Kaylin Whitney begins pro track career with global goals

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Kaylin Whitney, the sprinter who celebrated her 17th birthday by announcing a professional contract with Nike on Monday, wants to make this summer’s World Championships team and, the following year, become the youngest U.S. Olympic track and field competitor in 40 years.

“We already know there’s going to be a lot of people saying there’s no way she’s going to make the Olympics, that this is a crazy decision or whatever,” said her Orlando-area coach, three-time U.S. Olympic sprinter Dennis Mitchell. “We don’t pay attention to it.”

Whitney views the decision as another step toward those goals.

“My ultimate dream is to make an Olympic team, so for me to do that, I’d have to take my training to the next level, which would translate to training in the morning and switching to online school to accommodate,” Whitney said.

The Clermont, Fla., native doesn’t appear to have taken a wrong turn yet. Her father, a former University of Arkansas runner, put Whitney in track after watching her smoke the competition in a school field day potato sack race as a kindergartener.

At age 8, she swept the 100m, 200m and long jump at the AAU Junior Olympics and was profiled by the Orlando Sentinel.

Whitney’s first memories of watching track and field came at age 10, when Usain Bolt broke the 100m and 200m world records at the Beijing Olympics.

Mitchell, whose wife is the 2008 Olympic 100m hurdler Damu Cherry, began coaching Whitney at age 12.

And last year, Whitney ran the fastest official 100m and 200m sprints by a woman under the age of 18 — 11.10 and 22.49 at the U.S. Junior Championships — putting her in the top 10 for U.S. women of any age for 2014. The top three in those events at U.S. Championships earn individual spots at the World Championships and Olympics.

She ran more “pedestrian times,” for her, Mitchell said, in taking 200m gold and 100m bronze at the World Junior Championships in Eugene, Ore., in July.

“Her love is the 200m,” Mitchell said, while acknowledging the 100m is the sport’s marquee event and thus also very important.

At World Juniors, Whitney had to adapt to bleaker Oregon weather and what Mitchell called stresses of international meets — running multiple rounds and living with new teammates rather than sleeping in her own bed.

“There’s a lot of things physically that she’s still going to come into, both as a woman and as an athlete,” Mitchell cautioned. “You have to let that process happen. We’re battling a lot of different things outside of trying to run a sub-11 100 meters.”

She’s not the first of her kind. Distance runners Mary Cain and Alexa Efraimson turned pro at 17 in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Whitney’s transition is eased by familiarity with more experienced runners in Mitchell’s training group — Justin Gatlin, Churandy Martina, Charonda Williams and Alexandria Anderson among them.

“It’s definitely intimidating but encouraging at the same time,” Whitney said. “The sport’s evolving every year. Athletes are getting better.”

Whitney next plans to race in a couple of local meets and could be part of relay teams at the Texas Relays (March 25-28) and Drake Relays (April 22-26) or Penn Relays (April 23-25).

Mitchell said Whitney could compete individually at the Prefontaine Classic, a top-level international meet in Eugene, Ore., from May 29-30. Last year, reigning Olympic 100m and 200m champions Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Allyson Felix competed at the Prefontaine Classic.

Whitney looks up to Felix, who also turned pro at 17 and won Olympic 200m silver at 18. They met last year, and Felix gave Whitney a couple of Twitter shoutouts.

“She did say keep working hard, and your future will be bright,” Whitney said.

Whitney acknowledges she’s sacrificing the normal teenage life to be a pro athlete, heading to the track in the morning rather than Clermont East Ridge High for classes. That’s not to say education isn’t a priority. She hopes to finish online high school early, this year, and then probably sign up for virtual college.

Mitchell said people have told Whitney things like, “Good luck at the Olympics,” what the coach calls “outside noise” that he doesn’t want her to listen to.

“We all are going to have to wait and see,” Mitchell said. “Will she make mistakes at this level? Yes she will. But I say that for all of my athletes.”

Bernard Lagat cancels farewell tour with Rio in mind

U.S. junior champions crowned in ladies’ and men’s events

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Gabriella Izzo is the newest junior ladies’ national champion, crowned this week at the U.S. Championships in Detroit. Junior ladies’ national champions of the past include eventual Olympians Mirai Nagasu, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Bradie Tennell.

Izzo had a commanding lead after the short program, with 60.97 points, where she pulled off her first-ever triple Lutz, triple loop combination in competition. (However, it was deemed under-rotated.) Regardless, her 111.45 points in the free skate combined for 172.42 points and the gold medal.

Audrey Shin, who actually won the free skate by just over a point, earned the silver medal with 165.61 points. Emilia Murdock took home the bronze with 154.48 points.

