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

Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara
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Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)
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There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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