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USA claims 9 gold medals as Pac Rim Championships come to a close

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By John Powers


The U.S. gymnastics team wrapped up a dominant weekend at the Pacific Rim Championships presented by Hershey’s in Everett, Wash., on Sunday night by cleaning up in the event finals, winning all but one of the six men’s and four women’s titles and collecting 15 medals in all in its final international competition before this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.


For the men, who took gold in every event plus four silvers, it was a vigorous finish in the wake of a team victory that had been marred by several unfulfilling performances. “We always enjoy being able to make a final,” said Alex Naddour, who won on pommel horse. “It’s a great honor. And to be able to come out again and show what we can do under a pressure situation, you get to redeem yourself.”


Despite holding out all-around titlist Simone Biles, who’d qualified in three events, and newcomer Laurie Hernandez, the American women collected golds in three of the four and won five medals in all.


“It’s always great to have that experience,” said Aly Raisman, who earned gold on floor (15.100) ahead of teammate Brenna Dowell (14.825) and silver on balance beam (15.100), the events where she made the Olympic podium in London. “I’m sure these judges will be judging us at the Olympics so it’s good to have that and hear what they have to say. And just being around all the other competitors puts you in the zone for the Olympics.”


The men swept four events, going 1-2 on floor exercise with Jake Dalton (15.625) and Eddie Penev (15.525), on pommel horse with Naddour (15.650) and Sam Mikulak (14.950), on still rings with Donnell Whittenburg (15.925) and John Orozco (15.325) and on vault with Penev (15.100) and Whittenburg (15.075). Whittenburg also won on parallel bars (15.800) with Orozco taking high bar (15.400).


“I just wanted to come out here and get in front of a crowd to get that experience of competing,” said Whittenburg, who also earned silver in the all-around. “It was definitely good for me.”


For Dalton, it was the first international competition since he underwent shoulder surgery last September. “I’m excited to get back out there and feel good on the floor,” he said. From here, he’ll go to Rio along with Orozco for this week’s Olympic test event. “You don’t want to pass something up like the test event so it’s going to be a great opportunity,” said Dalton. “It’s definitely really hard to go back-to-back but I’m up for the challenge.”


Orozco, who’s still working his way back from a re-torn Achilles tendon last summer, is viewing the Rio event as a valuable indicator of his progress. “I’m excited for it,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I want to test out and see where I’m at internationally. This will be my first real official test overseas. I do want to start pushing myself but I also have to ease up on the pressure that I put on myself to actually go out there and be perfect like I always want to be.”


For Naddour, winning on horse after leading off was a particularly satisfying result. “Being first up on an event that the U.S. is known to not do very well on, I had to go out there cold,” he said. “I had the shakes and everything, so it was important for me to go out and do that.”


Penev, who was two-for-two, helped make the case that he could be a valuable specialist at the Games. “You need those big scores in the three-up, three-count situation,” he said. “And not only do you need big scores, you need consistently big scores.”


On the women’s side Ashton Locklear cashed in on her sole opportunity, winning gold on uneven bars (15.625). “Like (national team coordinator) Martha Karolyi says, don’t think about it as competition, think of it as practice,” she said. “Do the same thing every day.”


Ragan Smith, who made the team when Maggie Nichols injured a knee in camp, prevailed on beam (15.225) in her only appearance. “It was just an honor to be here and get to compete,” she said. “Just like in practice, I do the same thing. Don’t even worry about it.”