Shani Davis

Speed skating World Cup storylines

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The World Cup speed skating season, which begins Friday, is the determinant for the number of Olympic spots each country receives and a barometer for Olympic medal contenders.

Countries will earn Sochi Olympic quota spots at the first four World Cup stops before the Olympics — Calgary, Alberta; Salt Lake City, Utah; Astana, Kazakhstan and Berlin.

For the U.S., those quota spots will then be filled at the Olympic Trials in Salt Lake City.

Here are all of the key events before the Olympics:

Calgary World Cup — Nov. 8-10
Salt Lake City World Cup — Nov. 15-17
Astana World Cup — Nov. 29-Dec. 1
Berlin World Cup — Dec. 6-8
Salt Lake City U.S. Olympic Trials — Dec. 27-Jan. 1
Nagano World Sprint Championships — Jan. 18-19

Here are five storylines to watch over the next three months:

1. What will the U.S. Olympic Team look like?

A strong early indicator comes from the U.S. Championships two weeks ago and the resulting World Cup team announcement. However, not every World Cup team member in 2009 made the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team.

Here’s the U.S. World Cup team:

Men
Shani Davis (1000m, 1500m)
Brian Hansen (500m, 1000m, 1500m)
Tucker Fredricks (500m)
Joey Mantia (500m, 1000m, 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m)
Jonathan Garcia (500m)
Mitch Whitmore (500m, 1000m)
Trevor Marsicano (1000m, 1500m)
Jonathan Kuck (1500m, 5000m, 10,000m)
Emery Lehman (5000m, 10,000m)
Patrick Meek (5000m, 10,000m)

Women
Brittany Bowe (500m, 1000m, 1500m)
Heather Richardson (500m, 1000m, 1500m)
Lauren Cholewinski (500m)
Sugar Todd (500m, 1000m)
Elli Ochowicz (500m)
Jilleanne Rookard (1000m, 1500m, 300m, 5000m)
Rebekah Bradford (1000m)
Kelly Gunther (1500m)
Theresa Cliff-Ryan (3000m)
Petra Acker (3000m, 5000m)
Anna Ringsred (3000m, 5000m)
Maria Lamb (3000m, 5000m)

The U.S. can earn a maximum of 20 Olympic quota spots (10 men, 10 women) based on World Cup results and times.

2. Healthy Shani Davis seeks Olympic threepeat

Davis, 31, is the only active U.S. skater with an individual Olympic medal. He has four of them, golds in the 1000m at the 2006 and the 2010 Olympics and silver in the 1500m at both Games. He could become the first U.S. man to win three straight Winter Olympic titles in the same event in Sochi.

The veteran Chicagoan pared down his schedule since 2010. He made the 2009-10 World Cup team in every distance and skated all but the 10,000m on the World Cup tour and at the Vancouver Olympics.

He hasn’t skated a 500m, 5000m or 10,000m internationally since January 2012. Davis swept the 1000m and the 1500m at the U.S. Championships two weeks ago.

“My mindset was just to simply qualify and get through Trials the best that I can and get as close as possible to some times I wrote down earlier that I would like to be a little ahead of, a little close to, a little behind, depending on how I skated,” Davis said then. “I’m skating well, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. But the season is still young and the key, the main goal, is to be ready for the Olympics.”

Davis dealt with a small tear in a groin muscle at this time last year that kept him out for most of November. He still went on to take second place in the World Cup season standings in the 1000m, despite missing two of nine races.

He also won silver in the 1500m and bronze in the 1000m at the World Single Distance Championships in March, held at the Sochi Olympic arena.

Keep an eye on his World Cup results and if Davis re-adds the 500m and 5000m for the Olympic Trials.

3. U.S. women try to rejoin world’s elite

The drought will be the story at the Olympics. No U.S. woman has won an Olympic speed skating medal since 2002. But it would be a shock if multiple Americans don’t make the podium during the first few World Cups.

2010 Olympian Heather Richardson is the reigning World Sprint champion, and she may no longer be the top U.S. woman.

Brittany Bowe, a college basketball player when Richardson skated at the 2010 Olympics, won bronze in the 1000m at the World Single Distance Championships.

The U.S. Championships two weeks ago appeared to be the passing of the torch. Bowe beat Richardson in the 500m, 1000m and the 1500m, posting two personal bests.

“It’s a very rewarding feeling to say the least,” Bowe said. “It’s just one competition, and I have a feeling that we’ll go back and forth this year and hopefully we’ll both be in contention for a medal when Sochi rolls around.”

Keep an eye on how Bowe and Richardson stack up against international stars Lee Sang-hwa (500m), Christine Nesbitt (1000m) and Ireen Wust (1500m) at the early World Cups.

