Allyson Felix, Justin Gatlin ushered in new era of U.S. sprints

Allyson Felix, Justin Gatlin
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It’s about 3 a.m. on Aug. 22, 2004, and little Lauryn Williams staggers back into athlete housing at the Athens Olympics.

Williams, a 20-year-old who would speak at her University of Miami business school graduation four months later, had that night placed second in the marquee women’s event of the Olympics — the 100m final — in her first individual event at a global championship. And then gone through hours of interviews, drug testing and all-around congratulations.

When she finally finished all that, she found Justin Gatlin. Gatlin, also an Olympic rookie, also competed at the Athens Olympic Stadium that night, winning his 100m quarterfinal heat. Gatlin would take gold in the event and be crowned the world’s fastest man about 18 hours after his encounter with the dog-tired Williams.

Williams laid out on the floor of their compound. Gatlin spoke.

“How are you feeling?” Gatlin asked.

“Well, I lost,” Williams said.

(This was a reversal of her immediate reaction on the track, when she could be heard yelling, “I’ll take the silver medal,” seconds after her name flashed on the scoreboard below that of Belarus’ Yulia Nesterenko, who beat Williams 10.93 to 10.96 seconds, the margin about the same as their difference in reaction time. Nesterenko had never broken 11 seconds before the Games, then did so in all four rounds in Athens, and never came close to doing so again.)

Gatlin responded.

“You’re No. 2 in the whole world,” he said. “You’re like one of the best athletes ever. What are you talking about?”

Williams was still lying on the floor.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right,'” Williams recalled last week. “I definitely remember it very specifically, like it being very late and a lot of people still being up when I got back, and him really lifting me up in that moment.”

Maurice Greene was 30 years old in Athens, in what would be his Olympic farewell. He took 100m bronze behind Gatlin and Portugal’s Francis Obikwelu in a failed bid to join Carl Lewis as the only men to repeat as Olympic champion in the event.

In Athens, Greene couldn’t help but notice the unflappable presence of the youngest U.S. Olympic track and field competitor in 28 years — an 18-year-old named Allyson Felix.

“Nothing really fazed her,” Greene said, leaning back on a Manhattan hotel couch last week. “You just knew it was something special there.”

Felix, who had already turned professional, best expressed her poise to American viewers with calm, seemingly calculated responses in post-race interviews with NBC’s Bob Neumeier. Felix earned silver in the 200m on Aug. 25, matching Williams’ result from four days earlier.

“We were kind of like deers in headlights at the time, but we knew that something was changing,” Williams said last week. “There was a whole new brigade of us.”

Williams was speaking about not just herself, Felix and Gatlin, but of a larger group that debuted at the Athens Olympics and largely carried U.S. sprints through the next two Olympics.

Shawn Crawford, the 2004 Olympic 200m champion. Sanya Richards-Ross, the 2012 Olympic 400m champion. DeeDee Trotter, the 2012 Olympic 400m bronze medalist. Jeremy Wariner, the 2004 Olympic 400m champion.

Williams retired after London 2012, but everybody else is still competing. A large group of them could complete their Olympic careers in Rio, should they qualify.

Even Crawford, who had retired after missing the 2012 Olympic team but failed to take his name out of the drug-testing pool and was banned two years in 2013 for failure to update drug testers on his whereabouts. Crawford is planning to return once his ban is up in April, his agent said earlier this year, and Crawford is again being drug tested.

Gatlin and Felix are the headliners, the faces of U.S. men’s and women’s sprinting. Felix said last week that she and Gatlin hung out together in a lounge area at the Paris 2003 World Championships, when Felix made her global championship debut and Gatlin was there but not competing.

“We had both come on the professional scene right around the same time, and I think we were really just drawn into each other because we really didn’t know anybody else and everybody else was much older than us,” Felix said.

