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Olympic alternates Leanne Wong, Kayla DiCello win all-around silver, bronze at world championships

Kayla DiCello of Boyds, Md., won the bronze medal in the all-around competition at the world championships in Kitakyushu, Japan. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

At the U.S. Olympic trials in June, Kayla DiCello slipped from the bars during perhaps the most important competition of her career, effectively dashing her hopes of making the team for Tokyo. The 17-year-old still traveled to the Tokyo Olympics as an alternate but then returned home to Boyds, Md., and began preparing for her next opportunity at the world championships. This time, with the U.S. Olympians not vying for selection, DiCello emerged as one of the country’s top contenders, so she headed to Kitakyushu, Japan, to take part in a competition of this magnitude for the first time.

DiCello, who trains at Hill’s Gymnastics in Gaithersburg, started strong in the qualifying round and then on the vault in the first rotation of Thursday’s all-around final. But during her bars routine, she couldn’t hold on after flying over the high bar on her Tkatchev, the same release skill that gave her trouble at the trials. DiCello regrouped for the beam and floor, performing solid routines with no major errors to secure the bronze medal by a comfortable margin.

“I just tried to stay with what I was doing for each event,” DiCello said afterward in a video call. “I knew that if I could focus on each event and get the best score I could, then I could have a chance.”

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DiCello had earned medals at international competitions before: a gold on the vault and a bronze with the U.S. team at the junior world championships in 2019, and then an all-around silver at the 2020 American Cup in her senior international debut just days before the coronavirus pandemic halted sports. But this accomplishment is by far the most significant of her career. She said the medal around her neck “feels a little heavier.”

Angelina Melnikova, representing the Russian Gymnastics Federation, won the all-around gold with a ​​56.632 after an excellent showing with four hit routines. The United States’ Leanne Wong, 18, challenged for that top spot, requiring Melnikova, a two-time Olympian, to execute a strong floor routine during the final rotation. Just as Melnikova has done throughout this meet, she delivered again. Wong, another U.S. alternate for the Tokyo Games, earned the silver with a 56.340 at her first world championships.

Melnikova, 21, ended the Americans’ winning streak in major all-around competitions just months after she and the other gymnasts from Russia won the team gold at the Olympics by defeating the United States, which had won the team competition at every world championships and Olympics since 2011.

American women had also won the all-around title at every world championships and Olympics since 2011, with Simone Biles securing the crown six times. Sunisa Lee (Tokyo Olympics), Morgan Hurd (2017 world championships), Gabby Douglas (2012 Olympics) and Jordyn Wieber (2011 worlds) earned the other all-around titles during this dominant stretch for the United States. Melnikova’s gold was Russia’s first in the women’s all-around at these top-tier meets since her 2016 Olympic teammate Aliya Mustafina won the title at the world championships in 2010.

“I feel like I made history,” Melnikova said.

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The world championships held immediately after the Olympics are typically a lower-profile competition because they are the first in each new quadrennium and don’t include a team competition. With this year’s edition held less than three months after the postponed Summer Games rather than a full year later, many Olympic medalists chose not to attend.

Melnikova, the all-around bronze medalist in Tokyo, entered this competition as a favorite, and she also qualified for the finals for each apparatus. Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade, who won the all-around silver and vault gold at the Olympics, is competing, but she did not enter the all-around competition. None of the members of the U.S. Olympic team attended the country’s selection camp, and the four gymnasts in Japan competing for individual medals are all first-timers at the event.

“I think we did a really good job for the next generation, and we're just setting the stage,” said Wong, who plans to head to the University of Florida next month to begin her college gymnastics career.

DiCello and Wong also qualified for the finals on the beam and floor. Konnor McClain nearly advanced on the beam and eMjae Frazier was close on the floor, but both were edged by DiCello and Wong in the qualification round, and no more than two gymnasts from each country can perform in each final. Both Wong and DiCello are capable of earning additional medals in Sunday’s finals.

Even with the fall on the bars, DiCello finished the all-around competition nearly a full point ahead of fourth-place finisher Vladislava Urazova from Russia. Urazova, who also placed fourth in the all-around final at the Olympics, pushed ahead of DiCello at the meet’s halfway point, but then she fell on the mount of her beam routine, a back layout step-out onto the apparatus, which gave DiCello the opportunity to climb ahead. Japan’s Hitomi Hatakeda qualified for this final in fourth, but she withdrew because of an injury before Thursday’s competition began.

The last time the U.S. gymnastics team was in Japan, Wong’s experience as an Olympic alternate turned into a dreary ordeal. Fellow alternate Kara Eaker tested positive for the coronavirus, and Wong, who said before the Olympics that she was not vaccinated, had to quarantine as a close contact. DiCello and Emma Malabuyo continued training as alternates while Eaker and Wong remained isolated. After that experience, Wong said she knew she wanted to push for a return to Japan for the world championships.

After a year away from competition because of the pandemic, U.S. gymnasts spent the spring and summer competing at important meets in the run-up to the Olympics. DiCello took a week off after returning home from Tokyo, and she said she struggled a bit while getting back to practicing routines to prepare for the world championships.

“But the closer I got,” DiCello said, “the more I just started to believe more in myself that I could do it.”

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