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World Gymnastics Championships: Five things to watch in return to the mat

(Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Miss gymnastics yet?

If you loved watching gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics and are missing the thrill of a stuck landing, you’re in luck, because gymnastics doesn’t just happen at the Olympics. In fact, the 2021 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships are set to kick off in Kitakyushu, Japan on Monday, featuring some of the top athletes in the sport.

Normally, worlds are held only in non-Olympic years. But when the 2020 Olympics were postponed, 2021 worlds stayed in place on the calendar, making this the first time in 25 years that a world gymnastics championship has been held in the same year as an Olympics. In 1996, the competition happened a few months before the Games, so it acted as a dress rehearsal for top talent like Simona Amanar and Svetlana Khorkina.

Here, a worlds held just months after the Olympics will be less predictable. We’ll see some overachievers who have pushed through after the Olympics, but we’ll also see athletes from very deep countries like the United States, China and Russia who were left off of their Tokyo teams and now hope to make a name for themselves.

It’s not the type of competition you can expect to see each year, but if you’re a fan during the Olympics, this one is well worth your time. The competition starts Monday with qualifications. The all-around final on Thursday and the event finals on Saturday and Sunday will air live on the Olympic Channel. NBC will also provide tape-delayed coverage.

Here are five things to look out for at this year’s worlds:

Melnikova could clean up

Russian star Angelina Melnikova just won a gold and two bronze medals at her second Olympic Games. If anyone told her that it’s OK to take a breather after the best competition of her life, she hasn’t listened, instead plowing through to make the Russian team for her fourth world championships.

In fact, despite injuries, a breakup with her longtime coach, changes in her body and even the now-infamous twisties, Melnikova says she hasn’t missed a competition since 2017. “I thought about whether to take a break [after Tokyo] or go to the World Championships,” she said in an interview translated by Gymnovosti. “But since I was invited to various … competitions, I still need to be in shape. So, why not try it?”

Why not? Melnikova is at the top of her game and excels in all four events, so this could be a worlds where she cleans up. Plus, without U.S. stars Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee — who beat her at the Olympics — in the mix, the coveted world all-around title appears to be hers to lose.

But first, she’ll have to answer to Rebeca Andrade. A veteran of the Brazilian team, Andrade came back this year after tearing her ACL three times and repeatedly missing world and Olympic podiums to do what we all knew she was capable of — winning.

In Tokyo, she earned a silver medal in the all-around, her country’s first-ever Olympic medal in gymnastics, and an incredible gold on vault. “I wanted to shine in the best way possible, and I think I did,” she told the FIG.

Look out for her powerful Cheng, an Yurchenko-style vault and one of the most difficult performed by women today.

Where does the U.S. stand?

After the Olympics, many of the top U.S. gymnasts are away, either recovering from injuries, off at college or participating in Biles’ post-Olympic tour. That’s why, when the U.S. held worlds trials earlier this month, only six athletes competed.

That doesn’t mean there’s a dearth of talent on the U.S. team, though. Quite the contrary: Kayla DiCello and Leanne Wong, both Olympic team alternates, are world-class athletes who hope to make a splash on the international stage. DiCello had an impressive showing at trials, winning the all-around and earning the highest score on three events. Plus, she doesn’t seem phased at all by the prospect of leading this team. “This is our turn to show the world what we can do,” she said.

Wong, meanwhile, earned the top score on floor, where she competes a gorgeous whip to triple twist. After spending much of her Tokyo experience in her hotel room after her teammate tested positive for COVID-19, Wong hopes to have a better showing at worlds.

“I was really disappointed in my experience,” she said. “And I just wanted to train more and get the real experience of competing outside the country.”

She’s had trouble with consistency in the past, but if she does what she’s capable of next week, then she has a real shot at a medal.

Filling out Team USA’s roster are eMjae Frazier, who surprised when she took second in the all-around at trials, and Konnor McClain.

