Ashton Eaton

Aries Merritt wins bronze before kidney transplant; incredible Worlds performances

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An incredible day of on-the-track performances at the World Championships on Friday included:

  • Aries Merritt, an Olympic champion and world-record holder, earned bronze in the 110m hurdles while running with kidney function at less than 20 percent and four days before getting a kidney transplant from his sister. “The bigger message is don’t give up,” Merritt told Lewis Johnson on Universal Sports. “Just keep fighting. You can persevere through anything if you put your mind to it.”
  • Ashton Eaton, also an Olympic champion and world-record holder, ran the fastest 400m ever in a decathlon to lead after the first of two days nearly at his world-record pace. Eaton hasn’t completed a decathlon in more than two years.
  • The Netherlands’ Dafne Schippers won the 200m in 21.63 seconds to become the third fastest woman ever in the event.
  • U.S.-born women came into Worlds with 25 of the 26 fastest times in the world this year in the 100m hurdles. They won zero medals in the 100m hurdles final.
  • American Tianna Bartoletta won the long jump World title, 10 years after her previous gold medal in the event.

“This bronze medal is going to shine brighter than my gold,” Merritt told media in Beijing. “It’s very hard to run [three] rounds with my current state of health.”

Merritt will hope to try to defend his Olympic title in Rio after his kidney transplant. More on Merritt’s kidney condition here.

“If I can pull it off, it would be nothing but a blessing,” Merritt told Johnson on Universal Sports. “Special things happen in the Olympic Games, so if I make it, you never know what will happen.”

Bartoletta and Merritt won the U.S.’ two medals Friday, giving it 14 overall with four golds. Kenya has more golds (six) and is second in overall medals with 11, with two days left. U.S. track and field has won at least 22 medals at each of the last eight Olympics or World Championships.

Full results from Friday are here.

NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will have World Championships coverage Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET) and Sunday (2 p.m.). Usain Bolt is expected to return for his final event, the 4x100m relay, on Saturday.

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Schippers won the 200m in 21.63. The world record is held by Florence Griffith-Joyner (21.34). Second all time is Marion Jones* (21.62). Schippers outleaned Jamaican Elaine Thompson (21.66) for gold.

Another Jamaican, two-time Olympic 200m champion, Veronica Campbell-Brown took bronze in 21.97 for her 17th career Olympic or Worlds medal.

“I think I’ll not sleep for the next night,” Schippers, the 2013 Worlds heptathlon bronze medalist who won 100m silver Monday and had a 200m personal best of 22.03 before the final, said on the BBC.

Schippers chose to focus on the sprints over the heptathlon earlier this year and said she doesn’t think she’ll compete in a heptathlon again.

“Now I’m a sprinter, I’m sure,” Schippers said on BBC Radio.

Olympic champion Allyson Felix did not contest the 200m at Worlds but said she will do it at the Rio Olympics, should she make the team at the Olympic trials (top three). Felix’s personal best in the 200m is 21.69.

Eaton leads the decathlon after five of 10 events after running the fastest decathlon 400m of all time, a 45.00, and screaming after he crossed the finish line. Eaton’s time would have qualified for the Olympic 400m final as recently as 2004.

“I thought the clock was off by a second, I swear,” Eaton, who took 2014 off from the decathlon to run the 400m hurdles, told media in Beijing. “They should go back and check it.”

That moved Eaton to 4,703 points and a 173-point lead over Canadian Damian Warner. Eaton is 25 points shy of his world-record pace from the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.

“I’m just happy to be doing a decathlon, honestly. It’s been so long,” Eaton told Johnson on Universal Sports. “If the world record’s there, I’ll go for it, but I just want to win.”

Another U.S. medal hopeful, Olympic decathlon silver medalist Trey Hardee, dropped out of the decathlon with a lower back injury suffered during the long jump.

“I’m devastated to have to withdraw from the competition,” Hardee said, according to USA Track and Field. “I tried everything to try to make it through but it just wasn’t mean to be.”

The U.S. had a chance to sweep the top four in the 100m hurdles, but two of its quartet were eliminated in the semifinals, 2013 World champion Brianna Rollins was fourth and Sharika Nelvis, the fastest woman in the world this year at 12.34, was last place in 13.06.

Jamaica’s Danielle Williams won in a personal-best 12.57, followed by Germany’s Cindy Roleder (12.59), Belarus’ Alina Talay (12.66). Rollins missed bronze by .01.

The top two from the U.S. Championships — two-time Olympic medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson and NCAA champion Keni Harrison — were eliminated in the semifinals.

Harper-Nelson crashed after hitting the second hurdle with her trail leg. Harrison false started out of the next heat.

“Caught me and took me down,” Harper-Nelson said on Eurosport. “I feel like, before I realized it, I was going to the ground.”

In the 110m hurdles, Merritt took bronze in 13.04 behind Russian Sergey Shubenkov (12.98) and Jamaican Hansle Parchment (13.03). The 2013 World champion David Oliver was seventh after knocking down the first hurdle.

Bartoletta captured the long jump title after countrywoman Brittney Reese, the 2009, 2011 and 2013 World champion and 2012 Olympic champion, failed to make the final.

In the men’s 1500m, all three Americans advanced to Sunday’s final — Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano, two-time Worlds medalist Matthew Centrowitz and Robby Andrews. The field also includes Algerian Olympic champion Taoufik Makhloufi and Kenyan two-time defending World champion Asbel Kiprop.

Usain Bolt says he may retire after Rio Olympics

2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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