Can Canadians break through at gymnastics worlds in Montreal?
Women led by 2-time Olympian Ellie Black, while 'dependable' Zach Clay may surprise
Athletes like Zach Clay, who remain motivated in the gym while recovering from serious injury, have always caught the eye of retired Canadian Olympic gymnast Kyle Shewfelt.
In November 2015, Clay tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right leg and broke his right tibia (shin bone) while competing in Switzerland, wiping out his 2016 season following surgery.
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The Chilliwack, B.C., native returned this past May and won the senior men's all-around title in his Canadian Artistic Gymnastics Championships debut at Claude-Robillard Sports Complex in Montreal.
"A lot of athletes get that [ACL] injury and say, 'I'm done,'" says Shewfelt, who broke both legs 11 months before the 2008 Olympics and retired the next year. "If you don't have a competition to prepare for, how do you push your body every day? Zach figured a way to stay motivated, and that shows his mental strength and desire."
The 22-year-old Clay, a pommel horse specialist, faces another test this week at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, where more than 500 athletes from 80 countries are competing in the 47th artistic gymnastics world championships. The event will be lived streamed at CBCSports.ca, starting Monday at 6 p.m. ET with men's qualification. CBC-TV's coverage begins Thursday at 11:30 p.m. local time. Click here for a full schedule.
Medal favourites include reigning all-around world champion Kohei Uchimura of Japan, Ukraine's Oleg Verniaiev and Max Whitlock of Great Britain, who finished 1-2-3 at the 2016 Rio Olympics and averaged more than 15 points across the six disciplines: the floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bar.
"He's about a point-and-a-half away from the top guys," Shewfelt says of Clay, "but those guys are really pushing the difficulty level, so the margin for error is slim. Zach is dependable and can contribute strong scores in all six events. A Canadian has never been in a pommel horse final, at least since the early 1980s."
Shewfelt points out that Clay, who's appearing at his third world championships, has established himself as a contender this season, thanks largely to increased confidence and belief in his ability that could lead to his competing in Thursday's final.
"I've probably watched Zach the past eight years. He's a true all-around athlete," says Shewfelt, a CBC Sports analyst who won 2004 Olympic gold in the floor event and multiple medals at the world championships, Commonwealth Games and World Cup. "He has real good quality in his gymnastics — clean and polished form, execution, and nice shaping.
"He's also very strong in the events where Canada is traditionally weak like the rings, pommel horse and parallel bars. He caught my eye because he could fill those gaps."
No team competition
Shewfelt, who will be watching how Clay "can rise to the occasion" in his quest to be part of the 2020 Olympic squad for Tokyo, stresses the 2014 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist needs to build more confidence than in the past and trust his ability to "hit" his routine in a pressure-packed situation on home soil.
In a post-Olympic year, there are no team competitions in Montreal, the only Canadian city to have previously hosted the world event, in 1985. The women's competition is comprised of the floor exercise, balance beam, uneven bars and vault, while the men will perform on the floor, pommel horse, rings, parallel bars, horizontal bar and vault.
5 other Canadians to watch
The two-time Olympian looks to improve upon her seventh-place finish in the all-around at the 2015 worlds in Glasgow, Scotland. Black, 22, won four medals, including gold in the balance beam at the World University Games in August. The Halifax native won her fourth Canadian championship in late May by regaining her senior all-around title.
At her first-ever World Cup, the Vancouver native took home silver medals in the floor and vault disciplines from Varna, Bulgaria. Also this year, the 17-year-old Olsen won a gold medal on vault at the Canadian championships and the Jesolo Cup in Italy. At 16, she was the youngest of the 313 Canadian athletes at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she placed eighth on vault.
Onyshko, 19, is competing at her third world championships after winning a gold medal at nationals in May. The Brandon, Man., resident won a 2016 Elite Canada all-around title and was the lone Canadian gymnast to qualify for both an all-around final and apparatus final (balance beam) at her Olympic debut last summer in Rio, placing 18th and eighth, respectively.
"The Canadian women are one of the dominant teams in the world now. I think we'll see Ellie and Isabela in the all-around final, but there is potential for each [Canadian] woman to make an individual event final," says Shewfelt. Rounding out the squad is first-year senior Brooklyn Moors of Cambridge, Ont., while Calgary's Brittany Rogers and Rose-Kaying Woo of Brossard, Que., are reserves.
After competing on vault (14th), floor exercise (18th) and rings (27th) in his Olympic debut last summer, the North Vancouver, B.C., native earned gold medals in the rings and floor exercise at the Canadian championships in May. After quitting the sport in high school, Morgan, 28, won two gold medals and four overall at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
The North Vancouver, B.C., native enters the world championships with confidence after capturing gold on the parallel bars and high bar at the Canadian championships. It was an impressive showing, considering Payne has overcome a torn Achilles tendon in 2015 and left the sport in 2012 for two years to complete his Morman mission in South Korea.
The men's team also features Rene Cournoyer of Repentigny, Que., Kevin Lytwyn of Burlington, Ont., and Thierry Pellerin of Levis, Que.
5 international athletes to watch
The Romanian, who won gold on vault at the worlds in 2005, will be looking to reach the top of the podium in Montreal after finishing second in 2015. At 35, Dragulescu came out of retirement for the 2016 Rio Olympics and finished fourth in the vault. Along with eight world titles split evenly between the floor exercise and vault, he has a move named after him — the Dragulescu vault.
The 28-year-old has remained undefeated on the international scene for nearly nine years, having won seven Olympic and 19 world medals, and will try to win a seventh consecutive world championship. The first gymnast since 1972 to win two straight all-around Olympic titles, "King Kohei" is also known for being dinged with $4,900 US in roaming charges for playing Pokemon Go in Brazil ahead of last year's Rio Olympics.
The double Olympic champion from Great Britain returns to international action after taking a break in May to prepare for the world championships. Whitlock, 24, will attempt to defend his title in Montreal after winning gold on the pommel horse two years ago. In 2016, Whitlock became Britain's first Olympic gymnastics champion (floor exercise and pommel horse) and its first in 108 years to win an all-around medal (bronze).
Lordache, 21, is looking to add to an outstanding season in Montreal after winning a bronze medal at the European Championships, all-around gold at the World University Games and two medals at the World Cup Challenge in Paris — gold on the balance beam and silver on the ground. The Romanian earned all-around silver at the 2014 world championships.
At 42, the mother of a teenaged son will represent Uzbekistan in Montreal, looking to build on her 11 world championship medals. A vault specialist, Chusovitina became the oldest gymnast to compete at an Olympics last year in Rio (41 years, two months) and is the only female gymnast to compete at seven Summer Games. Fans should prepare to see the Vault of Death — front handspring onto the horse and two-and-a-half front somersaults off.
Biles among missing U.S. Olympic trio
American Simone Biles, who hasn't competed since winning four gold medals and a bronze at last year's Rio Olympics, will not attempt to win a fourth consecutive world all-around championship. Teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas also won't compete. Raisman won all-around silver in Rio while Douglas, the 2012 Olympic all-around gold medallist, failed to qualify for the final.
Leading the U.S. team in Montreal is 2017 U.S. all-around champion Ragan Smith, Morgan Hurd, Jade Carey and Ashton Locklear.