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Oleg Verniaiev: I can beat Kohei Uchimura

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MONTREAL — Those 100 seconds in Rio had to be agonizing for Oleg Verniaiev.

The Ukrainian gymnast, after taking a critical step on his high bar dismount, waited and waited as judges tabulated his score for the final event of the Olympic all-around last year.

The crowd could have chewed nails wondering if Verniaiev would end Kohei Uchimura‘s seven-year reign atop the sport.

Turns out, Verniaiev wasn’t as optimistic.

“I knew that I will be the second [place], but still I had hope,” Verniaiev remembered in an interview Monday, via translator. “I was hoping.”

When Verniaiev’s score came up, Uchimura’s mom fainted in the stands.

Uchimura, who trailed Verniaiev by .901 going into the final rotation, outscored the leader by a full point. The Nagasaki native won by .099 to become the first gymnast to repeat as Olympic all-around champion in 44 years.

A year later, Verniaiev gets another shot at Uchimura at the world championships at the 1976 Olympic Stadium.

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Verniaiev was shaky in qualifying Monday. Out of bounds on floor exercise. A gigantic hop on his high bar landing.

Verniaiev didn’t even have the top qualifying score in his group. Cuban Manrique Larduet, the 2015 World silver medalist, was 1.268 points better.

“In principle, I thought that it could be worse,” said Verniaiev, who wished he had more competitions this season before worlds to work into peak shape. “But at the end of the day it’s not that bad.”

Verniaiev also said that he was better prepared for the Rio Olympics (and in better form) than any other competition in his life.

Still, he’s not ceding anything to Uchimura, who goes through qualifying Monday night ahead of Thursday’s final.

Uchimura, 28, is trying to become the oldest Olympic or world all-around champion in more than 50 years.

“If I accomplish my program so that my coach says everything is ideal, I know that I can beat him,” Verniaiev said. “If I will make mistakes, then it’s life.”

In Rio, Verniaiev could have joined some who cried foul over the scoring. Instead, he praised Uchimura in the post-event press conference, calling him the Michael Phelps of gymnastics.

The Ukrainian began doing gymnastics in kindergarten, sent to the sport by his parents as an outlet for overwhelming energy.

It wasn’t always easy in Ukraine. As recently as a month before 2015 Worlds, national team members didn’t have proper equipment to train floor exercise.

Verniaiev, who turned 23 on Friday, seemingly has plenty more opportunities for all-around gold. But few against the aging Uchimura, who may give up the all-around before the Tokyo Olympics to focus on one or two individual events.

Given that, how much would it mean for Verniaiev to end Uchimura’s reign in Montreal?

“To win this gold medal means, to me, to become a legend,” he said. “Kohei, of course, is a legend. There are not many such gymnasts in the world, but I’ll try to do something and be the first one.”

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Five male gymnasts to watch at world championships

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Male gymnasts to watch at the world championships, which begin with qualifying Monday, followed by the all-around final Thursday and apparatus finals on Saturday and Sunday in Montreal (no team event) … 

Kohei Uchimura, Japan
Olympic All-Around Gold: 2012, 2016
World All-Around Gold: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015

Best in the world for eight straight years. Few athletes in any sport have that kind of streak going. Uchimura has shown it all since earning all-around silver at his Olympic debut in 2008. The Nagasaki native can utterly dominate, come from behind, recover from falls, lead a team and win titles on three of the six individual events as well.

But Uchimura’s streak nearly ended in Rio. He needed an incredible final routine — the top high bar score of the entire Olympics — to edge Ukrainian Oleg Verniaiev by .099 of a point. Uchimura also failed to earn an apparatus medal at an Olympics or worlds for the first time since 2009. His dominance is in question now more than ever.

Oleg Verniaiev, Ukraine
Olympic All-Around Silver Medalist
Olympic, World Parallel Bars Champion

Back to challenge Uchimura. Verniaiev, who turns 24 this week (Uchimura is 28), showed admirable sportsmanship after the controversially scored high bar rotation in Rio, calling Uchimura the Michael Phelps of gymnastics in the post-event press conference.

