McKayla Maroney eyes all-around title
ANTWERP, Belgium -- Olympic star McKayla Maroney got the green light to compete in all four events at the world gymnastics championships, which begin Monday in Belgium.
This will be the first time in two years that Maroney, who gained fame for the "McKayla is not impressed" meme for her disappointed look as she accepted the silver medal on the vault at the 2012 Olympics, will compete for a major international all-around title. With her first Olympic experience behind her, Maroney has been eager to start preparing for the next one.
Until now, the 17-year-old Orange County native and budding actress has been regarded as a vault and floor specialist, though she has kept the all-around in the back of her mind.
"I think the second that I fell on my vault at the Olympics, it was my goal to be here," Maroney said Sunday. "Even if it wasn't realistic, I knew that it was my dream, and I knew I wanted to train for it the second that I could get back into the gym."
Being cleared by USA Gymnastics to compete in all four events at worlds was the first hurdle for Maroney, who was previously prevented from competing in all-around because of injuries.
Next, she'll have to beat out one of her two closest rivals in Tuesday's qualification to make the all-around final. Because only two gymnasts per country make the final, she'll need to score higher than either new U.S. champion Simone Biles or Maroney's Fierce Five teammate Kyla Ross, both of whom will compete in all four events.
Maroney's opportunity comes at the expense of teammate Brenna Dowell, who was named to the four-person world squad after finishing third at the U.S. championships in August. The decision to put Maroney on bars and beam, in addition to the vault and floor events she was expected to do, means Dowell won't get to compete at all.
"I think McKayla has a chance in the all-around, and she should have the right to fight among the three Americans at worlds," U.S. national team coordinator Marta Karolyi said after Sunday's podium training session, where Maroney looked competent on bars but wobbly on beam.
"Her vaults are as close to perfection -- when she sticks her vault, she should get a 10.0. As well, the floor routine is very high scoring, and she's become more consistent with her uneven bars. On beam today she made a mistake, but basically she was sticking all her routines."
The United States has been in this situation before. At the 2012 Olympics, Aly Raisman played spoiler to Jordyn Wieber, beating her in Olympic qualifications to take the all-around finals berth that nearly everyone had assumed would go to Wieber.
Asked to predict which two of the three would qualify for the final at worlds, Karolyi was diplomatic.
"It's hard to say," she said with a grin that betrayed her happiness at having a competitive team.
"It will depend on who has the most consistent day. As for start values, Simone's are the highest, but that's not enough. Start value has to be combined with the execution score."
Maroney's unexpected inclusion in the women's all-around adds some mystique to a competition that might otherwise have been a bit dry in the post-Olympic year. Among the women, Russia's Aliya Mustafina and Romania's Sandra Izbasa are the only female gold medalists from the London Olympics present at this world championships.
China's Deng Linlin retired following the prestigious Chinese National Games earlier this month, and Raisman has only just resumed full training following a post-Olympic break. London all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas also is getting back into training in California following a post-Olympic layoff, while silver medalist Viktoria Komova has been ill and remains in Russia.
Izbasa, who capitalized on Maroney's fall at the Olympics to take gold on vault, has opted to compete only in the floor exercise in Antwerp, while Mustafina, 18, is the reigning European champion and Olympic all-around bronze medalist. She's one of the favorites after a successful season, but she's never faced Biles, who vaults and tumbles with explosiveness. Steady consistency from Ross should keep her in the medal hunt as well, but Maroney could displace any one of them in the final if they make mistakes.
Romania's Larisa Iordache, who took ninth in the all-around in London, has added new skills and is healthy and well-prepared. China's Yao Jinnan, Switzerland's Giulia Steingruber and Russia's Tatiana Nabieva all have outside chances for an all-around medal.
Competition for the men's all-around podium could be more intense, with at least half a dozen men expected to contend for medals.
In the thick of things is 2012 U.S. Olympian Sam Mikulak, who told the media he was ready to "put on a show" in Antwerp.
"The arena's not as big [as at the Olympics], but it's still the same amount of pressure," Mikulak, 20, said after his training session Friday. "You've got a little bit of nerves, but I think I've been able to handle it pretty well.
"I'm going to go out and have as much fun as I possibly can. That seems to be what works for me."
The big question is whether Olympic all-around champion Kohei Uchimura of Japan, the men's all-around champion at the past three world championships, has had a busy year since London. Uchimura got married and has an infant daughter, but his gymnastics does not seem to have suffered from it.
Neither Marcel Nguyen of Germany nor Danell Leyva of the U.S. is in Antwerp this week. Both men, who competed throughout 2012 and earlier this year, are resting and preparing for next season. That leaves several younger competitors, including European champion David Belyavskiy of Russia, Ukraine's Oleg Verniaiev and Mikulak, to fight it out for the podium. The unflappable Uchimura, however, remains the gold standard.
"I think he's phenomenal," Mikulak's coach, Kurt Golder, said of Uchimura.
"Most difficulty in the world. Mathematically, as long as they perform equally, he has that start value mathematically that would put him on top."
Still, anything can happen.
"There's a reason why we do the competition -- we don't just submit it in writing on paper," Golder said.
• Also defending their Olympic titles this week are Hungary's Krisztian Berki (pommel horse), Brazil's Arthur Zanetti (still rings), South Korea's Yang Hak Seon (men's vault) and the Netherlands's Epke Zonderland (high bar). China has opted to send a largely inexperienced men's team to this event, leaving Olympic champions Zou Kai (floor exercise) and Feng Zhe (parallel bars) at home.
• Qualifying to event finals is the order of the day for all six U.S. men in Antwerp. Mikulak is the designated all-arounder, while the other five -- John Orozco, Brandon Wynn, Alex Naddour, Steven Legendre and Jake Dalton -- will be sticking to their best events only, hoping to qualify for finals and take home individual hardware. Orozco will compete parallel bars, pommel horse and high bar, Naddour pommel horse and rings, Dalton and Legendre floor and vault, and Wynn rings and parallel bars.
• Among the new skills being debuted at worlds is a double-twisting double layout on floor from Canadian Victoria Moors, who became the first woman to perform it successfully in international competition this summer. If she completes it successfully at any point during the competition, it will be named for her.
• One man and one woman will be elected to serve four-year terms as athlete representatives to the International Gymnastics Federation this week in Antwerp. In the running are former Olympians Alicia Sacramone of the U.S. and Beth Tweddle of Great Britain, as well as Ukraine's Angelina Kysla. Igor Radivilov of Ukraine and Jani Tanskanen of Finland are running for the men's position. Tanskanen, a former world champion on high bar, and 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin of the U.S. currently hold the positions.