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Simone Biles

Five things we learned from U.S. gymnastics National Championships

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Overarching storylines now that the U.S. gymnastics championships are over …

1. The women’s team doesn’t have legitimate replacements for the Fierce Five yet.

Good news for any 2012 Olympians looking to get back into the mix … Team USA still needs you. McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross put on a show at nationals, claiming all of the event gold medals (Ross: balance beam, uneven bars; Maroney: vault, floor exercise).

The only newcomer who set herself apart was all-around champion Simone Biles. With only a handful of juniors from this year’s competition moving to the senior ranks in 2014, there’s plenty of room, and plenty of need for the Fierce Five to return. Judging by this weekend’s performances — the USA could really use a Gabby Douglas uneven bars routine right about now.

2. The American men have some serious depth.

The U.S. men are finally getting a break after cycles of rebuilding after Olympics. The combination of a young Olympic team in 2012 and a great mix of specialists provides a luxury of depth for the first time in many years. In the past the men’s team has leaned heavily on one or two stars (Paul and Morgan Hamm, Blaine Wilson), but the World Championships team this year could be entirely made of men with Olympic and/or worlds experience.

It’s so deep that the 2012 U.S. all-around champion, John Orozco, didn’t make the World Championships team outright; he’s an alternate who could replace the injured Danell Leyva. Things are looking up for a program that has much to prove after their poor showing in London.

3. USA Gymnastics delivered big time for their audience.

USA Gymnastics gets a round of applause for their digital and social media efforts, especially by former University of Michigan gymnast Scott Bregman, who has changed the game for the 50-year-old institution. Up until last year there were few options to see junior portions of competitions, or even day one preliminary competitions for the sport’s most die-hard fans.

USA Gymnastics live streamed all major events this season. They also live streamed podium training, previously only open to the media, and added athlete interviews and vintage full broadcasts of domestic competitions dating to 1980. USA Gymnastics uploaded a staggering 1,200 videos from the weekend’s National Championships, totaling more than 72 hours of coverage. Their YouTube views totaled nearly 1.4 million during the five-day competition. The most watched video? Maroney’s night two vault.

4. Reputation still counts.

Gymnastics remains, in part, a subjective sport. In past decades and even under today’s revised scoring system, gymnasts have relied on reputation to get the benefit of the doubt, whether it’s from the team selection committee or from the judges.

Maroney has set the precedent of near perfect scores on vault. While she was great at nationals, the judges awarded a 9.7 execution score for a vault that was clearly inferior to her Olympic team final stunner that earned a similar 9.733. The good news? If she sticks the Amanar at the World Championships, we could see the first perfect 10.0 at a worlds under the new scoring system.

5. Mykayla Skinner to Worlds?

Three of four women’s spots on the World Championships team are already locked up: Biles, Maroney and Ross. There’s only one spot left and no standout specialists to fill it. Martha Karolyi has thrown surprises in the past, so don’t count out Mykayla Skinner.

Skinner, 16, lacks the polish of her teammates, but she boasts some of the most mind-blowing gymnastics out there, including a double twisting double layout on floor that if performed at the World Championships would bare her name in the Code of Points. She didn’t hit in night one, but she stuck the double twisting double cold Saturday, finishing third on the event behind Maroney and Biles. She can further her cause at the selection camp next month.

Bonus: Bats love gymnastics, too

During the first night of men’s competition a large bat frantically flew around the heads of the audience and commentators in the XL Center (video here). Nastia Liukin muted her mic a few times during the broadcast out of fear of the shrieking as the winged mammal flew by. The bat even got it’s own Twitter account (@PGChampsBat). The arena said it died of “natural causes” before the next day.

Leyva pulls out of worlds; Orozco could replace him

What to watch at USA Gymnastics National Championships men’s competition

Danell Leyva
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HARTFORD, Conn. — The men’s gymnastics team that walked into the O2 Arena for the 2012 Olympics was arguably the best team the U.S. had fielded at a Games since 1984, the last time it had won gold. Expectations were high, and for the first time since ’84, a gold medal was a legitimate hope.

