Janet Evans relives 1996 Olympic torch handoff to Muhammad Ali (video)

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Janet Evans tells people that she would give up all five of her Olympic swimming medals to live that moment just one more time.

So Evans considered it an honor to host the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards on Sept. 19.

“I think we all have our Muhammad Ali moments, moments that he inspired us, moments that he changed our lives, moments that he inspired us to be better than what we already are,” Evans said in her opening address at a podium inside a hotel ballroom in Louisville, Ky., the 1960 Olympic boxing champion’s hometown. “My Muhammad Ali story took me from being an Olympic winner to being an Olympic champion.”

Evans went on to retell her part of the Atlanta 1996 Olympic torch relay as the next to last torch bearer. Here’s a transcript:

About six weeks outside of the Olympic Games, I received a call from a gentleman named Billy Payne, the great southern gentleman who brought the Olympics to the great city of Atlanta. Billy asked me if I would do him a favor and run the torch at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games. He would not tell me who was passing me the torch. He would not tell me who I was passing the torch to, but I would be the second to last person to carry that flame, and the final woman.

I said to Mr. Payne, ‘Mr. Payne, I’m a swimmer. Swimmers don’t go to Opening Ceremonies. We swim the next day.’ I’d never been to the Opening Ceremonies as an athlete. I’d been in ’84 as a spectator. I said, ‘Plus, how many people are going to be watching?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you know, three billion or so.’ And I said, ‘Well, Mr. Payne, once again I’m a swimmer. Swimmers don’t run. I am not going to carry a lit flame through the Atlanta stadium and fall and forever be remembered as that little swimmer who dropped the Olympic flame and lit the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Stadium on fire.’ Well, in his true southern gentleman style, Mr. Payne talked me into it.

And at midnight, the night before Opening Ceremonies, under the cover of darkness, I went to the Atlanta stadium, and I practiced running the torch. The only thing was the person that was lighting that cauldron wasn’t there. But when they told me it was going to be Muhammad Ali, and when they told me that I had to keep it secret, because let me tell you I wanted to tell everyone, I was more nervous than ever. How do you pass the Olympic flame to the greatest, right? I was out of my mind, and I had to swim the next day.

Before I know it, it’s the Opening Ceremonies, and I’m running along that track, and I’m thinking, don’t fall, Janet. Just don’t fall. Get up to Ali. He’s going to be waiting for you. Don’t fall. Don’t light the stadium on fire. Don’t catch my hair on fire with the flame. And I looked to my left, my first Opening Ceremonies as an athlete, and I see 10,000 athletes that are in Atlanta representing their countries. I see the Americans, because they pushed their way to the front of that crowd of athletes. And I see the gymnasts on the shoulders of the basketball team. And I see the water polo team. I don’t see swimmers, because they weren’t there. My friends on the water polo team are shouting, ‘You’re going to fall!’ And I didn’t.

And I looked past the Americans, for the first time. This was my third Olympic Games. I was the girl in the village that ate with the Americans. I spoke only to the Americans. I didn’t experience the Olympics. And I looked, and I saw athletes from all over the world. And I saw, yes, the stars, but I saw the table tennis player from Mongolia, and I saw the fencer from Tunisia, and I saw the athletes that we don’t see on NBC. And I saw the looks in their eyes. And I saw the excitement they were experiencing for being at the Olympics and participating in something that brings people together.

And I ran up that track, and I ran up those three big, long stairways. And I got to the top, and there stood Muhammad Ali. And I never cried after any of my Olympic medals, but I wanted to cry. And my moment with him was brief; you saw how quickly he lit that flame. But that moment for me, standing there, watching this man, with his courage and his determination, and being brought into the Olympic fold once again, 36 years after his gold medal in 1960. And to stand there in front of the world and inspire even more young people like myself, to be and do and accomplish anything we want to do, it was an epiphany for me. It was a defining moment in my Olympic career.

After those Olympics, I wanted to quit swimming and go back to college, and I don’t know what I wanted to do. But after standing there with that man and watching him, I realized that as an Olympian, as an Olympic champion, a mantle we carry is to inspire and motivate others. And no one has ever done that greater than Muhammad Ali. So, Mr. Ali, thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for allowing me to continue to inspire young swimmers and young people to do and be the very best that they can be as well. Thank you.

MORE ATLANTA 1996: Ten memorable moments from Turner Field/Centennial Olympic Stadium

Wladimir Klitschko remembers meeting Ali at 1996 Olympics

Simone Biles surprises world’s oldest gymnast on NBC

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The world’s greatest gymnast meets the world’s oldest gymnast on NBC’s “Little Big Shots: Forever Young” on Wednesday.

Simone Biles surprises German Johanna Quaas, the Guinness World Record holder for oldest gymnast at the age of 91.

More on Quaas here.

The oldest gymnast Biles has competed against was Oksana Chusovitina, the Uzbek who competed at her gymnastics record seventh Olympics in Rio at age 41.

