Sooners look to have impact at Rio Olympics

Coach Mark Williams and former OU gymnast Jake Dalton talk over routines as they prepare for the 2016 Olympic Games.

By Michael Kinney

When the U.S. Men’s Gymnastics team takes to the competition floor for the first time during the 2016 Olympic games, they will have a familiar look to them. Those who have followed the Oklahoma gymnastics program for the past decade or so will recognize several faces.

Three of the five gymnasts who will represent the United States in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during the Olympic games are alumni of the Sooners. They include Jake Dalton, Chris Brooks and Alex Naddour. They will join Sam Mikulak and  Danell Leyva, who round out the five-man squad.

Leading US team into Olympic battle is OU head coach Mark Williams. After four previous trips to the Olympics as an assistant and individual coach, this will be his first turn as the lead man in charge.

“I am honored,” Williams said. “It’s amazing to be in a position to lead any team at the Olympic Games, and I feel we are very fortunate to have athletes that have been part of the Olympic process in the past. I’m excited about this team. I think we have a tremendous opportunity in Rio and I’m looking forward to the journey.”

Williams, who is heading into his 18th season at Oklahoma, is coming off back to back national championships and the 10th for the Sooners’ program. That resume helped him secure the national team coaching gig.

“Obviously my Oklahoma teams have done very well over the years,” Williams said. “They want to have somebody that is in a place that continues championships. I am hoping I can put the pieces together with the five man team where we’re in a great position to be able to be put up on the medal stand at the end of the competition.”

This will be Dalton’s second trip to the Olympics. He was part of the 2012 squad that took fifth in London.

But being able to go to the games with his coach leading the way makes it even more special for him.

“It’s incredible,” Dalton said. “It has to be so rewarding for him. Even for us to watch it for him because he deserves it. No one deserves it more than this guy. He is such a good coach because he can put together a training plan and make the athletes peak at the perfect time. That’s kind of what he has been known for in college. And he’s been doing it with me the last three years, helping me put together training programs. He is going to be a great coach out on the floor.”

The men’s team has had a chance to bond and get to know each other in the weeks heading up to the games, which last from Aug. 5-21. But because of the Oklahoma connection, it was a much easier task than previous Olympic teams.

“I feel very comfortable with those guys having coached them before,” Williams said. “I know they have been on championship teams and have represented the United States at World Championships and at the Olympics for Jake. They are guys that have earned their spots and in the next three or four weeks we will put in the training necessary to go to Rio very well prepared.”

This is the first time since 1984 that there have been three members from once school on a gymnastics team. Then it was UCLA, who had three of the six Olympic gymnast.

“It’s incredible. Speaks volumes about the program, about the coaches here and even the athletes,” Dalton said. “Everybody gets here, they go through Mark’s training. It’s hard, but if you stick with it, you’re going to come out a better gymnasts. Everybody is really a family here when they are training together. They you get the support from the University and we get to team in this amazing facility every single day. Couldn’t ask for a better place to train.”

Even as the team prepares for the Olympics, controversies continue to surround the games. Everything from beaches polluted with body parts to the Zika virus has driven away other athletes from competing.

But Dalton said, for him, it’s worth the risk to fulfill a lifelong dream and wear USA across his chest.

“There is a lot of media about it. I think some of it is a little bit over hyped,” Dalton said. “I think there are concerns some people need to make sure they are aware of. For me, if I get the opportunity to represent my country at the Olympic Games, I’m not backing down.”

Kinney is a freelance writer. Go to

At Team USA Level, basics is at the core


By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY – The game of softball has changed considerably over the decades. Everything from the gloves players use to the uniforms worn has gone through a transformation.

Even the way players are taught the game has changed. There is now more technology involved in the game than ever before. However, according to two-time U.S. Olympian and Cal State Northridge softball coach Tairia Flowers, there is no better teacher of softball than the pure basics.

“The biggest thing we see is being able to play catch,” Flowers said. “Field the ball, throw it to a target, be able to hit somebody in the chest every single time. If you watch, the majority of the errors in games at this level are going to be throwing mistakes because they are rushing their tempo.”

Flowers, who is also serving as coach for USA Softball’s developmental squad, the USA Elite, led the team to a fourth-place finish at the World Cup of Softball last week in Oklahoma City. Even at the international level, Flowers likes to see her players get in serious work on the tee. Hitting the ball off a tee is something little kids do when they are first learning how to play the game, but she feels it works just as well in keeping the skills of veteran players sharp.

“I am always a fan of tee work,” Flowers said. “I think you can get a ton of work in without having to adjust to speed and tempo and the ball moving. You can perfect your swing off the tee.”

