Riley McCusker

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U.S. wraps Pan Am Games with 293 medals, 18 Olympic quota spots

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The Pan American Games, bringing together athletes from North America, South America and the Caribbean, are an interesting grab bag of events: Olympic sports bringing in the top-ranked athletes in the hemisphere, Olympic sports that are much lower on the priority list for world-class competitors, and non-Olympic sports such as racquetball, water skiing and basque pelota.

The program fluctuates a bit, and this year’s competition in Lima, Peru, featured a staggering 419 events, up from the 364 events contested in Toronto four years ago and far more than the 339 events on the Tokyo 2020 schedule.

One thing that doesn’t change in the Pan Am Games is the U.S. dominance in the medal count. The final tally this year: 120 gold medals, 88 silver and 85 bronze. The next-best country, Brazil, earned 55 gold medals, 45 silver and 71 bronze for a total of 171, lagging far behind the U.S. total of 293. Canada (152 total) and Mexico (136) took the next two spots on the medal table.

For some sports, the competition was vitally important. Modern pentathletes Samantha Achterberg and Amro Elgeziry earned spots on the 2020 Olympic team with their performances. Elgeziry took a silver medal in the 2014 world championships while competing for Egypt, then moved to the United States after marrying U.S. pentathlete Isabella Isaksen. Elgeziry and Isaksen also combined for gold in the mixed relay.

READ: Elgeziry, three-time Egyptian Olympian, qualifies for 2020 U.S. team

Some events offered Olympic quota spots, ensuring a place for at least one U.S. athlete in the event in 2020. U.S. shooters nailed down seven spots. Other U.S. athletes earned spots in archery, equestrian, sailing, shooting and water polo.

In other sports, with less at stake, the U.S. didn’t send its top athletes. One exception: Swimmer Nathan Adrian followed up his world championship relay medals with six medals in Lima, matching the total of fellow world championship medalist Margo Geer.

Most top gymnasts were competing in the U.S. Championships, and yet the U.S. women took the team gold medal and Riley McCusker finished with four medals.

The U.S. sent substantially weakened teams in several sports and posted several results that would be shockers in the Olympics. The men’s and women’s volleyball teams failed to medal. In men’s basketball, a U.S. team composed entirely of current and recent Big East players fell to Argentina by a stunning score of 114-75 in the semifinals, then rebounded to take bronze. The U.S. women, virtually unbeatable with WNBA players in the World Cup and Olympics, lost to Brazil in the final.

On the other hand, the U.S. swept the gold medals in the new Olympic sport of 3×3 basketball and took medals in several sports in which teams would rarely be competitive in the Olympics such as artistic swimming (formerly known as synchronized swimming) and men’s field hockey. The women’s handball team narrowly missed the podium, losing 24-23 to Cuba in the bronze medal game.

U.S. bowlers Jakob Butturff and Nick Pate took the doubles bowling gold in unusual circumstances after Puerto Rico’s Jean Perez Faure tested positive for a masking agent. Butturff has won seven PBA events.

The Parapan American Games, for athletes with disabilities, start Aug. 23.

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Simone Biles’ road to GOAT status, sixth U.S. all-around title, and how it almost didn’t happen

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Simone Biles that captivated national primetime TV on Sunday might not have existed if she didn’t change her mind back in 2016. The double-double. The triple-double. The voice for accountability and change in her troubled sport. All gone.

Aimee Boorman, Biles’ coach from age 7 through the 2016 Olympics, decided before the Rio Games that, post-Olympics, she would move from the Biles family gym in Texas to an executive director position at Evo Athletics in Florida. Biles would not be following her.

At one point, “I didn’t think she was going to come back,” after Rio, Boorman recalled Sunday by phone from Florida, “because she was saying she didn’t want to come back.”

Biles captured a record-tying sixth U.S. all-around title by a hefty 4.95 points this weekend. She has won 20 straight all-arounds dating to 2013, returning last year after a one-year break to dominate more than before.

GYM NATIONALS: Full Results

She became the first woman to land a triple twisting double somersault on floor exercise and the first to land a double twisting double somersault off the balance beam. Both skills, should she throw them at October’s world championships, will be named after her. Biles already has one floor tumbling pass and a vault named after her.

Biles, speaking after Sunday’s coronation, acknowledged Boorman’s recollection from three years ago.