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Olympic champions chasing world records face tests in Paris

Omar McLeod, Devon Allen
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Omar McLeod and Christian Taylor, both on world-record quests this season, face their top challengers at a Diamond League meet in Paris on Saturday.

McLeod, the 110m hurdles gold medalist, the triple jump champion Taylor and sprint queen Elaine Thompson headline the Paris meet, live on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold and 2 p.m. on NBCSN.

McLeod, who last Saturday ran the fastest 110m hurdles in five years, could take aim at the world record as part of a field including the five fastest men in the world this year.

Taylor faces Will Claye in the most anticipated head-to-head in Paris. Taylor relegated countryman Claye to silver at the last two Olympics, but Claye won the U.S. title last weekend with a personal-best leap.

Olympic 100m and 200m champion Thompson is coming off winning the Jamaican 100m title in 10.71 seconds last week, .01 off her shared national record.

Athletes are preparing for the world championships in London in August.

Paris start lists are available here. Here’s the schedule (all times Eastern):

1:08 p.m. — Men’s high jump
1:25 p.m. — Women’s shot put
1:32 p.m. — Men’s pole vault
2:03 p.m. — Women’s 400m
2:14 p.m. — Men’s 3000m
2:29 p.m. — Women’s 100m
2:35 p.m. — Men’s javelin
2:38 p.m. — Men’s triple jump
2:40 p.m. — Men’s 800m
2:50 p.m. — Men’s 100m
3 p.m. — Women’s 3000m steeplechase
3:25 p.m. — Men’s 110m hurdles
3:40 p.m. — Women’s 1500m
3:52 p.m. — Men’s 200m

Here are five events to watch:

Men’s Pole Vault — 1:32 p.m. ET

World-record holder Renaud Lavillenie is the only French track and field athlete to take Olympic gold in the last 20 years (at the 2012 London Games), so he is certainly the crowd favorite across all events Saturday.

That said, Lavillenie is not the favorite. He was third in a domestic competition on Wednesday, failing to clear 5.71 meters, which wasn’t an Olympic medal height. Lavillenie, the Rio silver medalist, was beaten by Sam Kendricks, the Rio bronze medalist, at two previous Diamond League meets this season. Kendricks, who just cleared six meters for the first time at the U.S. Championships last week, is in the Paris field.

Women’s 100m — 2:29 p.m. ET

Thompson has won 14 straight 100m events that she’s finished, according to Tilastopaja.org, and the two-year streak should extend here. The question is whether she can break 10.7 for the first time to claim the Jamaican record outright and move into solo third on the all-time list.

The field does not include her biggest threat at the world championships — Rio silver medalist Tori Bowie — but present are Ivorians Murielle Ahoure (ranked No. 3 in the world this year) and Marie-Josee Ta Lou (fourth at the Olympics).

Men’s Triple Jump — 2:38 p.m. ET

Taylor’s three losses since July 2014 have come to either Claye or Cuban Pedro Pablo Pichardo. Here, he faces both of them in a final for the first time since 2013, but Claye is the clear challenger.

Taylor ranks No. 1 in the world this year with his 18.11-meter jump from the Prefontaine Classic on May 27, just 18 centimeters off the world record he covets.

Claye is on a roll, having gone at least 17 meters in all 12 of his competition jumps this year, including a personal-best 17.91 to win the U.S. title last week (Taylor didn’t have to compete at nationals as he had a world championships bye). Claye also jumped 18.05 with slightly too much tailwind at Pre. Claye has the second-through-sixth best triple jumps in the world this year.

Women’s 3000m Steeplechase — 3 p.m. ET

Fresh off another U.S. title, Olympic bronze medalist Emma Coburn takes aim at Olympic champion and world-record holder Ruth Jebet of Bahrain and 18-year-old phenom Celliphine Chespol of Kenya.

Jebet, a Kenyan-born 20-year-old, has looked shaky this year, finishing third in two of three Diamond League starts. But the only women to beat her were Kenyans. Including Chespol, who won the Pre Classic in the second-fastest time ever despite stopping to fix her shoe.

Coburn was routinely finishing 10 seconds behind Jebet in 2016, but at Pre managed to close the gap to four seconds, running three tenths shy of her American record from Rio.

Men’s 110m Hurdles — 3:25 p.m. ET

There will be two early heats to qualify into this final, but expect McLeod to lead the field. The Olympic champion broke his national record in lowering his personal best by seven hundredths at the Jamaican Championships last week.

McLeod ran 12.90 seconds, but spoke confidently afterward, reportedly saying his target was actually 12.85. Nonetheless, it was the fastest time in the world since Aries Merritt set the current world record of 12.80 in 2012.

Merritt isn’t in this field, but McLeod is joined by the other four fastest men in the world this year — France’s Garfield Darien, Jamaican Ronald Levy, South African Antonio Alkana and the American Allen.

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