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Kato, Douglas reign supreme at American Cup meet

AFP-JIJI, AP

Ryohei Kato and reigning Olympic women’s all-around champion Gabrielle Douglas of the United States won titles at the American Cup invitational gymnastics meet in Newark, New Jersey, on Saturday.

Kato, who helped Japan to last year’s world team title in Glasgow and the silver medal at the 2012 Olympics in London, took the men’s all-around crown with 88.931 points to edge American Donnell Whittenburg by .366 of a point with China’s Sun Wei, who was third with 87.665 points.

Kato only had the top apparatus score on the horizontal bar at 15.233 points but was second on the pommel horse, still rings and floor exercise on his way to the all-around victory in the Rio de Janeiro Olympic tuneup.

He took advantage as Whittenburg struggled on the high bar, letting a nearly 1.6-point lead get away in the last event.

“It was important to ride the momentum from worlds last year and put up a good showing,” Kato said. “In my mind, the best competition is when everyone actually hits and then to see who comes out on top at the end. I didn’t think I could come out on top.”

Three-time U.S. champion Sam Mikulak slipped to fourth in his second major competition since recovering from a slightly torn Achilles.

“Whatever mistake I made, I’m going to go back in the gym and do it 100 times,” Mikulak said. “I’m not going to beat myself up and let it bleed over to the next event.”

For Douglas, there’s work to be done if she hopes to chase down supernova teammate Simone Biles in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

Yet there was something very familiar about her steady and professional performance. Especially since the day ended with Douglas atop the leaderboard for the first time since that giddy day in London nearly four years ago that transformed her from precocious talent to history maker.

Her winning total of 60.165 was nearly a half-point better than teammate Maggie Nichols and well clear of third-place finisher Elsabeth Black of Canada, adding serious momentum to her pursuit to become the first female to win consecutive all-around golds in nearly 50 years.

It was also a sign to U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi that the occasionally reticent teenager has been replaced by a more mature, more confident 20-year-old whose ability to deliver in the moment remains as strong as ever.

“I don’t want to just flip it on when the lights are on,” Douglas said before adding with a laugh, “but I’m glad I can, though.”

Even while nursing nagging injuries that forced her to take a semi-extended break after the 2015 world championships last fall. Even with the charismatic Nichols looking to challenge for one of the three all-around spots in Rio. Even amid the seemingly incessant criticism on social media that her presence is just a publicity stunt designed to keep her in the spotlight.

“I just wanted to really show everyone I’m back and back for the right reasons,” Douglas said. “From the bottom of my heart, I believe I can achieve more.”

Nichols was nearly Douglas’ equal, with only a couple of missed connections keeping her from making the final rotation more of a contest and less of a coronation for Douglas.

Nichols put together the best floor routine of the afternoon, her polished 15.2 impressive considering Nichols has been dealing with a balky back and didn’t even start working on her revamped floor set until two months ago.

“She showed I can rely on her and the team can rely on her,” Karolyi said.