Sanya Richards-Ross

Athletes to watch at USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships

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The USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships began in Sacramento, Calif., with the shot put at the state Capitol on Wednesday. Events continue through Sunday at Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium featuring several Olympic and World champions.

NBC, NBCSN and Universal Sports coverage begins Thursday (full broadcast schedule here).

Here are some stars to watch:

Allyson Felix, 100m

The Olympic 200m champion said she would focus more on the 400m than the 100m as her complementary event this season, but she scratched the 400m in Sacramento and is entered in only the 100m.

Felix slowly ramped up her season after last year’s torn hamstring at the World Championships. She notched her first race wins since the injury in the last two weeks, 200m races in Oslo and Ostrava, Czech Republic.

Tori Bowie, 100m

The Southern Miss product was primarily a long jumper until March and has been a sprint revelation in the last two months. She’s the world leader in the 200m at 22.18 seconds, beating Felix and World champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at the Pre Classic on May 31.

But she plans to only contest the 100m in Sacramento. She’s the second fastest American in that sprint this season, clocking 11.05. She’ll face Felix as well as the 2013 U.S. gold and silver medalists, English Gardner and Octavious Freeman.

Sanya Richards-Ross, 400m

Richards-Ross, like Felix, is back from injury. Toe problems derailed her 2013 season after her breakthrough individual Olympic title in 2012.

She has catching up to do, being the joint eighth-fastest U.S. woman over one lap this season. World Indoor champion Francena McCorory is the favorite this week.

Brianna Rollins, 100m hurdles

Rollins won NCAA and World Championships last season, continuing a tradition of strong U.S. sprint hurdles runners. She’s the world leader again this year, but Beijing Olympic champion Dawn Harper-Nelson and Queen Harrison have been within .04 of her best time for 2014.

Sochi Olympic bobsledder Lolo Jones is also in the field, hoping to improve on her season’s best of 12.74, which ranks eighth among Americans.

Jenn Suhr, pole vault

The Olympic champion can match the first Olympic women’s pole vault gold medalist, Stacy Dragila in 2000, at eight career U.S. titles in the event this week. Suhr switched from fiberglass to carbon poles this season and finished second at the Adidas Grand Prix two weeks ago.

Her biggest rivals are not Americans, but she was defeated by Mary Saxer at the U.S. Indoor Championships in February.

LaShawn Merritt, 400m

Like Suhr, the 2008 Olympic champion Merritt’s top competition is not domestic. He won’t have to sweat Grenada’s Kirani James this week, when he goes for his fourth U.S. outdoor title.

Tony McQuay, who took silver behind Merritt at the World Championships, has scratched, giving Merritt even more breathing room.

Galen Rupp, 5000m/10,000m

Rupp provided fireworks at the Pre Classic, breaking his own U.S. 10,000m record. He’s entered in both the 5000m and 10,000m in Sacramento. The finals are held on back-to-back nights.

If he runs both, Rupp will go against Bernard Lagat, the 39-year-old five-time U.S. champion in the 5000m. Rupp’s 10,000m qualifying time is nearly one minute faster than anybody else.

David Oliver, 110m hurdles

Oliver won the 2013 World Championship after surprisingly missing the 2012 Olympic Team. He has run 13.21 this year, making him fourth best among Americans.

The hurdles field is very bunched, not only with Oliver, reigning U.S. champion Ryan Wilson and 2011 World champion Jason Richardson, but also less seasoned men. Take NCAA champion Devon Allen, the fastest American this year (13.16) who doubles as an Oregon wide receiver.

Christian Taylor, triple jump

The Olympic champion tried his hand at the 400m this year and posted a solid season’s best of 45.17. But the triple jump is his forte, and it’s shaping up to be a head-to-head showdown with Olympic silver medalist Will Claye.

Trey Hardee, decathlon

Hardee won the 2009 and 2011 World Championships before ceding the world’s greatest athlete title to Ashton Eaton. Eaton isn’t entered in Sacramento, leaving Hardee a path to his second U.S. title (the other in 2009).

Earlier this month, the Texan completed his first decathlon since he won silver at the London Olympics. He struggled with injuries last year, but is the world leader this year with 8,518 points, which would have taken bronze at the 2013 World Championships.

Ryan Bailey hopes to return to 2012 Olympic sprinting form

USOC supports athletes expressing themselves after anthem protests

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PARK CITY, Utah — The U.S. Olympic Committee supports American athletes expressing themselves at winter sports events leading up to the PyeongChang Olympics.

Some MLB, NFL and WNBA players kneeled and remained in locker rooms during the national anthem at games over the weekend.

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun was asked Monday if the USOC would support American athletes peacefully protesting during the national anthem this fall and winter at pre-Games competition.

“I think the athletes that you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don’t,” Blackmun said at a pre-Winter Games media summit. “We fully support the right of our athletes and everybody else to express themselves. The Olympic Games themselves, there is a prohibition on all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise. And that applies no matter what side of the issue you’re taking, no matter where you’re from. … But we certainly recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves.”

Blackmun was correct to reference the Olympic Charter, which states that “no kind of demonstration … is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Blackmun mentioned Tommie Smith and John Carlos‘ raised-fist salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which got them kicked out of the Games.

The USOC has since honored Smith and Carlos. They visited the White House last year with the Rio Olympic team.

