Ashley Wagner ends U.S. medal drought; Yevgenia Medvedeva takes title

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The U.S. waited 10 years for a woman to win a figure skating medal. Ashley Wagner waited nearly that long herself.

Wagner hit a crescendo of a tumultuous career at a veteran 24 years old, becoming the oldest U.S. woman to capture her first World Championships medal in Boston on Saturday night.

It was silver. It snapped the longest Olympic/Worlds medal drought since the first Winter Games in 1924 in America’s marquee Winter Olympic sports event.

Wagner finished 8.47 points behind record-breaking Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, who at 16 became the first singles skater to win junior and senior World titles in back-to-back years.

Another Russian, Anna Pogorilaya, took bronze. Short-program leader Gracie Gold plummeted to fourth place as the penultimate skater before Wagner brought the house down.

Wagner earned that silver medal. She landed all seven triple jumps (with two under-rotations) for the second-best score of the night behind Medvedeva, who broke Yuna Kim‘s 2010 Olympic record for free skate points.

Wagner recorded personal-best short program, free skate and total scores while performing in an arena that housed the lowest point of her career two years earlier.

“My two experiences in here were equally as traumatic,” said Wagner, who pointed at her silver medal in the press conference to emphasize the drought’s end. “This is definitely the one I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

In January 2014, Wagner finished fourth at the U.S. Championships at TD Garden and agonized that Saturday night over whether she would be on the three-woman Olympic roster announced the following day.

She had already earned the nickname “Almost Girl” for finishing third at the 2010 U.S. Championships to miss that two-woman Olympic team.

Wagner was named to the Sochi team due to her strong national and international results in recent seasons, criteria laid out by U.S. Figure Skating well in advance of the competition. Still, many believed third-place Mirai Nagasu deserved the place.

“I have so many people that for so many parts of my career say that this has been given to me, I don’t deserve this,” Wagner said. “I have so many people who doubt why I’m still here. … I have a World silver medal because of something I did, not because of something everyone else didn’t do. That is so sweet.”

At the Garden this past week, Wagner found motivation in a picture on a wall. It depicted the 2014 U.S. Championships podium of four women (yes, four, Wagner was a pewter medalist). However, Wagner was cropped out of the picture.

“Maybe they’ll post up this podium next time for memorable moments of the building,” she joked.

Wagner’s skating from Sochi up until Saturday night had been hit-and-miss. At the Olympics, she bagged a bronze medal in the team event but was most remembered for the face she made when her unsatisfying score came up. She also finished seventh individually.

Wagner came back to take her third U.S. title and her third straight Grand Prix Final medal last season, but she placed seventh and fifth on the grander Worlds stage in 2014 and 2015. She couldn’t put together two straight strong programs in major international competition.

This week, Wagner told best friend and U.S. champion Adam Rippon she felt nervous before the short program. He sat her down and reminded her of the 2014 U.S. Championships. 

“I came into that Nationals overweight, out of shape, undertrained, really just hoping for the best,” Wagner said. “I came into this in shape, ready to go, and I knew what I had to do. I’m a totally different athlete, but because of 2014 I’m sitting here today.”

The result? Personal best short program, fourth place, in contention for a medal.

She felt “terrified” on Saturday, in a “panic” and “freaking out” moments before taking the ice.

“Because I knew that something had happened in Gracie’s performance,” Wagner said of Gold, who fell on her opening jump combination and finished fourth at Olympics or Worlds a third straight year. “I realized, oh my god, there’s an opening. Maybe I can get onto this podium. Then I realized, in that moment, freaking out about maybe getting onto a podium wasn’t going to do anything for me.”

Her coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, instructed her. It’s there, you just need to go do it.

“And that’s exactly what I went out and did,” Wagner said. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Medvedeva, meanwhile, was notified afterward of her record-breaking skate by an arena interviewer with a microphone, so that her response could be heard by the 10,000-plus in attendance.

“Wow,” she said after laughing. That was her only word of English in the interview.

This is probably the biggest audience that I’ve faced, ever,” Medvedeva said later, through a translator. “And I heard a lot of shouts out in Russian supporting me, which was an incredible experience. I realized that some of these people came especially to watch me and traveled so far.”

Medvedeva and Pogorilaya continued a trend of Russian dominance in the event. In the 2014 Olympics and 2014, 2015 and 2016 Worlds, half of the women’s medals have been won by six different Russians.

