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American Cup Offers Big Test (And Big Screen) For U.S. Gymnasts

By Lary Bump | March 05, 2015, 10:14 p.m. (ET)

Sam Mikulak performs on still rings during men's podium training prior to the AT&T American Cup on March 5, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.

Simone Biles performs on balance beam during women's podium training prior to the AT&T American Cup on March 5, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.

ARLINGTON, Texas – Simone Biles is 4-foot-8, but “I say 4-9 sometimes,” she said.

The high school senior from Spring, Texas, is already a giant in women’s gymnastics. But when the two-time world all-around champion takes the podium Saturday for the AT&T American Cup, she’ll appear even bigger on the world’s largest HDTV video board hanging from the rafters in the 80,000-seat AT&T Stadium, home to the NFL’S Dallas Cowboys.

“I think it will definitely make me look taller than I already am,” she said, punctuating her words with a bright smile and laughter.

Sam Mikulak, the two-time defending U.S. champion who won last year’s American Cup, said he looked forward to seeing himself on the big screen.

“I think it will be hard to look at the camera and the screen at the same time, but miracles happen,” said the outgoing Mikulak, a 2012 Olympian.

When he walked into the stadium, he said, “I was just wowed. Me and Don Don (U.S. teammate Donnell Whittenburg) came in and started taking pictures. We tried taking a selfie, but the screen was too big so we couldn’t fit it.”

Might it be too big, though? Biles doesn’t think so.

“I think this stadium is amazing,” she said. “Once I got the hang of it, it was pretty good. We’re not used to that much lighting in the gym, so it was kind of confusing.

“Everybody makes it seem like a bigger deal than it is. Yes, we’re in the Cowboys’ stadium, and yes, it’s a huge room. But once we come in here, we’re still here to do our job and we have our blinders on.”

Biles tries to keep her life, like the stadium, in perspective.

She spends four to five hours a day being home-schooled, and another three hours working on her routines.

“Yesterday, I was FaceTiming with my friends, and they’re like, ‘Oh, Simone Biles, two-time world champion,’ and I’m like, ‘Guys, I’m still Simone. Nothing has changed.’”

Because her success has come outside of Olympic years, Biles has been able to maintain a lower profile than other U.S. gymnastics starlets. But with six world titles — surpassing the U.S. record of five by Shannon Miller, though Miller has seven Olympic medals — Biles is already among the most accomplished gymnasts of all time.

Whether or not she can take the next step and win on the biggest stage next summer at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games is a question U.S. gymnastics fans love to talk about.

Yet Biles, 17, insists she isn’t yet focusing on Rio.

“Because it is a year away, it’s still so hard to think about because anything could happen,” Biles said. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself and start thinking about it, because that’s when the stress comes in.”

Mikulak, who competed in the past two world championships, isn’t as shy about his aspirations for Rio.

“I’m definitely thinking about Rio,” the former University of Michigan star said. “You should be excited about it. Something that you want to work towards, and you’ve got to have the goals set before you can accomplish them.”

Regardless, the Road to Rio runs through the American Cup.

Eighteen gymnasts — nine men, nine women — from 12 countries will compete all-around for the American Cup, the third of three events in the FIG World Cup Series. The series champions will be crowned along with the American Cup gold medalists.

Nastia Liukin, a gold medalist in the 2008 Olympic all-around and at the 2006 and ’08 American Cups, said the event is an important stepping-stone to the Games.

Biles agreed.

“I know the title is huge, and if you win the title it puts a name to yourself,” said Biles, who won the American Cup silver medal in 2013, her first year as a senior.

In addition to Biles, Mikulak and Whittenburg, MyKayla Skinner is representing the United States.

Other top competitors include Oleg Verniaiev of the Ukraine, the men’s champion at each of the two previous world cup stops in Stuttgart, Germany, and Glasgow, Scotland. He was the American Cup men’s silver medalist last year in Greensboro, North Carolina. Great Britain’s Daniel Purvis won the American Cup bronze medal last year and will vie for the title again this year.

Italy’s Vanessa Ferrari has placed fifth in each of the last three American Cups. Venezuela’s Jessica Lopez will be competing for the fifth time.

This is the first time the American Cup, in its 40th year, has been held in Arlington and its first time in a football stadium. Nearby Fort Worth has hosted four American Cups.

The competition is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. The first 90 minutes will be webcast at ATTAmericanCup.com. NBC Sports will have live coverage from 1-3 p.m. ET.

Lary Bump is a reporter from the Dallas area. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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