The U.S., atop the leaderboard after qualifying, stumbled to fifth in the team final.

There’s no way around it for Danell LeyvaJohn OrozcoJonathan HortonSam Mikulak and Jake Dalton. London was a disappointment. The U.S. men left with one medal overall, Leyva’s all-around bronze.

So it comes as no surprise that they’re all back for another Olympic cycle. Orozco, Leyva, Dalton and Mikulak are competing at the National Championships beginning Friday (8 p.m. Eastern time, NBC Sports Network and online here) and concluding Sunday (1 p.m. ET, NBC and online here).

Horton, 27, the only two-time Olympian from that group, is not ready to return competitively from shoulder surgery but is training for 2014.

Comebacks in gymnastics are not generally met with ease, but the men from 2012 have one major factor on their side: age. All but Horton are younger than 22, in a sport where men tend to peak in early-to-mid 20s.

Maroney, Ross lead women’s field; preview, schedule

The Olympians are at nationals hoping to earn spots on the six-man squad for the World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium, Sept. 30-Oct. 6, where there will only be individual events, no team title.

Podium training for the men Wednesday was business as usual: camaraderie, high-flying skills and fresh Olympic rings tattoos. but there were also key takeaways, new gymnasts to watch and a preview of who will star this weekend.

This year has marked a breakout for Dalton, who took the American Cup title over Levya in March. He looked solid in training and ready to take aim at his first national all-around title. Barring major mistakes, it will be the others all chasing Dalton.

Levya and Orozco have been the most visible Americans the last few years, on and off the mats. Leyva, profiled by mainstream magazines such as GQ and Men’s Fitness is the 2011 U.S. champion with a trademark towel and boisterous stepfather. Orozco, the Bronx, N.Y., native who starred in the Gym Class Heroes music video for “The Fighter,” is the defending U.S. champion.

They’ve also got international clout with judges. Leyva is the reigning world champion on parallel bars, and Orozco was fifth in the all-around at the 2011 World Championships. Leyva is already looking ahead to Antwerp.

“I want to keep the p-bars title and win the all-around title and make finals on other events that people haven’t seen me make finals on before,” he said.

So far this year, things haven’t gone Leyva’s way. He wasn’t feeling well at the American Cup and finished sixth. He remains among the most talented, but podium training in Hartford wasn’t his best showing. Not surprising for the Cuban-born Floridian, who tends to bring it in high-pressure situations.

Orozco had his own frustrations since the Olympics and will not compete on all six events (no vault or floor exercise). After climbing back from a devastating Achilles injury to take the national title last year, he tore an ACL during the a post-Games tour. He’s once again on the comeback trail, but he doesn’t seem phased, nor is he worried about not being 100 percent.

“It’s a whole new competition and it’s a whole new year and my circumstances are a little different than usual, so I think that this championships will be really interesting,” he said. “So, I’m gonna take it slow and try to focus on the things that I can control.”

Sporting an American flag patterned knee brace, Orozco made it through training looking calm, unphased and on track to be at full strength soon. He’s not necessarily focused on the World Championships but the next three years leading to the Rio Games.

This could also prove to be a breakout year for Mikulak of the University of Michigan, the surprise member of the 2012 Olympic team. He turned in some seriously aggressive routines during training. When he landed his parallel bars routine with a gigantic stuck cold double pike dismount, you could hear his feet hitting the mat throughout the arena. He’s ready.

Keep an eye on Josh Dixon, 23, who boasts one of the highest start values on high bar, as well as clean lines and good form. He’s now more experienced after placing sixth in the event at Olympic trials.

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What to watch at USA Gymnastics National Championships women’s competition

McKayla Maroney
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HARTFORD, Conn. — The larger commentary surrounding this week’s U.S. Gymnastics National Championships may center on the lead up to Rio 2016, but in the year directly following an Olympic Games, the World Gymnastics Championships are comprised of individual events only, no team final, and the uniqueness of an individual world championships makes the gymnastics season following the London Games largely stand alone.