“That was a seminal moment not only for the Olympic Movement, but for the U.S. Olympic team,” Blackmun said of the 1968 podium gesture. “Our stance on this has been fairly clear. We certainly recognize the rights of the athletes to express themselves.”

Olympic hopefuls were peppered with questions about possible protests at the media summit.

“One of the proudest parts of being an American is the ability to have freedom of speech,” four-time Olympian Julia Mancuso said. “I really look up to athletes who take a stand for what they believe in. I really believe as athletes that compete for Team USA, when it comes to the Olympics, I like to think it’s a special event. Not like the NFL or pro sports teams that compete every weekend. For us, it’s every four years. I’m proud for athletes that stand up for what they believe in if they really want to have a message to get out. But I like to think of us all as patriotic.”

Elana Meyers Taylor, a two-time Olympic bobsled medalist, is the daughter of a U.S. Marine who served in Kuwait and spent summers in the 1980s playing at Atlanta Falcons training camps.

She said any decisions on demonstrations or whether she attends a post-Olympics Team USA White House visit come secondary to her pursuit of making the Olympic team this winter.

“I can’t afford to focus on what I would do in that situation or how I would react,” Meyers Taylor said, adding that anything would be a “game-time decision.” “Maybe the social climate changes a little bit [before the Olympics]. … There’s a lot to consider.”

Aja Evans, a 2014 Olympic bobsled bronze medalist, the sister of former NFL defensive tackle Fred Evans, did not say that she would follow the football players’ lead.

“I honor and commend anyone that does that,” Evans said. “My way of showing my stance is to continue to try to be a positive influence for my city, for my country. I’m representing Team USA the best way I can.”

NCAA hockey players Troy Terry and Jordan Greenway, both prospective Olympians with the NHL not participating, said they didn’t envision taking a knee during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I’ve always stood for the national anthem,” Greenway said. “I always will.”

Olympic freestyle skiing medalists Maddie Bowman and Gus Kenworthy have said they plan to skip the traditional Team USA post-Olympic White House visit due to the current presidential administration. Figure skater Ashley Wagner, too, said she would not go if she had to choose today.

Kenworthy said he was shocked that President Donald Trump believed that athletes kneeling during the national anthem disrespected the flag.

“Those people [servicemen and women] are fighting for the freedom to express their beliefs,” Kenworthy said. “I feel proud to be from a country where we have the right to be able to kind of say what we feel, speak up for what we believe in. I feel that people kneeling before a game is actually quite admirable.”

Kenworthy didn’t rule out a personal demonstration at the Olympics, should he qualify again, but knows he could be stripped of a medal for doing so.

“I’m not saying that I would want to be dictated by fear, and if I was to get a medal and be too scared that it would be taken away from me,” he said. “I think that there’s a way to do things in a way that’s not going to sabotage yourself. You can stand up for something and not throw yourself under the bus.”

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U.S. Olympic men’s hockey player from 2006 has shot at PyeongChang

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PARK CITY, Utah — Though no active NHL players will be in PyeongChang, veteran NHL forward and free agent Brian Gionta could very well play for his second U.S. Olympic team in February.

A USA Hockey official confirmed Monday that the 2006 Olympian Gionta “has a very decent opportunity” to be part of the 2018 Olympic team.

That came in response to a Buffalo radio report that Gionta said it’s looking good for him to play for Team USA.

Gionta, 38, played 15 NHL seasons through last year but is currently unsigned as the NHL preseason continues. The U.S. Olympic team of 25 players named around Jan. 1 is likely to include very few, if any, players with Gionta’s experience.

Gionta was seen at the Rochester (N.Y.) AHL club’s practice Monday (but not taking part), according to media in that area. Gionta could play for an AHL club and be eligible for PyeongChang. USA Hockey wants prospective Olympians to be active in the AHL, NCAA or a European league.

Gionta’s agent has not responded to a request for comment on his Olympic prospects on Monday. Earlier in the summer, Gionta’s agent said that the skater was considering the Olympics.

Gionta led the 2006 U.S. Olympic team with four goals. The Americans lost in the quarterfinals to Finland, their worst Olympic result over the last four Winter Games.

That came during Gionta’s most productive NHL season — 48 goals (sixth in the league) and 41 assists for the New Jersey Devils.

Another Olympian — Ryan Malone from 2010 — embarked on a comeback this preseason and could pursue the Olympics. He has been in camp with the Minnesota Wild. If he doesn’t make the Wild, Malone could play on an AHL contract and be eligible for the Olympics.

USA Hockey confirmed that other players in the potential Olympic pool — at some 100 players at the moment — include Nathan Gerbe. Gerbe, a 30-year-old forward, played 394 NHL games between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes from 2008-16 before joining the Swiss League.

Another is goalie Ryan Zapolski, who ranks third in the KHL in goals-against average this season.

John-Michael Liles, a 2006 Olympic defenseman and unsigned NHL veteran, is not interested in continuing his career in a non-NHL league to be considered for the Olympics, USA Hockey said.

U.S. general manager Jim Johannson said this summer that he was interested in some players who “have a rich history in the NHL and with USA Hockey that we think could potentially really help this roster.” Johannson wouldn’t name names then.

Johansson said a “long list” of potential players for the final 25-man roster must be submitted in September.

A U.S. team of primarily European-based players will take part in a tournament in November in Germany. That roster is expected to be named in October.

The U.S. staff will also look at NCAA and AHL players ahead of naming the PyeongChang team.

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