Justin Gatlin, Trayvon Bromell
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U.S. sprinters headline Rome Diamond League; five events to watch

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One month before the Olympic Trials, two top U.S. men’s sprinters can separate themselves at a Diamond League meet in Rome on Thursday.

World 100m silver and bronze medalists Justin Gatlin and Trayvon Bromell are among the headliners but will contest different events.

Bromell opens with the 200m in his first bona fide international outdoor meet since the World Championships in August. The 20-year-old has a little to prove given his performances so far this spring.

Bromell, billed as the future of U.S. sprinting to replace the aging Gatlin and Tyson Gay, has yet to break 10 seconds in three 100m races this year. His best in two 200m races is 20.30, which is likely also slower than the time needed to finish in the top three at next month’s trials and make his first Olympic team.

Bromell did win the World Indoor 60m title on March 18, but that mini race lacked the other three men on the 2015 Worlds 100m podium — Usain Bolt, Gatlin and Andre De Grasse.

It was in June last year that Bromell really broke out, running personal bests of 9.90 and 9.84 at the NCAA and U.S. Championships. If that trajectory plays out again, Bromell could put down an Olympic Trials statement in Rome on Thursday, albeit in the longer 200m distance.

Then there’s Gatlin, who is again the fastest American for the year yet not on his torrid pace of 2015. But that’s by design, the 34-year-old has repeated, saying Wednesday that a severely rolled ankle in the fall is still affecting him.

“My times haven’t been, obviously, as fast as last year,” Gatlin said before running a wind-aided 9.88 to win the Prefontaine Classic on Saturday. “But I feel there’s so much more left in the tank. … Keep stuff in reserve. It’s a steady build-up. I think, at this point in time, I think the world’s seen that I ran a lot of consistent, fast times last year, so really don’t need to make that point so early in the season. But once we get closer to Olympic Trials, once we get closer to the Olympics, going to be cranking out real fast times.”

Gatlin races the 100m in Rome, the site of one of his biggest victories. On June 6, 2013, Gatlin beat Bolt in a 100m at this meet. Bolt hasn’t lost since. Gatlin is 32-2 in individual events since the start of 2014, his only losses coming to Bolt, according to Tilastopaja.org.

At the Olympic Trials, the top three finishers per event make the Rio team. Two more U.S. Olympic hopeful sprinters are entered in Rome — Isiah Young and Ameer Webb.

Young finished second in the 200m and fourth in the 100m at the 2015 U.S. Championships. Webb has clocked personal bests of 19.91 and 19.85 in the 200m this spring, second among Americans behind LaShawn Merritt, who could decide to focus solely on the 400m at trials.

Add in 2012 Olympians Mike Rodgers and Gay, who are not competing in Rome, and it’s starting to look a little crowded in the sprints.

Rome start lists are available here. Here’s the schedule (all times Eastern):

11:45 a.m. — Men’s discus
12:25 p.m. — Women’s shot put
12:50 — Women’s triple jump
1:15 — Women’s pole vault
1:55 — Women’s javelin
2:04 — Women’s 400m hurdles
2:10 — Men’s high jump
2:15 — Men’s 200m
2:25 — Women’s 800m
2:35 — Men’s 400m
2:40 — Men’s long jump
2:45 — Women’s 5000m
3:05 — Men’s 110m hurdles
3:15 — Men’s 1500m
3:25 — Women’s 100m
3:35 — Men’s 100m
3:45 — Men’s 3000m steeplechase

Here are five events to watch:

Men’s 200m — 2:15 p.m. ET

Bromell is known more for his 100m prowess (and indoor 60m with that World title in March), but here he faces a beatable field. No Gatlin. No Bolt. None of the reigning Olympic or World medalists in the event.

Still, it will be a test and the best measure to date of Bromell’s chances of making the Olympic team in the longer distance.

The favorite in Rome is Webb, given he ranks second in the world this year. If Bromell can’t beat Webb, then Bromell is definitely on the Olympic bubble in the 200m, assuming he and Gatlin both contest it at Eugene in July.

Women’s 800m — 2:25 p.m. ET

Here controversial (to no fault of her own) South African Caster Semenya faces her toughest competition to date in an eye-opening year.

Semenya, best known for a gender-testing controversy of 2009 and 2010, has returned to peak form this year after a July decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport that suspended for two years a 2011 IAAF ruling that regulated women’s testosterone levels for competition eligibility.

The Olympic silver medalist struggled in 2013, 2014 and 2015. This year, she owns three of the four fastest times in the world.

In Rome, Semenya can win a third straight Diamond League race, but it will come against the world’s best. All three 2015 World Championships medalists are in the field, plus the second-fastest woman this year and American Ajee’ Wilson, the fastest woman of 2014.

Men’s Long Jump — 2:40 p.m. ET

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Marquise Goodwin goes into Rome ranked No. 1 in the world in 2016, but he finished third last week in his first Diamond League meet in four years.

That makes Goodwin somewhat of a wild card in this field, which includes reigning Olympic and World champion Greg Rutherford of Great Britain. Overall, the six best long jumpers in the world this year gather in Rome.

Women’s 100m — 3:25 p.m. ET

Olympic and World champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce‘s toe injury has left an opening that younger sprinters are filling in the early season.

Jamaican Elaine Thompson and American English Gardner clash in Rome in a meeting of winners at the last two Diamond League meets. Thompson, 23, and Gardner, 24, are chasing the fastest time in the world this year, 10.80, clocked by Tori Bowie, who is 25.

Men’s 100m — 3:35 p.m. ET

Gatlin can win in Rome for a fourth straight year, but Thursday’s field is not as decorated as previous editions.

A realistic goal would be to run the fastest 100m in the world this year. The top spot is currently held by Qatar’s Femi Ogunode at 9.91. Gatlin ran 9.94, 9.91 and 9.75 in Rome the last three years.

He puts his strong record since the start of 2014, losses to nobody but Bolt, on the line against Ogunode, Webb (on 80 minutes’ rest after a 200m) and his training partner Young.

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Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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