McClain’s year has been marked by drama and unmet expectations. After an incredible 2019 season, MClain had disappointing performances in the lead-up to the Olympic trials, followed by a last-minute gym change. Then, at worlds trials, she fell twice on beam and twice on floor.

But there’s reason to be hopeful for McClain at worlds. After trials, she told the media that she’s feeling much better at her new gym, both mentally and in terms of her gymnastics. “I didn’t feel any nerves at all [at worlds trials], so I just felt different. It was a good experience,” she said. “The last four months have been really good … it’s just crazy how much it has changed and how happy I am to go into the gym every day.”

She also said that she hit her high-difficulty beam routine during the behind-closed-doors session on Day 2. If she can replicate that at worlds, then this could be a turning point for her career.

China’s redemption

China’s best gymnasts, normally representing a superpower in the sport, had a rough outing at the Tokyo Olympics, coming in seventh as a team in the final. Team members Tang Xijing, Lu Yufei and Fan Yilin also underperformed in the all-around and bars finals to miss the podium. It looked like China could actually go without a medal until the beam final, where Guan Chenchen and Tang went 1-2 in glorious fashion.

Now, China is sending a very strong and talented group to worlds for the chance at redemption. Wei Xiaoyuan, for one, gets to make a name for herself on the world stage after coming in second in the all-around and first in bars at China’s second Olympic trials but still being left off of the Olympic team. Here, she’ll lead China in the all-around after winning that title at the recent Chinese National Games with a 55.064. Bars are her specialty, and if she, Becky Downie and Melnikova compete there at full strength, it will make for a thrilling final.

We also saw the return of Li Shijia, who was a favorite to make the Olympic team before an injury ruined her chances. At the National Games, she earned a 14.666 at qualifications — the highest beam score of the competition — with a routine that she absolutely needs to repeat at a world championships.

Downie’s comeback

Becky Downie is back. A two-time Olympian and one of the sport’s great veterans — she’s competed as a senior elite since 2008 — Downie was set to contend for a bars medal at the Tokyo Olympics before she was shockingly left off of Team Great Britain. The situation surrounding her omission made it all the more heartbreaking: Downie’s brother died unexpectedly during the trials process, and while British Gymnastics granted her a separate trial, they still didn’t include her on the team.

Downie expressed her disappointment, but didn’t let it stop her from training for her 10th world championships. “I don’t want to retire like this,” she wrote on Twitter.

Her inclusion on Great Britain’s worlds roster, then, was a relief for many fans, who hope to see her dominate in the bars final. Downie is known for her exciting bar routines, which are packed with releases and quick transitions.

If she’s able to bring her full difficulty to Kitakyushu, it will be a thrill to watch.

The return of one-touch warmups

It’s a small thing, for sure, but the misguided rule that fans and athletes have hated for years is finally gone — the “no one-touch warmup before event finals.”

Some background: In team and all-around finals, athletes get the chance to warm up on each apparatus before they perform. But historically, in event finals, the warmup happens in the back gym, and when athletes come out to compete, they don’t get to try out the equipment again before competing. The rule, according to gymnastics authorities, was meant to appease broadcasters.

It stood at the Tokyo Olympics, where falls during the bars final led to an outcry from athletes and fans, who argued that not having a warmup leaves gymnasts at a disadvantage. McKayla Maroney said on Instagram that when she competed in the vault final, her legs felt “like Jell-O” after the long wait.

The controversy was enough to get the rule changed, starting at these world championships. Here, the first four athletes in an event final will have the chance to warm up before they compete, followed by the other four. It’s unclear what the effects of this will be, but ideally we’ll see fewer falls and better performances. And, needless to say, it probably won’t affect the viewing experience.

Jessica Taylor Price is a freelance sports writer. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, ESPNW, and Bleacher Report. She is also the gymnastics writer for the women’s sports newsletter The IX. Follow her on Twitter @jesstaylorprice.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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