AP

Ethiopian runner who protested in Rio reunites with family

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The Ethiopian marathoner crouched down low in the hallway at the Miami airport as he carried a bouquet of red roses.

Feyisa Lilesa’s daughter spotted him first and ran in for a hug. Then, his young son and lastly his wife.

On Valentine’s Day, the Olympic silver medalist who became an international figure when he crossed his wrists in protest at the finish line in Rio de Janeiro finally reunited with his family. He was a little late (traffic), but what’s a few extra minutes when he’s already waited six long months to see them.

As he made his way out of the airport, his son perched on his shoulders and his daughter rode on the luggage, carrying the flowers he brought as a gift.

“The biggest gift is us seeing each other again – and me seeing them again,” Lilesa said through a translator in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s all been very tough.”

The 27-year-old eventually settled in Flagstaff, Arizona, after making an anti-government gesture during the Olympic marathon that drew global attention to the deadly protests in his home region of Oromia. He never returned home after Brazil out of fear of what might happen to him. He’s constantly been worrying about the family he left behind in Ethiopia. His nearly 6-year-old daughter, Soko, and 3 +-year-old son, Sora, always asked when they will see him again.

Finally, he was able to answer.

Lilesa remains in the U.S. on a special skills visa. His family arrived on visas as well, secured through his attorney.

The plan now is this: A few days of beach time and then it’s off to Flagstaff where the family will settle into everyday life in their rental house.

One weight off his mind.

Still, he can’t forget what his country is going through, with the Oromia region experiencing anti-government protests over recent months. Violent anti-government protests spread to other parts of Ethiopia and led to a state of emergency that was declared in October.

Since his gesture, many have described Lilesa as a national hero.

“My mind is pretty much occupied by what is happening back home,” Lilesa said. “Whether I’m running or I’m sleeping or I’m laying back, my family and what is happening in Ethiopia – and what is happening to my people – that’s constantly on my mind.”

Most days since his arrival in America have been spent training. It was his best cure for loneliness.

“I come from a very big family, and I’ve never lived alone,” Lilesa said. “I’ve always been surrounded by people I know. This has been the complete opposite. Here, I’m removed from all of that.”

Still, he would protest all over again.

“I think me taking the risk and putting family in that position and putting them potentially in harm’s way, it was a good lesson for a lot of people that you need to sacrifice in order for you to win some concessions and change your situation,” Lilesa said. “In that sense, it inspires people to fight for their rights and resist the government in Ethiopia. It also led to greater awareness about the situation in Ethiopia.

“Now, you see more coverage of the human rights violations. I speak with people wherever I go. Even outside the media limelight, people are interested in knowing. They heard the story because of my protest.”

Someday, he would like to go back to Ethiopia.

“But as long as this current government is in power, I don’t have hope of going back to Ethiopia,” he explained. “I do know change is inevitable.”

He also wants to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Whether that’s wearing the colors of Ethiopia, he doesn’t know.

“I’m not too hopeful the system will be changed in the next three years and I will be in a position to run for Ethiopia. We will have to wait and see,” said Lilesa, who plans to run in the London Marathon in two months.

For now, Lilesa’s priority is getting his family settled.

“I knew that we would meet somehow, but I didn’t expect it would happen under these circumstances over here,” Lilesa said. “When I think about my family, it takes me back to why I did this and why I’m here. I missed my family, but this was a big bother to me – the plight of my people.”

MORE: Ryan Hall says 7 marathons in 7 days gave him ‘sense of closure’

Ragan Smith delivers in first U.S. championship title win

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Ragan Smith embraced the role of heavy favorite coming into the U.S. gymnastics championships.

Thrust into the spotlight for the first time in her career, the 17-year-old hardly appeared intimidated by the stage. Smith pulled away from the field to claim her first national title Sunday, posting a score of 115.250, more than three points clear of Jordan Chiles in second place and Riley McCusker in third.

Smith opened up a 1.3-point lead over McCusker in the opening round Friday but admitted afterward she wasn’t particularly impressed by her own performance. She was considerably sharper less than 48 hours later, her 57.850 total in the finals was the best in the 16-woman all-around field by nearly two points.

Smith is one of the few holdovers from the 2016 Olympic cycle, serving as an alternate for the “Final Five” team that won half of the available medals in Rio de Janeiro last fall. Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez are taking breaks or have moved on, leaving Smith as the standard bearer for new national team coordinator Valeri Liukin.

The program appears to be in solid hands. Smith ditched “The Addams Family” themed floor routine she used last year for something a little more mature. It’s not the only part of her gymnastics that has grown up. Smith finished first on floor and beam and tied for third on bars.

Smith will be in the mix for the all-around title at the world championships in Montreal, where she’ll have a chance to extend the U.S.’s dominance. An American woman has won the world or Olympic title each of the last six years. Barring injury, Smith should be right there.

Liukin said he wasn’t alarmed following an uneven performance by the field in preliminaries, calling it a positive step for a group lacking in experience. The gymnastics were markedly improved in the finals.

Chiles slipped by McCusker into second thanks to a fabulous save on beam in which she turned a near disaster into something decidedly artful.

Chiles was in the middle of “wolf turn” (basically spinning on one foot while in a crouch on a 4-inch wide piece of wood) when she nearly fell over. Instead she rose to her feet, kept rotating, and went right into the next part of her routine as if it was planned all along.

Chiles’ steadiness gives Liukin another option as he tries to put together the rest of the four-woman team that will join Smith in Montreal. McCusker, only recently recovered from foot and wrist injuries, tried to keep the heat on Smith but stepped out of bounds following the last tumbling pass on her floor routine. McCusker finished first on bars — her legs practically magnetized together as she went from bar to bar — to win the event with ease.

Ashton Locklear, like Smith an alternate last summer, wound up second on bars with a watered down routine as he makes her way back from her own injury issues and should have time to install upgrades before Montreal.

Whoever heads to Canada in October will go with the usual expectations for what has become the sport’s most dominant program.

MORE: Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles has competed in the six previous U.S. National Championships, winning the last four, but in Anaheim this year, she’s watching from the sidelines. Biles won four gold medals (team, all-around, vault and floor) and one bronze (on beam) last summer at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

This week she revealed she has returned to the gym to prepare for a yet to be determined event, in her return to competition.

When asked how she’s been doing in the gym by NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce, Biles responded with her signature smile accompanied by an endearingly bashful eye roll, “the beginning is…OK.”

MORE: Danell Leyva on why he’s retiring

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