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Friday, March 1, 2013
Promising pair stands in for Fierce Five

By Blythe Lawrence

WORCESTER, Mass. -- A year ago, Kyla Ross was a rookie with Olympic dreams, Katelyn Ohashi was a promising junior competitor, and nobody outside of the deeply committed U.S. gymnastics fan base had heard of Simone Biles.

How things can change in a year.

Ross is now an Olympic gold medalist and, as the only member of the Fierce Five currently in serious training, the U.S. team's de facto leader.

I think both of them could be important players in the next Olympic Games.

-- Martha Karolyi, on Katelyn Ohashi and Simone Biles

"They're saying now I'm sort of in Aly's shoes," Ross said during media day for the 2013 American Cup, referring to U.S. captain Aly Raisman, whose floor routine in London sealed the American women's first Olympic team gold in 16 years.

Raisman has just committed to the new season of "Dancing with the Stars," and teammates McKayla Maroney, Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas are either recovering from injury, working back into form or pursuing other opportunities. That means the veteran's mantle has fallen to Ross, who turned 16 in October.

The new faces on the American scene are Ohashi and Biles, both 15, who have established themselves among the top junior athletes in the U.S. during the past two years. As gymnasts, they are remarkably different -- Ohashi is graceful and finessed and excels on bars and beam; Biles has extraordinary raw power that translates best on floor and vault.

Put the two together, in fact, and you would have an almost unbeatable competitor.

"We've always said, 'If I go compete floor and vault, and you go compete bars and beam, we can do this. But that can't happen,'" Biles said with a giggle Thursday, flashing her braces.

"Both of them are definitely our future hopes," national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. "They're very different from each other, talented in different ways. It's a jump-start to their training because I think both of them could be important players in the next Olympic Games."

The younger gymnasts are looking to Ross, who turned in one solid performance after another in London. Being the leader means setting an example for the younger generation and training hard, even if you're not going to compete. That's why Ross, who withdrew from the international competition this week with a bruised heel, traveled to Worcester with her younger teammates.

It's also why she put in a full day of work during the women's training session, including on beam, the event most likely to hurt her tender heel. Ross, who dismissed the injury as a "minor setback," plans to do exhibition on beam instead and rest up for the U.S. team's European tour later this spring, including meets in Italy and Germany.

"Kyla's injury is not a very serious injury, but it has unfortunately set her back a little in her training," Karolyi said. "And in my opinion, somebody who is an accomplished Olympian doesn't need to go out on the floor and compete when she's not in her optimal shape."

Ross' withdrawal, along with that of pre-meet favorite Elizabeth Price (strained hip muscle) means the 2013 American Cup champion will almost certainly be a lesser-known. History has shown it is also likely to be an American -- a non-U.S. gymnast hasn't won the women's competition since 2001.

While not a big competition -- eight male and eight female gymnasts compete for all-around spoils -- the American Cup is a star-making event. From Nadia Comaneci in 1976, who scored a perfect 10 on floor at the inaugural American Cup in Madison Square Garden, to Douglas' surprise unofficial win in 2012, the Cup has had an uncanny ability to throw the spotlight on future Olympic champions.

In the running are a handful of foreign competitors, including 2012 Olympians Vanessa Ferrari (Italy), Asuka Teramoto (Japan), Victoria Moors (Canada) and Elisabeth Seitz (Germany), along with first-year seniors Gabrielle Jupp (Great Britain) and Maegan Chant (Canada).

The big matchup in the men's competition is between Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva of the U.S. and Marcel Nguyen of Germany. Leyva envisions the American Cup as a "rematch" between himself and Nguyen, who beat him for silver in London.

But there, too, the younger generation is making its presence felt. Ukraine's Oleg Verniaiev, at 19 two years junior to Leyva and six years younger than Nguyen, was one of the most impressive among the men's field during Thursday's podium training session. So was Sergio Sasaki (Brazil), 20.

Winning the Olympic all-around bronze -- the only medal won by a U.S. man in gymnastics in London -- has not changed Leyva's outlook.

"I feel everyone has pretty similar expectations," he said. "Everyone wants to win very badly, including myself. I very much would like to win first place."

The desire to compete at another Olympics is strong, even with three years to wait before the next one.

"It's very unbelievable to think that I actually went to the Olympics," Leyva said. "I watch it on TV, and I'm like, 'Nahhhh, I didn't go to the Olympics!'"

What a difference a year can make.