4. Sven Kramer’s countryman competition

For every Vonncouver Olympics mention in 2010, there was just as much Svencouver talk. The zealous Dutch speed skating fans hoped he would win three gold medals. He won the 5000m, was infamously disqualified from the 10,000m and was upset by the U.S. in the team pursuit semifinals.

Kramer, 27, sat out one season and went back to dominating his sport. He became the first man to win six World Allround Championships and added single distance titles in the 5000m in 2012 and 2013.

He is not invincible, however. Not even in his own country. Jorrit Bergsma beat Kramer by two seconds in the grueling 10,000m at the World Single Distance Championships in March.

Kramer did not enter either 10,000m race in last year’s World Cup. He also came back to beat Bergsma by more than five seconds at the Dutch Championships two weeks ago. So, don’t doubt him.

Bergsma’s win was more of a testament to fresh depth on the Dutch men’s squad. The other two individual men’s medalists in Vancouver, Mark Tuitert and Bob de Jong, are now 33 and 36 years old.

Bergsma, Jan SmeekensKjeld Nuis and Michel and Ronald Mulder, all in their 20s, could win medals in Sochi.

5. A mixture of elite women to watch

Start with Ireen Wust, who won five medals in six events, including three gold medals, at the World Single Distance Championships at the Sochi Olympic arena. The Dutchwoman has also won the last three World Allround Championships.

She missed several World Cup races last season but dominated when she did race, winning five of nine and finishing second in two others.

There’s also Christine Nesbitt, the only Canadian women’s speed skating medalist from 2010 still competing. She’s the reigning Olympic champion in the 1000m, which will be the meet-up distance between the American women and Wust, too.

Nesbitt was diagnosed with Celiac disease earlier this year and switched to a gluten-free diet.

In the longer distances, Wust will contend with the woman who came out of the Vancouver Games as the best all-around skater — Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic. Sablikova hasn’t lost a World Cup or World Championship 5000m since February 2011.

Video: Sochi chief addresses Olympic concerns on TODAY

Justin Gatlin wins, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce loses at Pre Classic; American records fall

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Justin Gatlin is still the world’s fastest man — when Usain Bolt is not in the field.

Gatlin won the Prefontaine Classic 100m in a wind-aided 9.88 seconds in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday (video here), while American records fell in two women’s races.

Gatlin beat a field that included two of the other five fastest men of all time — Asafa Powell (9.94) and Tyson Gay (9.98). Canadian Andre De Grasse, the co-World bronze medalist, was last in 10.05.

Powell and fourth-place Mike Rodgers both said they didn’t hear the starter’s gun.

“Justin got such a big jump, it was too far for me to catch him,” Powell said.

Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100m champion who served a doping ban from 2006 to 2010, moved to 32-2 in individual sprints since the start of 2014, according to Tilastopaja.org.

The only two losses were in the only two races that also included Usain Bolt — the 100m and 200m at the 2015 World Championships. Gatlin and Bolt are not expected to race each other again until the Rio Olympics, should they both qualify at their trials.

The Pre Classic marked the biggest track meet before the U.S. Olympic Trials from July 1-10, also in Eugene.

Full Pre Classic results are here.

In other events, Keni Harrison broke the American record in the 100m hurdles by winning in 12.24 seconds (video here). Harrison matched the second-fastest time ever and was .03 off the world record set by Bulgaria’s Yordanka Donkova in 1988.

Harrison was a revelation in 2015, winning the NCAA title and finishing second at the U.S. Championships. She false started out of the World Championships semifinals Aug. 28.

She elevated to another level this year, clocking the four fastest times in the world so far.

“My coach, he puts it in mind, 12.1 [seconds], 12.1, 12.1, so that’s what I go for in practice,” Harrison said. “I didn’t feel that fast at all.”

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who could become the first three-time Olympic 100m champ in Rio, finished last in eighth place in her first 100m since Sept. 6 (video here).

She clocked 11.18 seconds, competing for the first time in any meet since April 30, recovering from a toe injury. It’s the second instance in three years Fraser-Pryce finished last in her Pre Classic race. Fraser-Pryce was actually faster Saturday than in her first 100m of 2013 and 2015, years she went on to capture World titles.

American English Gardner won in 10.81 seconds, .01 off the fastest in the world this year. Gardner was the second-fastest woman in the world last year but eliminated in the World Championships semifinals while recovering from a reported partially torn right hamstring.

“Nationals last year, I tapered and ran 10.79,” Gardner said. “Loaded, weight room, no taper, 10.81, I can’t be mad at that. I’m not even ready to really run. I haven’t even done really any speed work.”

Meanwhile, perhaps Fraser-Pryce’s biggest sprint rival ran the fastest 200m in the world this year. That’s American Tori Bowie, who was a long jumper until March 2014.

On Saturday, Bowie beat World champion Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands with a personal-best 21.99 seconds (video here).

“My coach said he is sick and tired of seeing me run 22 seconds,” Bowie, crouching on the track in exhaustion, told Lewis Johnson on NBC.