“Yes and no,” she said. “I really did in that moment feel like I was going to be done, but there was a slight chance that I would want to come back. Everyone’s like, oh, you’re going to come back, and I feel like I fought it more.”

Boorman sensed as Rio approached that, more and more, Biles wanted to go for another Olympics.

“I always thought in the back of my mind, why wouldn’t she come back?” said Boorman, who is still friends with Biles, though their conversations aren’t about gymnastics anymore. “It’s so easy for her. At 22, it hurts a little more on her body, but it’s still not hard for her.”

Biles said shortly after Rio that she would take one year off from competition. She performed in USA Gymnastics’ post-Olympic nationwide tour, breaking a rib at one stop but soldiering on without watering down her routines. She suffered perhaps her most high-profile defeat, taking fourth on “Dancing with the Stars.”

She found two coaches to succeed the irreplaceable Boorman: Cecile and Laurent Landi, who guided fellow Texan Madison Kocian to uneven bars silver in Rio.

“If I had to pick coaches that I would want to take her, it would be you two,” Boorman messaged Cecile during the interview process.

The Landis set out to build on what Biles had accomplished with Boorman. The new skills that Biles debuted in the last year? She had already been doing them in practice in the last Olympic cycle.

“Probably 2015, at some point I asked her if she wanted to continue to upgrade or focus on being really clean and consistent,” Boorman said. “We decided to take the safe route.”

By then, Biles was working on a three-year unbeaten streak. Though other gymnasts sometimes had more difficult routines, Biles would prevail on the strength of her execution scores.

“There wasn’t any reason to push it,” Boorman said. “That confidence had built up.”

The Landis helped Biles find new motivation in implementing those unprecedented beam, floor and vault skills and overhauling her uneven bars routine.

Biles said she doesn’t have a goal to get a skill named after her on every apparatus, but she does submit one unprecedented bars move to the authorities before competitions, “just in case I mess up and do an extra half-pirouette.”

At last year’s worlds, Biles had 2.7 more points of difficulty than any other gymnast. That allowed her to win by the largest margin in history despite two falls (and the fact she competed with a kidney stone).

She averaged nearly two points more in start value than anybody else on each night this week. On the first night, she ranked fourth in execution scores but still led by 1.75 points overall. Biles wore a GOAT leotard at practice on Wednesday, and why not: she now starts competitions with a sizable advantage, knowing that nobody dares approach her difficulty.

Biles contends that, in this Olympic cycle, she has fewer people to prove with her routines and results. “I’m just doing it for myself, and I think that’s the beauty of it,” said Biles, who between routines on Sunday grabbed her phone and retweeted videos of her skills that had gone viral (“I didn’t want to be the last one to see it,” she said).

The drive remains. She was nearly in tears a minute into the competition Friday after overcooking the triple-double and putting her hands down on the landing. She used an expletive to describe her bars routine. 

Other gymnasts have come back with unfinished business from the Olympics. Notably Aly Raisman, who wanted and grabbed an all-around medal in Rio after missing a bronze in London via tiebreaker. Told of that, Boorman brought up the Rio balance beam final. Biles slipped and put both hands on the six-inch apparatus to keep from falling. The two-time reigning world champion ended up with a bronze medal.

Beam may have given Biles the most satisfaction between the two days in Kansas City.

“I finally did what I did in training,” Biles said, “so [Cecile Landi] doesn’t have to go back and say, Simone, we have to work on beam.”

Biles reads a Daily Skimm every morning and owns the book, “How to Skimm Your Life.”

“How to choose wine from a wine list. How to do your bills. So it’s a little more adulting,” said Biles, who is the only non-teen to win a U.S. women’s all-around since 1971. It’s another sign that this cycle is different.

“The first four years went so well, so see how this time around feels,” Biles said of her decision to return to training in November 2017. “It went pretty well.”

MORE: Laurie Hernandez hopes to return to national team camp

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Angry Simone Biles still leads gymnastics nationals; how she passes the math test

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Fifteen seconds into her first routine, Simone Biles wanted to walk off the floor and out of the building on the first night of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. She was half-kidding.

“I felt like I had tears in my eyes,” Biles said, seriously, of overcooking her opening floor exercise tumbling pass, a triple twisting double somersault that no woman had ever performed, and putting her hands down on the landing. “That was, like, the only time I truly felt sorry for myself in a real long time.”

Yet Biles leads nationals by a comfortable 1.75 points going into Sunday’s final day of competition. She will almost certainly extend her six-year win streak and tie the record of six U.S. women’s all-around titles.