Their careers separated after Athens. Felix continued to be a global star, winning three World 200m titles and eventually her first Olympic 200m title in 2012. She won her first World 400m title this year and could go for a Michael Johnson-like 200m-400m double in Rio.

Gatlin tested positive for excessive testosterone in 2006, served a four-year ban and returned to the sport in 2010. He gradually improved and the last two years has been running the fastest times of his career, drawing scrutiny at the advanced age of 33.

Gatlin said he and Felix were “like sidekicks” in 2003. They conversed together and with others at a USA Track and Field Hall of Fame ceremony in New York last week.

“Her journey that she went through, basically setting the trend for a lot of these high school kids to come out and turn pro, she really captured lightning in a bottle for a dream,” Gatlin said.

When Gatlin trained to come back to the sport in 2010, Greene was one of the previous generation of sprinters with whom he spoke.

“Why do you want to come back,” Greene asked him, “because people are going to talk a lot about you.”

Gatlin asserted that he would rise above the stain of his doping ban.

“He came back to prove it,” Greene said.

To those who question why he’s running so fast at a time when most sprinters are past their primes, Gatlin always says he feels younger because of the four years he was forced to take off from the sport.

“Maybe the time off did him a lot of good,” Greene said.

Eventually, Gatlin and Felix will step aside, either by choice or by being pushed out by another new group of U.S. sprinters.

“There’s a lot of kids,” Felix said. “There’s so much going on I don’t think we can name one person. We’re going to see that emerge. You have Kaylin Whitney [a 17-year-old who has broken 22.50 in the 200m each of the last two years], Candace Hill [a 16-year-old who ran 10.98 over 100m this year] and a lot of really young girls. They need time to develop before we crown them.”

Gatlin noted training partner Isiah Young, 25, who finished second to Gatlin in the 200m at last summer’s U.S. Championships, and Trayvon Bromell, 20, who shared the World Championships 100m bronze behind Bolt and Gatlin.

“[Bromell] is like a younger version of me when it comes to having a hunger for it,” Gatlin said, “but not realizing the magnitude of what you’re doing.”

MORE TRACK AND FIELD: Justin Gatlin still regrets Worlds loss as 2016 nears

Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier win U.S. figure skating pairs’ title in possible final nationals

Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier
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Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier haven’t decided if they’ll compete beyond this season, so Saturday may have been their farewell to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

If so, they went out as dominant winners, the first pair in their 30s to win nationals in more than 50 years.

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, took their second U.S. title together, totaling 227.97 points to prevail by 31.11 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe. They led by a gaping 15.1 points after Thursday’s short.

Knierim and Frazier were solid after errors on their opening jumping combination in Saturday’s free skate. They broke their own pairs’ margin of victory record from the 2021 U.S. Championships under a scoring system implemented in 2006. Knierim appeared to wipe away tears backstage.

“As I get older, the longer I’m in this sport, the more gratitude I have for it,” Knierim, the oldest woman to win a U.S. figure skating title since 1995 (Renée Roca), said on USA Network. “After that music ended, I’m just thankful that Brandon’s by my side and I’m able to do what I love.”

Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea bagged bronze to likely round out the three-pair team for March’s world championships.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Knierim and Frazier considered retiring after last season, after they missed nationals due to Frazier’s COVID-19, petitioned onto the Olympic team and posted the best Olympic finish for a U.S. pair (sixth) in 20 years.

They then became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, beating a field that didn’t include any of the top five from the Olympics.

They returned in part to compete as world champions and rank second in the world this season (during which the top Olympic pairs also haven’t competed). They will likely go into March’s worlds in Japan as underdogs to Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who won their lone head-to-head this past fall at the Grand Prix Final.

Back in October, Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.

“This U.S. Championships for us was extra special because you’re just reflecting on the journey, and you know that there’s a good chance that this will be your last one,” Frazier said.

