Justin Gatlin

Justin Gatlin among IAAF World Athlete of the Year candidates

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Justin Gatlin could win IAAF World Athlete of the Year for his undefeated sprint season, four years after coming back from a four-year doping ban.

Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100m champion, was among 10 candidates for the men’s award named by track and field’s international governing body Friday.

Usain Bolt, who won World Athlete of the Year five times in the last six years, is not a candidate. Bolt ran a total of 400 meters this season, set back due to March foot surgery. Gatlin was the world’s fastest man in the 100m and 200m in 2014.

Bolt won the IAAF World Athlete of the Year Award in 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013. Kenyan David Rudisha, the world record holder in the 800m, won in 2010, when Bolt was hampered by injury and lost a 100m to Tyson Gay.

Rudisha is also not a candidate this year. Therefore, this year’s men’s winner will be a first-time recipient.

Here are the 10 men’s candidates:

Nigel Amos (BOT) — Diamond League 800m champion
Mutaz Barshim (QAT) — Became No. 2 all time high jumper
Jairus Kipchoge Birech (KEN) — Diamond League 3000m steeplechase champion
Bohdan Bondarenko (UKR) — Became No. 3 (tied) all time high jumper
Yohann Diniz (FRA) — Broke 50km race walk world record, undefeated
Justin Gatlin (USA) — Diamond League 100m champion, undefeated
Robert Harting (GER) — Won 13 of 14 discus competitions
Dennis Kipruto Kimetto (KEN) — Broke marathon world record
Renaud Lavillenie (FRA) — Broke pole vault world record, Diamond League champion
LaShawn Merritt (USA) — Diamond League 400m champion

The women’s recipient will also be a first-time winner. Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce and Allyson Felix won the last two years but were not among the nominees. Fraser-Pryce was slowed by injury this season, while Felix did not impress until late in the summer, coming off last year’s torn hamstring.

The women’s list includes two Americans but omitted three of the four U.S. women who won Diamond League season titles — Felix (200m), Tianna Bartoletta (long jump) and Jenny Simpson (1500m).

The women’s candidates:

Valerie Adams (NZL) — Diamond League shot put champion, undefeated
Genzebe Dibaba (ETH) — Broke indoor world records in 1500m, 3000m
Dawn Harper Nelson (USA) — Diamond League 100m hurdles champion
Caterine Ibarguen (COL) — Diamond League triple jump champion, undefeated
Francena McCorory (USA) — World Indoor 400m champion
Sandra Perkovic (CRO) — Diamond League discus champion
Dafne Schippers (NED) — European champion in 100m, 200m
Kaliese Spencer (JAM) — Diamond League 400m hurdles champion
Barbora Spotakova (CZE) — Diamond League javelin champion
Anita Wlodarczyk (POL) — Broken hammer throw world record

The lists will be narrowed to three finalists for each award after an email poll of track and field officials closes Oct. 16. The winners will be announced Nov. 21 after an IAAF council decision.

Justin Gatlin eyes more 200s after undefeated season

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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