Sporting world shocked by charges against inspirational athlete Oscar Pistorius

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News that South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius had been charged with murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, on Thursday came as a shock to nearly everyone who had heard the runner’s inspirational story of his struggle to become the first double-amputee ever to compete at the Olympics.

Pistorius, now 26, was born without fibulas and and had to have his legs amputated below the knee at only eleven months old. That didn’t stop him from competing in rugby, tennis, and water polo while growing up in Pretoria, before being introduced to running in after suffering a knee injury.

Fueled by his competitive spirit and riding on his new racing “blades,” fitted for him by prosthetist Francois Vanderwatt, Pistorius went on to win gold in the 200m at the Paralympic Games in Athens only months after starting to race, and then finished sixth in at the 400m able-bodied national championships the next year.

He won the 100m, 200m, and 400m Paralympic world championships in 2006, and then set his sights on qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. One problem: Pistorius had a number of detractors, including world record holder Michael Johnson, who suggested that his disability was actually an advantage, since the runner raced on specially engineer carbon fiber limbs.

“I know Oscar well, and he knows my position; my position is that because we don’t know for sure whether he gets an advantage from the prosthetics that he wears it is unfair to the able-bodied competitors…

“Oscar sees no limits; he has no fear when competing against able-bodied athletes. So it is hard for people to understand and to accept when you start to talk about whether or not he may have the advantage.”

The IAAF, track’s governing body, agreed, and banned any device using springs, wheels, or any other device that might provide an advantage in 2007, marking Pistorius ineligible for the 2008 Games.

Pistorius eventually won a reprieve with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in April 2008, which, after a two-day hearing in Switzerland, determined that Pistorius held no advantage and was allowed to compete against able-bodied runners.

“Oscar’s done so much for Paralympic sport and I’m grateful for all the eyes he has opened to what Paralympic sport can be,” British Paralympic gold medal sprinter Johnnie Peacock, who started racing after seeing Pistorius on TV, told the London Telegraph.

The “Blade Runner,” as he’s now known, didn’t qualify for the Olympics in 2008, but was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people after winning the right to compete, and signed sponsorship deals with Oakley, Nike, Thierry Mugler, and running blade manufacturer Ossur, in all totaling nearly $5 million.

Now able to compete against the world’s best, Pistorius became the first double-amputee to win an able-bodied world championship medal when his 4×400 relay team took silver in Daegu in 2011. And despite failing to run the necessary Olympic “A” standard qualification time twice, the South African Olympic Committee announced last July 4 that Pistorius had been selected for the Olympic team for the 400m and 4x400m relay.

Two months later, on August 4, 2012, Pistorius became the first double-amputee runner to compete at the Olympics. And better than that, he took second in his preliminary heat with a time of 45.44 seconds, a season best that put him into the semifinals.

“It just felt really magical,” Pistorius said. “If I could predict what it would feel like or imagine beyond my wildest dreams, this was probably 10 times that. To step out in front of a crowd this massive, it’s a mind-blowing experience,” he added. “I’ve had support in the last couple of days like I have never felt before.”

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Pistorius was knocked out in the semis, finishing eighth in the race. After the event, the South African symbolically exchanged racing bibs with Kirani James of Grenada, who eventually went on to win the gold.

“This whole experience was amazing… to step out here in an Olympic final is more than I could have ever hoped for,” Pistorius said after that race. “That opportunity to come here once again and finish today and not yesterday is a dream come true.”

The inspirational athlete was asked to carry the South African flag at the Olympics Closing Ceremony as a tribute to his struggle and success, and went on to earn two more Paralympic golds a month later.

WATCH LIVE: Simone Biles returns to U.S. Gymnastics Championships

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Simone Biles‘ comeback continues at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Friday night.

Biles enters her second meet since the Rio Olympics, where she earned four gold medals.

She is a clear favorite to win her fifth U.S. all-around title, which would break the record she currently shares.

LIVE STREAM: U.S. Gym Championships — 8 p.m. ET (for Olympic Channel subscribers)

Biles showed her comeback was for real at her first meet back three weeks ago, winning the U.S. Classic despite an uneven bars fall. Her all-around score was the highest in the world since Rio.

Friday marks the fifth anniversary of Biles’ first national title, when she was a braces-wearing, first-year senior gymnast oozing with talent but also unproven. She became so dominant that the prevailing notion was that everyone else was competing in a non-Simone division.

A new generation of women go up against Biles in the two-day meet that concludes Sunday.

That includes Ragan Smith and Morgan Hurd, who won the U.S. and world all-around titles in Biles’ absence last year, and Riley McCusker, who led the U.S. Classic going into the final rotation.

Gymnasts are competing to impress a world championships team selection committee. The five-woman world team will be named after an October selection camp.

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Ragan Smith defends U.S. gymnastics title, competing through pain

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BOSTON — When Ragan Smith won the U.S. all-around title last August, her margin of victory was greater than Simone Biles‘ average the previous four years.

At the world championships in October, Smith fell off the balance beam in qualifying and still posted the second-highest all-around score, just .001 off the lead. If Smith hit all four routines in the final, she would be crowned the world’s greatest gymnast of 2017 (during Biles’ break from the sport).

But as the all-around final began at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, Smith crutched out of the training gym. She suffered three torn left ankle ligaments on a warm-up vault, according to the Dallas Morning News, that needed four to five months to heal.

Smith is expected to compete in the all-around at the U.S. Championships on Friday and Sunday (broadcast schedule here), looking to impress a world championships team selection committee. The five-woman world team will be named after an October selection camp.

The ankle still hurts sometimes. So do her three or four broken toes. Smith doesn’t know the exact number because she doesn’t like to get medical check-ups before meets. She would think too much about the diagnosis.

In fact, Smith said she felt pain in practice every day for the last year.

“Everything starts hurting worse because we’re getting older,” said Smith, who turned 18 last week. Smith added that a coach joked to her recently, “You already have a 100-year-old body.” 

“Everybody I feel like has injuries here and there,” she said. “Everybody’s like banged up right now. We [gymnasts] are so strong mentally and physically that I feel like we push through it.”

Back home in the Dallas area, Smith marks her goals on a dry-erase board. The chief one for her two summer meets is this: Be the best Ragan I can be.

“That’s all I’m really striving for this competition,” she said Wednesday.

Smith did not do the all-around at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago, skipping floor exercise because she wants to debut it as a surprise this week. She called Classic “a practice run,” where her best result was third on beam.

Only two gymnasts per nation can compete in a world all-around final. If Biles is one of them, then Smith has to beat out Morgan Hurd (who won the 2017 World all-around title after Smith’s injury) and Riley McCusker (second to Biles at the U.S. Classic).

Smith, the youngest Rio Olympic alternate, is determined to compete on the elite level through 2020. She can take motivation from her bedroom wall and that dry-erase board, both of which had the same quote posted — “She believed she could so she did.”

“These coming up years, it’s definitely who’s in the game the longest. It’s definitely who’s not injured,” she said. “That’s pretty much who they pick, I feel like. You’re training your whole life for one year of gymnastics because that’s when you have to be at your highest peak. I definitely feel like it’s who’s in the game the longest and who can survive and who can help their body the best.”

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