Verniaiev swept the all-around at the European Championships and World University Games already this year. So he should be ready. He might also be the busiest gymnast in Montreal next weekend. He was the only gymnast to qualify for four apparatus finals at the Olympics.

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Max Whitlock, Great Britain
Olympic All-Around Bronze Medalist
Olympic Floor Exercise, Pommel Horse Champion

The only man other than Uchimura to finish in the top five of the all-around at every worlds and the Olympics in the last cycle. But Whitlock, 24, won’t be doing the all-around in Montreal, choosing to focus on floor and horse. He hopes the lighter workload can extend his career another two Olympics. Watch for him in the weekend apparatus finals.

Kenzo Shirai, Japan
Olympic Bronze Medalist, Vault
World Champion, Floor Exercise

The “Twist Prince” rewrote the history books in the last Olympic cycle, introducing multiple skills on floor and vault that were named after him. Now 21, Shirai has grown into an all-around threat, taking second behind Uchimura at a Japanese competition in May and outscoring 2014 World all-around bronze medalist Yusuke Tanaka. Uchimura was joined by a countryman on the all-around podium at three of the last four worlds, but there’s no guarantee that Japan chooses to have two men do the all-around this year.

Yul Moldauer, U.S.
P&G Championships All-Around Champion
AT&T American Cup Champion

Moldauer, a rising University of Oklahoma junior, actually beat Verniaiev at the American Cup in Newark, N.J., on March 4 in his first top-level international meet. The 5-foot-3 gymnast has the international artistic “look,” NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett said. While he’s clean, Moldauer might lack the difficulty to contend in the all-around this year. The U.S. hasn’t put a man on the world all-around podium since Jonathan Horton‘s bronze in 2010.

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Danell Leyva: Olympic all-around was ‘unfair’

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U.S. gymnast Danell Leyva felt for Oleg Verniaiev after the Ukrainian finished a controversial second in the Rio Olympic all-around, .099 behind Japan’s Kohei Uchimura.

“What they did in the all-around was super unfair,” Leyva said on the Gymcastic podcast (10-minute mark). “I sincerely just feel like Oleg outperformed Uchimura in a couple of different events, in most events. We all know how political gymnastics is. I guess they were probably just like, yeah, we’ve got to give it to Uchi because it’s Uchi.”

Uchimura became the first gymnast to repeat as Olympic all-around champion in 44 years, adding to his collection that includes the last six world all-around titles.

Uchimura went into the sixth and final Olympic all-around rotation trailing Verniaiev by .901. They both went on high bar, one of Uchimura’s best events. Uchimura outscored Verniaiev by a full point to take the come-from-behind title.

Leyva did not do the all-around in Rio after taking bronze behind Uchimura in London. He criticized high bar scoring at the Rio Games, saying others did amazing routines and received low scores. But he was OK with it, because everybody was getting judged the same way (strictly).

Until Uchimura.

The Japanese fell on high bar in qualifying and scored a 14.3, among the bottom half of scores for the 24 men who made the all-around final. In the team final, Uchimura scored 15.166. In the all-around final, he scored 15.8, the best high bar score of the Games across qualifying and finals.

German Fabian Hambuechen won the high bar event final with a 15.766, while Leyva took silver with a 15.5.

“It’s like he’s in a different competition,” Leyva, who also took Rio parallel bars silver behind Verniaiev, said of Uchimura’s high bar scores. “Everybody is getting judged incredibly strict like that, OK, whatever. Then Uchi went, and his routine wasn’t that great, like it wasn’t perfect at all, and they gave him a near-perfect score. And it’s just like but no, because the other people.”

Verniaiev did not dispute the all-around results in the press conference after the event and was effusive of Uchimura, calling him a legend.

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