Knierim won her fifth U.S. title, tying the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka InaTai BabiloniaRandy GardnerKarol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Silver medalists Chan and Howe continued their recent surge. After placing fourth at last season’s nationals, they rank sixth in the world this season. That’s despite summer injuries that left them unable to practice lifts (his shoulder) and throws (her foot) for a while.

Kam, 18, and O’Shea, 31, made the podium four months after becoming a pair and less than two months after a car Kim was riding in was hit by a drunk driver while crossing an intersection. The car was totaled, but Kim and O’Shea still competed days later in Croatia.

O’Shea won the 2016 U.S. title with Tarah Kayne, retired after they split in late 2020, then came back in 2021 with Chelsea Liu. They ranked sixth in the U.S. going into 2022 Nationals, but withdrew beforehand due to concussions both suffered in a November competition fall, according to Figure Skaters Online.

NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships scores, results

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Full scores and results from the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose …

Women
Gold: Isabeau Levito — 223.33
Silver: Bradie Tennell — 213.12
Bronze: Amber Glenn — 207.44
4. Starr Andrews — 188.24
5. Josephine Lee — 187.68
6. Lindsay Thorngren — 187.19
7. Clare Seo — 175.60
8. Gracie Gold — 173.98
9. Ava Ziegler — 167.70
10. Sonja Hilmer — 166.49
11. Gabriella Izzo — 166.40
12. Ting Cui — 161.27
13. Audrey Shin — 161.12
14. Lindsay Wang — 154.91
15. Michelle Lee — 145.28
16. Elsa Cheng — 138.13
17. Alexa Gasparotto — 129.41
WD. Hanna Harrell

Men’s Short Program
1. Ilia Malinin — 110.36
2. Jason Brown — 100.25
3. Tomoki Hiwatashi — 85.43
4. Liam Kapeikis — 82.27
5. Andrew Torgashev — 78.78
6. Maxim Naumov — 77.71
7. Jimmy Ma — 73.88
8. Goku Endo — 73.45
9. Samuel Mindra — 71.36
10. Yaroslav Paniot — 70.87
11. Camden Pulkinen — 69.47
12. Matthew Nielsen — 67.98
13. Joonsoo Kim — 67.45
14. Daniel Martynov — 64.04
15. Will Annis — 63.46
16. Dinh Tran — 60.63
17. Mitchell Friess — 59.14
18. Joseph Klein — 58.38

Pairs
Gold: Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier — 227.97
Silver: Emily Chan/Spencer Howe — 196.86

Bronze: Ellie Kam/Danny O’Shea — 184.01
4. Sonia Baram/Danil Tioumentsev —- 179.08
5. Valentina Plazas/Maximiliano Fernandez — 176.34
6. Katie McBeath/Nathan Bartholomay —- 172.74
7. Maria Mokhova/Ivan Mokhov —- 148.84
8. Nica Digerness/Mark Sadusky — 137.98
9. Grace Hanns / Danny Neudecker — 135.30
10. Nina Ouellette/Rique Newby-Estrella — 132.07
11. Linzy Fitzpatrick/Keyton Bearinger — 129.80

Ice Dance
Gold: Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 229.75
Silver: Caroline Green/Michael Parsons — 207.46
Bronze: Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko — 198.45
4. Emilea Zingas/Vadym Kolesnik — 198.13
5. Emily Bratti/Ian Somerville — 189.84
6. Lorraine McNamara/Anton Spiridonov — 189.15
7. Katarina Wolfkostin/Jeffrey Chen — 183.05
8. Eva Pate/Logan Bye — 182.61
9. Oona Brown/Gage Brown — 181.89
10. Isabella Flores/Ivan Desyatov — 177.31
11. Angela Ling/Caleb Wein — 167.87
12. Leah Krauskopf/YuanShi Jin — 133.93
13. Cara Murphy/Joshua Levitt — 129.85
14. Caroline Depietri/TJ Carey — 123.40
WD. Raffaella Koncius/Alexey Shchepetov

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

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