Five events to watch at U.S. Track and Field Championships

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The fiercest competition for national titles, and top-three finishes to make the World Championships team, at this weekend’s USA Track and Field Championships should come in these five loaded events:

Men’s Long Jump — Thursday, 8 p.m. ET (USATF.TV)
Jeff Henderson — 2015 world leader
Will Claye — Olympic bronze medalist
Christian Taylor — Olympic triple jump champion
Ashton Eaton — Olympic decathlon champion
Marquis Dendy — 2015 world co-No. 4
Jarrion Lawson — 2015 world co-No. 4
Marquise Goodwin — 2012 Olympian/Buffalo Bills WR

It’s unlikely that Eaton would compete in the long jump at Worlds if he finished in the top three in Eugene, Ore., on Thursday, since his focus at Worlds will be on defending his decathlon title. Henderson, Claye, Dendy, Lawson and Goodwin have better personal bests in the long jump than Eaton anyway.

Taylor, too, is already qualified for the U.S. team in another event, the triple jump, which at the World Championships in Beijing (Aug. 22-30) starts one day after the long jump concludes. His personal best long jump is shorter than Eaton’s.

Henderson will be favored to defend his national title. His 8.50m jump on April 18 was the farthest in the world this year and the best by an American since 2009.

Dendy and Lawson dueled at the NCAA Championships with personal bests.

Goodwin is somewhat of a wild card, given he hasn’t competed in the long jump since he finished 10th at the London 2012 Olympics. His personal best, 8.33 meters, would rank fourth among Americans this year, behind Henderson, Dendy and Lawson.

Marquise Goodwin petitions into U.S. Championships

Women’s 400m — Saturday, 5:32 p.m. ET (NBC, Live Extra (full broadcast schedule here))
Francena McCorory — 2015 world leader
Sanya Richards-Ross — 2012 Olympic champion
Allyson Felix — 2011 World silver medalist

McCorory, Richards-Ross and Felix rank Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the world this year. Felix is the slowest of the three, clocking 50.05 seconds, but that’s still a comfortable .62 faster than the No. 4 U.S. woman, Natasha Hastings.

However, Hastings and the rest of the field shouldn’t give up hope, given Felix will choose between running the 200m or the 400m at the World Championships, should she finish top three Saturday. Felix attempted the 200m-400m double at the 2011 Worlds but will not do so this year, given the 200m semifinals and 400m final at Worlds are 70 minutes apart in Beijing.

If Felix finishes top three in the 400m at nationals and drops it for Worlds, the fourth-place finisher would be in line to take her 400m spot at Worlds.

Richards-Ross will look to reclaim a national title after finishing sixth at the 2013 U.S. Championships while slowed by a right big toe injury that required two surgeries. In 2014, McCorory recorded a personal best to beat Richards-Ross in the U.S. Championships final.

Sanya Richards-Ross seeks revenge in 2015, history in 2016

Women’s 100m hurdles — Saturday, 5:52 p.m. ET (NBC, Live Extra)
Brianna Rollins — 2013 World champion (has bye onto Worlds team)
Dawn Harper-Nelson — 2014 Diamond League champion
Jasmin Stowers — 2015 world leader
Kendra Harrison — 2015 world No. 2
Sharika Nelvis — 2015 world No. 3
Lolo Jones — Two-time Summer Olympian

Ten of the 14 fastest women in the world this year are Americans. The list is led by Stowers, a 23-year-old favored to qualify for her first global championship. Stowers has run 12.40 or better three times this year. Only one other American has done that over an entire career — three-time World 100m hurdles champion Gail Devers.

The 2008 Olympic champion Harper-Nelson would have a bye onto the Worlds team because she won the 2014 Diamond League season title, but the single automatic spot available goes to Rollins for her 2013 World Championship. If Rollins finishes in the top three Saturday, the fourth-place finisher is in line to join the U.S. team, too.

Then there’s Jones, one of 10 Americans to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, who is coming off an April torn hamstring. She ranks No. 29 in the world this year and will need to improve upon that greatly to have a shot to make Worlds for the first time since 2007.

Undeterred Lolo Jones’ outlook not good to make World Championships

Men’s 5000m — Sunday, 1:45 p.m. ET (moved from 4:27 p.m. ET)
Galen Rupp — Olympic 10,000m silver medalist
Bernard Lagat — Three-time World 5000m medalist
Ben True — Adidas Grand Prix 5000m winner

Every member of this trio enters Eugene with a question mark.

How will Rupp fare amid the scrutiny of a recent investigative report of former teammates accusing his longtime coach of cheating?

Does Lagat, at age 40, have enough gas left in the tank to make a fifth straight World Championships 5000m team since switching from Kenya to the U.S.? Lagat is the only American man to win a World Championships 5000m medal (gold in 2007 and silver in 2009 and 2011).

True became the first U.S. man to win a Diamond League 5000m on June 13, but how will he handle the pressure of a U.S. Championships? In 2012, he finished sixth in the 5000m and 12th in the 10,000m at the Olympic trials, impacted by Lyme Disease. In 2013, he finished fourth in both the 5000m and the 10,000m at the U.S. Championships, just missing Worlds.

Galen Rupp talks training with Mo Farah, marathons, weird drug test story

Women’s 800m — Sunday, 4:48 p.m. ET (NBC, Live Extra)
Ajee’ Wilson — 2014 world leader
Brenda Martinez — 2013 World bronze medalist
Alysia Montano — fourth or fifth at 2011 Worlds, 2012 Olympics, 2013 Worlds

Wilson, 21, is the top threat to dethrone Kenyan Eunice Sum as World champion in August. It would be a stunner if she didn’t finish in the top three on Sunday to make her second straight Worlds team.

Martinez, who in 2013 became the first U.S. woman to win a Worlds 800m medal, has been the second-fastest U.S. woman each of the last four years (behind Wilson in 2014 and 2015 and Montano in 2012 and 2013).

Then there’s Montano, who competed in the 2014 U.S. Championships seven weeks before giving birth to daughter Linnea. Montano has catching up to do, as she ranks No. 63 in the world in the 800m this year, finishing fifth at the Drake Relays on April 24 and 10th at the Prefontaine Classic on May 30.

Alysia Montano reflects on running very pregnant at 2014 U.S. Championships

Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

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NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose so far Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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