Bowie, who earned World 100m bronze in August and didn’t contest the 200m, now owns the fastest 100m and 200m times in the world this year.

Schippers, who won the 2015 World title in 21.63, was second in 22.11. The field did not include injured Olympic champion Allyson Felix.

In the 400m, Kirani James outdueled American rival LaShawn Merritt for the 12th time in 19 meetings between the last two Olympic champions. James edged Merritt, 44.22 to 44.39 (video here). South African Wayde van Niekerk, who won the 2015 World title in 43.48, was not in the field Saturday.

In the women’s 400m, Olympic champion Sanya Richards-Ross was seventh in 52.16, well off the time she needs at trials on July 3 to make her fourth Olympic team. Shaunae Miller, who took silver behind Felix at 2015 Worlds, won Saturday in 50.15.

“Definitely behind on training, so hoping a month will be enough time to get it together for trials,” said Richards-Ross, adding that she does not have any health or injury problems.

Vashti Cunningham, the 18-year-old daughter of retired NFL Pro Bowl quarterback Randall Cunningham, was fifth in the high jump. Cunningham, the U.S. and World Indoor champ, could become the youngest U.S. Olympic track and field competitor since 1976 if she finishes in the top three at trials July 3.

Jamaican Omar McLeod remained undefeated in four 110m hurdles races this year, clocking 13.06 seconds in a rout by .32 (video here). McLeod, 22, won the 2015 NCAA title for Arkansas, then went pro and finished sixth at the World Championships on Aug. 28. He’s now the clear Olympic favorite with the four fastest times in the world this year.

David Oliver, the 2013 World champion, was second behind McLeod in 13.38. Olympic champion and world-record holder Aries Merritt was fourth in 13.51, nearly nine months removed from a kidney transplant.

“It was a crappy race top to bottom, aside from Omar,” Oliver said.

Bernard Lagat, who at 41 will try to become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time at trials, dropped out during the 5000m due to a cold. It was the 15th and final Pre Classic appearance for Lagat, who plans to retire later this year.

“After that first mile, I could feel like my chest was burning,” Lagat said. “I can get healthy and come back for the trials.”

World champion Christian Taylor captured the triple jump with his final leap (video here). Taylor’s 17.76-meter mark overtook countryman Will Claye‘s 17.56 meters. Taylor and Claye also went one-two at the London Olympics.

Emma Coburn broke the American record finishing third in the 3000m steeplechase (video here). Her time of 9:10.76 bettered Jenny Simpson‘s mark of 9:12:50 from 2009. Coburn also beat Simpson’s time in July 2014, but she wasn’t drug tested after that race, so it wasn’t ratified as an American record.

On Saturday, Coburn cried multiple times after her record and then made sure to get drug tested.

Boris Berian earned his first Diamond League victory in the 800m, clocking 1:44.20 against a field that didn’t include Olympic and World champion and world-record holder David Rudisha. (video here)

Berian, who was flipping burgers at a McDonald’s inside a Walmart two years ago, raced one week after being served a lawsuit by Nike for breach of a sponsorship contract after he switched from Nike to New Balance this year. Nike sponsors the Pre Classic.

French Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie cleared 5.81 meters to win the pole vault, wearing a University of Oregon jersey. Canadian World champion Shawn Barber was second, also clearing 5.81 meters but with more misses than Lavillenie. American Sam Kendricks, who beat Lavillenie and Barber in Shanghai on May 14, was third at 5.71 meters.

U.S. Olympic medalists swept the 400m hurdles, won by London silver medalist Michael Tinsley in 48.74 (video here). He passed 2008 Olympic silver medalist Kerron Clement (48.87) after the final hurdle. Beijing Olympic bronze medalist Bershawn Jackson (49.04) took third.

Another American, Johnny Dutch, is fastest in the world this year (48.36). Dutch was not in the Pre Classic field.

The Diamond League continues in Rome on Thursday.

MORE: Rio Olympic, Paralympic medals reveal date set

Novak Djokovic plans on Olympics ‘for the moment’; Serena mulls ‘super protection’

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PARIS — Top-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic says canceling the Olympics “is unthinkable” and, “for the moment,” he is still planning to compete at the Rio de Janiero Games, despite worries about the Zika virus.

Speaking at the French Open on Saturday, Djokovic added that people should not only be concerned about those who are going to Rio for the Olympics, but also the Brazilians themselves — “not talking about them too much.”

Earlier Saturday, the World Health Organization rejected a call from 150 health experts to consider postponing or moving the Aug. 5-21 Olympics.

Says Djokovic: “Honestly, I don’t know what to think anymore.”

The No. 1 women’s tennis player, Serena Williams, says Zika has “been on my mind” and she will have to head to Rio “super-protected, maybe.”

MORE: U.S. Olympic tennis player refuses to answer meldonium questions