Take this bit of history: not a single woman on the 2009 World Championship squad made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. That included all-around champion Bridget Sloan and silver medalist Rebecca Bross.

This year is all about table setting for Team USA and identifying the potential (but surely not certain) foundation of the next Olympic team. Four women will be sent to Antwerp, Belgium, for worlds Sept. 30-Oct. 6. That makes room for two all-around gymnasts and two event specialists.

Podium training at the XL Center on Wednesday gave a peak into which gymnasts that team may be made up of. The women’s competition begins Thursday (8 p.m. Eastern time, NBC Sports Network and online here) and concludes Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC and online here).

The old guard came on strong with Olympian Kyla Ross, 16, assuming her new role as seasoned veteran. She looked even across all four events, showcasing her steady skills and her impeccable execution. Ross won last month’s U.S. Classic, a qualifier for this meet, and barring injury she should punch her ticket to Antwerp as an all-arounder by the end of the weekend.

Olympic teammate McKayla Maroney should join her. There wasn’t an “unimpressed face” to be found in her first competition since the Olympics at the U.S. Classic last month. There weren’t any Wednesday, either. Maroney doesn’t look like an athlete coming back from two leg surgeries in the last year. She is stronger than ever, showing improved power on floor exercise, in particular her double Arabian tumbling pass, which has caused her trouble in the past.

“It’s just been a lot of hard work, after coming back from the surgeries I had to do so much conditioning, more than I’ve ever done in my life to get where I need to be really fast,” said Maroney, the reigning world champion on vault.

Maroney trained all four events Wednesday but is competing only vault and floor to make the worlds team as a specialist with the goal of defending that vault title from Tokyo in 2011.

There were some surprises Wednesday. Lexie Priessman, the 2012 U.S. junior all-around champion, pulled out at the last minute due to an Achilles strain after looking great in early training sessions. This will effectively end Priessman’s debut senior year and open up the door for others to challenge Ross.

Like Peyton Ernst, 16, who won balance beam gold and all-around and floor silver at the U.S. Classic. The Kim Zmeskal protege showed up with even more difficult routines this week and plans to compete in the all-around.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Elizabeth Price. The 2012 Olympic team alternate was white-hot after the Games, winning back-to-back World Cup titles to round out her year. She fell off the radar after pulling out of the American Cup with a hip injury. Wednesday, however, she effectively “won” podium training, looking phenomenal on all four events.

Nonetheless, Price, who trains with legendary coaches Bill and Donna Strauss at Parkettes in Allentown, Pa., said she’s only been back training 2 1/2 weeks and will compete on only two events, vault and uneven bars (where the U.S. is weak). She plans on being able to do the all-around before the final selection camp for the World Championship team in three weeks.

One of the most anticipated performances Thursday will come from tiny dynamo Simone Biles. Biles, 16, burst onto the scene this year with her big, energetic smile and even bigger gymnastics.

A fan favorite, Biles boasts the difficulty to contend for a world all-around title and then some, however, she has yet to put it all together in high-pressure situations, falling at the American Cup and counting three falls before scratching the last event at the U.S. Classic.

Biles was clear in her goals for Hartford and Antwerp.

“To hopefully be top three here, to make the world team and be top three at worlds,” she said.

To get to Belgium, Biles must prove that she can hit her routines consistently over two sessions in Hartford.

Dark-horse contenders this weekend will be steady all-arounder Brenna Dowell of Odessa, Mo., and mega trickster Mykayla Skinner of Gilbert, Ariz., who is one of two women in the world currently performing a double twisting double layout on floor.

Even with all the new faces, the 2012 Olympians are poised to take the spotlight in Hartford, which they’ve grown accustomed to after walking red carpets, attending award shows, appearing on TV and penning books.

The Fierce Five will reunite Friday to be inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

All but Ross have turned professional, picking up agents and endorsements. Her focus remains on competition and retaining her NCAA eligibility — at least for now. The rising California high school junior may be the center of attention come Saturday, should she take the all-around title.

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