On Saturday, Medvedeva bettered Kim’s legendary record free skate score from the 2010 Olympics by .04. Kim still holds the overall record score of 228.56, which Medvedeva can shoot for next season.

However, Medvedeva should beware as the gold could be a curse. Neither Russia’s 2014 Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova nor 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva has returned to form since their triumphs.

Then there’s Gold, who has nine times competed at the Olympics, Worlds, Grand Prix Final and Four Continents Championships and finished between fourth and sixth every time.

Her early fall and later doubling a planned triple Lutz cost her Saturday. She missed joining Wagner on the podium by 2.4 points.

“I feel really ashamed of how I skated and I want to apologize to my country and to the crowd here — there’s really no excuse for it,” Gold said, according to an International Skating Union press release. “It just shows that I’m not up there with the rest of the world.”

MORE: With screams, Canadians repeat as World champs in pairs

World Championships Women
GOLD: Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 223.86
SILVER: Ashley Wagner (USA) — 215.39
BRONZE: Anna Pogorilaya (RUS) — 213.69
4. Gracie Gold (USA) — 211.29
10. Mirai Nagasu (USA) — 186.65

Bianca Andreescu to miss U.S. Open

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Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the U.S. Open, citing “unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic” compromising her ability to prepare to defend her Grand Slam title.

“I have taken this step in order to focus on my match fitness and ensure that I return ready to play at my highest level,” Andreescu, a 20-year-old Canadian, posted on social media. “The US Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. However, I realize that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

Andreescu’s absence means the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be without both 2019 male and female singles champions.

Rafael Nadal previously announced he would not defend his title, saying he would rather not travel given the global situation. Roger Federer is also out after knee surgery. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty didn’t enter, either, citing travel concerns.

Last year, Andreescu made her U.S. Open title run as the 15th seed, sweeping Serena Williams in the final. Ranked 208th a year earlier, she became the first player born in the 2000s to win a Slam and the first teen Slam winner since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Andreescu then missed the Australian Open in January due to rehab from a knee injury that forced her to retire during a match at the WTA Finals on Oct. 30. She also missed the French Open and Wimbledon in 2019 following a rotator cuff tear.

MORE: Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis competition

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Noah, Josephus Lyles, after years of supporting each other, meet on track’s highest level

Noah Lyles, Josephus Lyles
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When Noah and Josephus Lyles first talked about turning professional out of high school — Josephus brought it up before their junior year — the goal was, of course, to sprint on the sport’s highest international level — together.

They will do that in Monaco on Friday (2 p.m. ET, Olympic Channel and NBC Sports Gold).

The Lyles brothers will compete in the same Diamond League meet for the first time, and in the same race to boot. Though Noah has long focused on the 200m and Josephus the 400m, they will both contest the shorter distance at Stade Louis II.

“This is going to be really special,” Noah said.

“It makes me more comfortable, just knowing me and my brother are in the same race,” said Josephus, at his first Diamond League meet since 2018.

Noah, when asked the significance of the race that’s coming more than four years after they turned pro, suggested a reporter ask their mom.

“She’s probably over the moon right now,” he said.

Josephus remembered their mom, Keisha Caine Bishop, screaming in excitement upon learning last week that he earned a lane in Monaco. Noah, the reigning world 200m champion, was already in the field.

“It is definitely harder to watch,” when they’re in the same race, Bishop said, “but not because you’re worried about who’s going to win and who’s going to lose, because I don’t look at track like that.

“My nervousness more comes from I just want them both to do their best, so that we can all celebrate as a family. Because if one has a great race and the other one doesn’t have a great race, then it’s kind of hard for everybody to celebrate. You have to compartmentalize your emotions a little more.”

Bishop, an NCAA 4x400m champion at Seton Hall in the 1990s, is familiar with the balance. Even though her two sons born one year and four days apart last raced against each other in January 2017 at their first professional meet.

“The only reason I run track is because of Noah, honestly,” Josephus, who is younger, said while sitting next to Noah in 2017, days before their pro debut. “When I first started track, I quit because I didn’t like it.”

Josephus, a 400m/800m runner before giving it up, returned to the sport in eighth grade. He had planned to try out for the basketball team. Noah, originally a high jumper, was still doing track and field at the time, so Josephus went out for it, too. This time, he focused on races one lap and shorter.