The Elite roster is filled with women of varying degrees of experience and ages. That includes Sam Fischer, who has been with USA Softball since 2012.

Fischer agrees with her coach that the most important work softball players of all experience levels can do is throw, catch, hit, and field.

“Keep it simple. Always keep it simple,” said Fischer, who is a native of Simi Valley, California. “I’ve been around for a long time, and there are more and more things that are coming out that are taking away from the basics. So if we get back to basics and just work on the foundation, girls are going to get better than if they use all these tool and different stuff. Keep it simple for sure.”

For 18-year-old Madilyn Nickles, who has yet to even start her collegiate career at UCLA, training her mind to do the right movement in the right moment is part of the keep it simple philosophy. She says it helped her land a spot with USA Softball at such a young age.

“I did mental drills more than anything,” Nickles said. “That was always my biggest issue growing up. It still is to this day. Physically I’d say do the little things. The little tweaky little drills that you need to do to become successful. You can’t really do the same exact thing every time in a game. You just really need to work on things that will make you confident in a game.”

Fischer does suggest one bit of technology to help players get better. But even that is just a prelude to more hard work.

“What I would say with the technology we have now, film yourself when you’re hitting,” Fischer said. “Film yourself when you’re fielding. Watch what the girls on the USA team or in college are doing and see what looks similar. See what they do differently, what they do better. And just get out and get reps. When I was growing up I really didn’t do a ton of drills. But I was out there getting hundreds and hundreds of reps. So no matter what, you’re going to get better when you’re practicing. Even if you are just swinging off a tee, you’re going to get better.”

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Durant to lead Team USA into Rio


By Michael Kinney

Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant is a man of his word. Even as other high profile NBA players dropped their names for consideration to play in the Rio Summer Olympics, Durant said over and over that he would be making the trip.

It became official Monday morning when USA Basketball released the names of the U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team and Durant was right at the top of the 12-player list.

It’s an honor to be a part of this. #UNITE #USABMNT,” Durant posted to a social media site.

This will be Durant’s second trip to the Olympic games. In 2012 he was the team’s leading scorer at 19.5 ppg as he helped the squad claim the Gold Medal.

The rest of the roster has 10 first timers to the Olympic experiences. They includes Harrison Barnes, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, Draymond Green, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Kyle Lowry and Klay Thompson.

“It is an honor to represent my country in the Olympics,” Jordan said. “I am excited to begin the process of bringing home a gold medal to the United States.”

Only Durant and Carmelo Anthony have played in the Olympics before.

Olympic competition in Rio de janeiro, Brazil begins Aug. 5 and runs through the 21st.

“I think I can speak for the entire coaching staff and say we’re extremely excited about the team we will field for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro,” said Jerry Colangelo, managing director of the USA Men’s National Team. “I love our depth, which is another indication of the depth of talent our national team program is blessed with. We’ve got a great mix of talent, scorers, past gold medal winners and outstanding youth.”

Durant will prepare for the Olympics as he goes through a free agency period where he is the most sought after player on the market. According to reports, once free agency begins July 1, he will have meetings with the Thunder, the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat, the Boston Celtics and the L.A. Clippers.

Michael Kinney is a freelance writer and can be reached at

Westbrook bows out of Olympics


By Michael Kinney

The two best point guards in the NBA this year were Golden State’s Steph Curry and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook. Neither will be in Rio this Summer for the 2016 Olympic Games.

After Curry announced last week that he would not be on the Summer Olympic team, Westbrook followed suit Friday.

“After speaking with my family, I have decided to not participate in this year’s Olympics,” Westbrook said in a statement. “This was not an easy decision, as representing my country at the World Championships in 2010 and the Olympics in 2012 were career highlights for me. I look forward to future opportunities as a member of USA Basketball.”

Westbrook was part of the 2012 Gold Medal winning team and averaged 8.5 points, 1.6 assists and 1.6 rebounds.

Westbrook didn’t give a reason why he would not be part of the team. But with him entering the final year of his contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the fear of injury could be at the heart of the matter.

The All-Star point guard is coming off a season in which he averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds. He also averaged more than 34 minutes a game for the sixth time in eight seasons. So he may just need a rest.

The departure of Westbrook and Curry leaves the door wide open for some the leagues younger point guards who are chomping at the bit to be on the team. That includes the likes of Mike Conley, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and John Wall.

Earlier this month, Thunder teammate Kevin Durant announced he is still planning on being on the Olympic team in Rio.

The USA National Team will open its 2016 training camp July 18 in Las Vegas and will train daily through July 21 at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center. The team roster for the USA’s Las Vegas training camp will feature 12 national team players to be announced after completion of the NBA Finals, according to

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