On the junior men’s side, Ryan Dunk rebounded from second after the short program to win the event. His 132.85-point free skate was enough to crack the 200-point overall score, the only man in the field to do so, and win the gold.

Men’s junior champions include eventual world champion Nathan Chen (twice) as well as Olympians Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown.

Dinh Tran finished second with 196.03 points after a fourth-place short program. Joonsoo Kim, who lead after the short program on Tuesday, ended up with the bronze medal with 187.95 points.

NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will live stream each junior competition and replays will also be available on-demand. Check out the full schedule and live streaming information here.

The junior rhythm dance took place earlier Wednesday. Siblings Caroline and Gordon Green lead the field with 70.82 points, while Avonley Nguyen and Vadym Kolesnik are second with 65.92 points. The brother-sister team of Oona and Gage Brown are in third with 63.34 heading into Friday’s junior free dance.

Also Wednesday, Laiken Lockley and Keenan Prochnow took the lead in the junior pairs’ short program. The junior pairs’ free skate is Thursday. Kate Finster and Balazs Nagy are second, followed by Isabelle Martins and Ryan Bedard in third.

MORE: Full streaming schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the junior and senior U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Chloe Kim, David Wise among X Games headliners

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The X Games return to Aspen, Colorado, this week at Buttermilk Mountain. A marquee event on the yearly snowboarding and freeskiing calendar, the X Games will feature a handful of Olympic gold medalists and notable names in action sports. Below are a few storylines to watch for this week:

Nearly full field of Olympic gold medalists will compete in Aspen

All four freestyle skiing gold medalists in X Games events (halfpipe, slopestyle) and five of six Olympic snowboarding champions (slopestyle, halfpipe, big air) are expected to compete in Aspen. Among them is Chloe Kim, who has not lost a contest since the Olympics. She finished last season with a win at the US Open, and has three victories already this season, including at the Dew Tour in December. Since the Olympics, Kim’s star has only grown: she’s thrown out the first pitch at a Dodgers game and become an awards show regular, but her ability to crush her competition on the pipe remains unchanged.

In addition to Kim, the three other U.S. gold medalists from 2018 should all contend: in men’s ski halfpipe, two-time defending Olympic gold medalist David Wise has continued to impress this season, but as in previous years, he’ll be challenged by his teammates, Aaron Blunck and Aspen native Alex Ferreira, who would skip school as a kid to watch the X Games in person. Snowboard slopestyle gold medalists Red Gerard and Jamie Anderson are both podium threats as well.

After missing Olympics, can Sildaru sweep in Aspen?

Three years ago, a quiet and unassuming Kelly Sildaru won her first X Games title at 13, becoming the youngest ever winner in a winter event. Pegged early as a star for the PyeongChang Games in both slopestyle and halfpipe, the Estonian teenager missed the Olympics with a torn left ACL. Sildaru, who hails from a country with no mountains, will attempt a rare triple in Aspen: she’ll compete in slopestyle, halfpipe, and big air. No winter sports athlete has ever won three gold medals at the same X Games contest. Sildaru missed last year’s event due to her knee injury and has looked sharp so far this season: she won the U.S. Grand Prix in halfpipe and the Dew Tour in slopestyle. Sildaru has four X Games medals in total: two in slopestyle and two in big air.

White’s protégé awaits his big moment

Toby Miller learned from the best: the 18-year-old was mentored by three-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, who brought Miller to PyeongChang as his guest. White hasn’t competed since the Olympics, focusing instead on skateboarding, while Miller is having a notable season of his own: he finished third at the Dew Tour and second at the U.S. Grand Prix. The U.S. halfpipe contingent remains deep: Olympians Jake Pates, Ben Ferguson and Chase Josey are all contenders on any given day, though PyeongChang bronze medalist Scotty James will likely be the favorite.

Big tricks

The X Games are often a staging point for new tricks: in 2017, Norway’s Marcus Kleveland became the first to land a quad in competition, only to be topped by Canadian Max Parrot, who won the event with a quad of his own. Chloe Kim and PyeongChang big air gold medalist Anna Gasser have been at the forefront of innovative tricks this season. Kim, a four-time X Games winner, is still far ahead of the field with back-to-back 1080s, which she used last weekend at a World Cup event in Laax. In October 2018, she became the first woman to land a frontside double cork 1080, though she has yet to execute it in competition. Kim can win easily with the arsenal of tricks she already has – but she’d make a bit of history if she decides to go for it.

In November, Gasser became the first woman to land a cab triple underflip, though like Kim, she has not done so in competition. Known for her progressive approach to the sport and impressive arsenal of difficult tricks, Gasser could attempt the triple at the X Games.