“Turns out I was really good,” Josephus said. (The Lyles’ sister, Abby, ran one track race around age 6 and didn’t care for it, later finding her passion in biochemistry.)

Throughout high school, the brothers tore up tracks while attending T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Va., best known for the film “Remember the Titans.”

Bishop recalled the times one brother supported the other through adversity. Such as when Noah prayed for Josephus’ success in 2014, when Josephus was on crutches with a twisted ankle. Josephus came back that season to win the 400m at the New Balance Nationals, where Lyles took second in the 200m.

“When they race, they are more concerned about the other person than they are themselves,” Bishop said.

Or in 2016. Josephus suffered a season-ending torn right hip flexor two months before the Olympic Trials. A year before, as a high school junior, Josephus ran a 400m time that would have made the Olympic Trials final, where the top six of eight men would qualify for the Olympics.

Josephus still watched his brother race at trials, in the 200m, from the Hayward Field stands.

“He was trying to be strong,” Bishop said, “but I knew, as a mom, that it was very painful.”

Josephus excitedly detailed the experience on camera after Noah broke the national high school record and nearly pulled off the incredible, coming .09 shy of the Olympic 200m team of three men.

“Sometimes it can get a little hard. If one of us is doing well and the other one is not doing well, it can be rough,” Josephus said. “On the other hand, it can be really good because it’s a lot of support. It’s almost like an accountabili-buddy.”

The brothers achieved their goal by signing with Adidas shortly after trials.

Then in 2017, Noah strained his right hamstring and withdrew from the USATF Outdoor Championships before the 200m final. The family gathered before leaving the stadium in Sacramento.

“I said, ‘OK guys, we have to walk out of this warm-up area, and we have to do it as a team,'” Bishop said. “‘At the end of the day, the only people left will be the three of us. And it’s not just the end of today. It’s going to be the end of your careers. When all the newspapers are gone, television cameras, nobody’s writing about us, we are still a family, and that is all that matters.”

Josephus continued to battle the hip injury, yet lowered his 400m personal best in 2017 (making his Diamond League debut during Noah’s absence) and 2018. At the 2018 USATF Outdoors, Noah won the 100m and Josephus placed sixth in the 400m.

If it had been an Olympic or world championships year, both would have made the U.S. team. Instead, they looked to qualify for their first biennial world outdoor championships in 2019.

That spring, Josephus began throwing up every time he ate. He left a European swing after just one race. He saw several doctors leading into nationals, where he was eliminated in the semifinals. He got an endoscopy and learned his diaphragm was restricted, affecting his eating and breathing. It was fixed after the meet.

“A rough year,” Josephus said.

Noah won the U.S. 200m title two days after Josephus’ 400m semifinal. Noah took gold at the world championships in Doha, after which his most meaningful interaction came by phone with his brother, who was back home in the States after dealing with those chest problems.

Support flowed from both ends of the line — congratulations from an inspired Josephus and excitement from Noah, amped for the upcoming Olympic year and the prospect of a Lyles in every flat sprint and men’s relay in Tokyo.

“I never try to forget that I can be in that same position of being injured, and he could be the one doing well,” Noah said last fall. “So I want to always be able to bring good support to him.”

Noah and Josephus live together in a house near their training base in Clermont, Fla.

The pandemic relegated them to grass fields when tracks were closed for nearly two months. When they returned to more normal training, their coach, Lance Brauman, started putting Josephus in groups with 100m and 200m sprinters, including his brother, regularly for the first time.

Josephus, who beat Noah and world 110m hurdles champion Grant Holloway for a Virginia high school indoor 55m title in 2016, raced a pair of 200m in July. He lowered a five-year-old personal best from 20.74 to 20.41 and then 20.24, which helped book the spot in Monaco.

“When I run 19 [seconds], that’ll be that next level,” said Josephus, while noting the 400m remains his primary event. “I still have a little bit ways to go. Hopefully, this weekend will be a game-changer.”

Here they are, the week after what would have been their first Olympics this summer. Noah and Josephus Lyles are in the same race at the most anticipated track meet of the year.

The Olympic cycle has been bittersweet, said Bishop, reminded of what she stressed to her sons through the ups and downs.

“Life comes in seasons, and your season might not come when you wanted it to come,” she said. “The lesson might not be the lesson you thought it would be, but your season will come.”

MORE: Four years later, life changes for runners who shared Olympic moment

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