my life, not my whole, entire life.”

In Sunday’s finals, Biles was joined on the floor podium by teammate Sunisa Lee. Lee, a 16-year-old at her first worlds, took silver to follow her uneven bars bronze on Saturday. She’s been the second-best U.S. gymnast behind Biles this year, a breakout after she was third at junior nationals in 2018.

In men’s events, Sam Mikulak finished fifth on the high bar, which was won by Brazilian Arthur Nory. The U.S. men failed to earn a medal at a worlds for the first time since 2009. China failed to earn a men’s or women’s gold for the first time since 1993.

Russians Nikita Nagornyy and Artur Dalaloyan went one-two on vault, just as they did in Friday’s all-around. Nagornyy, the new star of men’s gymnastics to succeed Japanese Kohei Uchimura, earned his third gold of the meet.

Joe Fraser became the second British man to earn gold this week (Max Whitlock), taking a parallel bars final that lacked the usual suspects. Japanese Kazuma Kaya earned bronze, ensuring the 2020 Olympic host nation does not leave worlds without an individual medal for the first time since 2001.

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Simone Biles breaks record; U.S. women win gymnastics world team title

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STUTTGART, Germany — It’s that feeling that keeps Simone Biles coming back to gymnastics.

It’s not from standing on a world championships medal podium, which she did for a female record-breaking 21st time after the U.S. won a fifth straight world team title on Tuesday. Instead, it’s that unenviable sensation that surges before she competes.

“Sometimes I wish I would quit,” Biles said after leading the U.S. to victory by a sizable 5.801 points over Russia, extending the Americans’ dynasty to nine years when including the Olympics. “The other day, we walked out there, and I was like, I literally hate this feeling, and I don’t know why I keep forcing myself to do it.

“I hate that feeling like I’m going to puke before. But, you know, we love the thrill of it. Reminds me to never give up because one day I won’t have the opportunity to get that feeling.”

GYM WORLDS: TV Schedule | Finals Results

That day is likely coming in 10 months. Biles is 99 percent sure these are her last world championships. Every time she competes, she breaks a record or does something unprecedented.

In Tuesday’s team final, the first of six medal events for Biles this week, she broke her tie with retired Russian Svetlana Khorkina for the most world championships medals for a woman. She is now two shy of the overall record held by 1990s Belarusian Vitaly Scherbo.

She will move within one of Scherbo in Thursday’s all-around final. Biles is massively favored to win a fifth title in that event. She’s undefeated in all-arounds for six years. She will pass Scherbo with two medals from her four apparatus finals on Saturday and Sunday. Biles earned medals on all four apparatuses last year, with a kidney stone.

Biles said she doesn’t think of the records.

“Whatever the medal haul at the end is, it’s whatever it is,” she said.

BILES ROUTINES: Balance Beam | Floor Exercise | Uneven Bars | Vault

But Tuesday was about the team. Biles is just part of this U.S. dynasty, extended here in a final where all eight teams had a fall.

Nineteen different gymnasts contributed to at least one of the seven Olympic or world titles during the U.S.’ nine-year reign. It’s the longest global title streak for one women’s program since the Soviets of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Four women who hope to make Olympic debuts in Tokyo joined Biles in Stuttgart.

They included Sunisa Lee, who at the world team selection camp last month came within .35 of a point of beating Biles. Here, Lee, who qualified second behind Biles into the all-around, had the highest uneven bars score for the Americans. Her fall off the balance beam was the first for an American on any apparatus in an Olympic or world team final since 2010.

She rebounded to hit her floor exercise. Lee is competing while constantly thinking of her father, John, who watched from Minnesota. In August, John fell off of a ladder while helping a friend cut down a tree limb and was paralyzed from the chest down.

A year ago, Lee was third in the junior division at the U.S. Championships. Now, she’s arguably the world’s second-best gymnast, with a chance to prove it Thursday.

“I can’t even believe that I’m here and I’m a world champion,” she said.

Jade Carey, the 2017 World silver medalist on floor exercise and vault, had the second-highest scores of the day on each apparatus, behind Biles. This may be Carey’s only opportunity to compete in a team event on the global stage, given she is likely to qualify for Tokyo in the spring via a new individual route.

The 2018 World team members Kara Eaker (who competed on the balance beam on Tuesday) and Grace McCallum (uneven bars, vault) round out the quintet.

For those two (plus Lee), the tougher competition is arguably making the U.S. Olympic team. And it’s going to get more difficult next year, when the Olympic team event rosters shrink to four.

But first, Biles called for a nap for herself (she’s the team grandma at age 22, the only non-teen) and a celebration for the U.S.

“For all of it,” she said. “For the team. For the medal count. Fifth year in a row.”

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GYM WORLDS: Women’s Finals Qualifiers | Men’s Finals Qualifiers