MORE: U.S. Championships TV schedule

The surprise in second place, Sunisa Lee, beat Biles in the execution score. So did three other gymnasts. Which underscores what makes Biles more dominant in this Olympic cycle after taking a year off post-Rio and changing coaches.

Biles, who for so long out-executed the competition, is now out-daring the world more than ever before. Her difficulty score, which added to the execution makes up the total score per apparatus, is out of this world.

She had 1.8 points more difficulty than the next-highest gymnast on Friday. That’s .45 more points of start value per apparatus, in a sport often decided by a tenth here or there. All of the other contenders were bunched within 1.5 points of each other in difficulty.

“I’m trying to build the best routine, the most efficient routine that she can do with the highest start value,” said Laurent Landi, who with his wife, Cecile, make up Biles’ new coaching team since her return to training in November 2017. “The bottom line is, that floor routine, she hits 15.5 with that. Nobody can get close to that. That’s what I want to try to do. Good bar routine, 14.5. Good beam routine, 15.5. We aim between 60 and 61 points.”

Biles scored 58.65 on Friday, but hit 60 at the U.S. Classic last month. No other woman has broken 58 points the last two years, according to TheGymter.net.

Biles won last year’s world title by 1.693 points, the largest women’s margin of victory at worlds under the 12-year-old Code of Points, which replaced the perfect-10 system. She apologized afterward because she fell twice (while competing with a kidney stone).

Incredibly, Biles had 2.7 more points of difficulty in the world all-around final than any other gymnast. Of her four Olympic/world all-around titles in the last Olympic cycle, Biles’ biggest D score advantage was nine tenths. Aly Raisman was only six tenths behind in difficulty at the Rio Olympics, where Biles won by 2.1 with a 1.5-point edge in execution.

There’s the difference in Biles 2.0, at least so far.

Biles said she has no idea what her difficulty scores are. Told of the whopping edge of 2.7 points at worlds, she guffawed.

“I shouldn’t be laughing, that’s not funny,” she said, catching herself. “We don’t try to say, oh, how far ahead can I be in difficulty? But it’s more of, how much can I push myself?”

Biles just does what the Landis tell her. In their nearly two years together, that’s meant adding never-been-done skills on balance beam, floor exercise and vault. Her biggest overall upgrade came on the uneven bars, where she earned a world medal for the first time last year.

“She did an Olympics and was incredibly successful,” said Chellsie Memmel, a 2008 Olympian who has been a judge at all six of Biles’ national championships. “Now it’s like why not add more into it and see how much she can push the envelope? And it’s insane.”

The insanity came in those first 15 seconds Friday. Biles’ unprecedented triple-double on floor would be scored at a J value, Memmel predicted before the competition and Biles repeated after. Skills are assigned a value that corresponds to a point total. An A receives one tenth, a B gets two tenths and so on. Memmel never thought she would see somebody crack the one-point barrier with a J.

“A lot of girls are counting Ds,” Memmel said of floor exercise tumbling passes. “She’s not counting any Ds. They’re all above.”

NBC Sports analyst Nastia Liukin competed with Memmel in the first Olympic cycle under the Code of Points. Her head-to-head battle with Shawn Johnson at the 2008 Beijing Games was so tight that they had the exact same D scores in the all-around final, which Liukin won by six tenths.

Liukin said that her coach and father, Valeri, sat her down a few months before the Games to show how she compared with Johnson’s D scores. He also wrote out Liukin’s Olympic uneven bars routine, which would be valued at an astronomical 7.7 D score, a year and a half before the Games.

“A great coach, that’s what they’ll do because they don’t want us to worry about that,” Liukin said. “When you’re 16, 17, you maybe don’t even really quite understand.”

Cecile Landi said that Biles’ ideal total difficulty would be 25.6 points combining the four events, which is two tenths more than her 2018 World Championships total.

It would be another four tenths higher, except they’ve decided not to attempt Biles’ unprecedented vault that she got named after her at last year’s all-around final.

Laurent Landi said doing that vault, without a warm-up, at October’s worlds, along with the new beam and floor skills would be “too much pressure, and I don’t want her to feel overwhelmed.”

“She can do it, we know that,” Cecile Landi said. “But, the risk, is it worth it? You’ve got to be careful. She’s 22, and we’ve got to make sure we’ve got one more year to go.”

MORE: Simone Biles explains GOAT leotard

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