Ten U.S. track and field athletes who benefit from Russia ban

Vashti Cunningham
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At the London Olympics, Russia finished second to the U.S. in the track and field medal standings.

With Russia unable to send a track and field team to Rio, top rivals to U.S. Olympic medal hopefuls may be absent from the Games in August.

The IAAF left “a very tiny crack in the door” for Russian athletes to apply to compete in Rio independently, should they prove to have been subjected to reliable drug testing outside of the Russian regime.

Until then, these 10 Americans’ medal hopes were boosted with Friday’s announcement:

Jenn Suhr, Pole Vault

Russia’s biggest track and field star is 2004 and 2008 Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva. In 2012, Suhr relegated Isinbayeva to bronze in London.

Isinbayeva came back to win the 2013 World Championship over Suhr and then took off all of 2014 and 2015 due to pregnancy. Isinbayeva’s comeback this year (she can compete domestically but not internationally) has been slowed by injury, but will sue after Friday’s IAAF ruling.

Suhr lobbied Thursday for Isinbayeva to be allowed to compete in Rio.

Suhr cleared an indoor world record of 5.03 meters on Jan. 30, the best mark indoors or outdoors in the world since Isinbayeva’s last outdoor world record of 5.06 in 2009.

MORE: Russia Olympic ban upheld | Five Russian stars who may miss Rio

Vashti Cunningham, High Jump

In no track and field event is Russia deeper than women’s high jump. Russians earned two medals each at the 2012 Olympics, 2013 World Championships and 2015 World Championships, including golds at all three from Anna ChicherovaSvetlana Shkolina and Mariya Kuchina.

Last year, seven of the world’s nine clearances of 2.00 meters or higher came from Chicherova and Kuchina.

Take all the Russians out, and the women’s high jump field in Rio is wide open. There are the veterans — led by Ruth Beitia, 37, of Spain and Blanka Vlasic, 32, of Croatia — and the newcomers such as Vashti Cunningham, the World Indoor champion and daughter of retired NFL All-Pro quarterback Randall Cunningham.

Cunningham has yet to replicate her indoor success in outdoor meets this spring, ranking seventh in the world.

Erik Kynard, High Jump

Russia actually swept the 2012 Olympic high jump titles, with Ivan Ukhov taking gold over Kynard.

Neither Ukhov nor Kynard made the podium at the 2013 Worlds (Ukhov fourth, Kynard fifth) or 2015 Worlds (Kynard eighth, Ukhov failing to make the final). Another Russian, Daniil Tsyplakov, placed fifth in 2015, though.

The Olympic high jump gold-medal favorite, regardless of Russia participation, appears to be Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim.

Alysia Montaño and Ajee’ Wilson, 800m

Russia took gold and bronze in the 2012 Olympic 800m, with both runners (Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova) being implicated in doping reports as far back as December 2014.

Savinova and Poistogova were likely to miss Rio regardless of Friday’s ruling, as both were recommended last year to serve life bans by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

But Russia has long been strong in the women’s 800m, and other medal threats could have emerged. Without Russia, South African Caster Semenya is an even bigger gold-medal favorite. Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba is in solid silver-medal-favorite position.

After that, Montaño and Wilson are medal threats if they make the Rio team by finishing in the top three at the Olympic Trials on July 4.

Montaño was fifth at the 2012 Olympics and fourth at the 2013 World Championships. Wilson ran the fastest time in the world for 2014.

Aries Merritt and David Oliver, 110m Hurdles

Merritt is the reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder. Oliver took the 2013 World title. But Russian Sergey Shubenkov is the reigning World 110m hurdles champion, beating both Americans last year.

Shubenkov was eliminated in the first round at 2011 Worlds, then the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics before winning bronze at the 2013 Worlds behind Oliver.

Shubenkov captured the 2015 World title in a national-record 12.98 seconds on Aug. 28, but his best time in three domestic races this year has been merely 13.24, according to Tilastopaja.org. He clocked 13.41 in his most recent race June 4.

Merritt, who is coming off a Sept. 1 kidney transplant and a follow-up surgery more than one month later, also has a best time of 13.24 this year. Oliver is the fastest American this year at 13.09.

But everyone is looking up at Jamaican Omar McLeod, who has the four best times in the world this year, including a 12.98.

Johnny Dutch, 400m Hurdles

Dutch, a part-time filmmaker, is a 27-year-old veteran who has never made an Olympic team nor a World Championships final in two tries in 2009 and 2015.

But he is looking like the Rio Olympic favorite, with the two fastest times in the world this year at 48.10 and 48.36 seconds. Next fastest? 48.67 seconds.

His chances would be boosted slightly by the absence of Russian Denis Kudryavtsev from Rio. Kudryavtsev emerged last year to take silver at the World Championships in a national record 48.05 seconds.

Plus, surprise World champion Nicholas Bett of Kenya has struggled mightily so far this year. The U.S. swept the 400m hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Games and may have a great shot to do so again in Rio.

Brittney Reese and Tianna Bartoletta, Long Jump

The U.S. is home to the reigning Olympic champion (Reese) and World champion (Bartoletta) in the long jump, but Russia has been producing world-class jumpers en masse for several years.

From 2009 to 2015, a different Russian woman ranked in the top six in the world every year. Some Russians showed up multiple times, but there was at least one new one every year.

However, the best Russian woman this year, using results from small, domestic competitions, would not rank in the world top 10. Bartoletta, who won her two World titles 10 years apart, has struggled, too, ranking fifth among Americans.

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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier top pairs’ short at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier
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World champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier lead after the pairs’ short program in what may be their last U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Knierim and Frazier, who last March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, tallied 81.96 points to open the four-day nationals on Thursday.

They lead by 15.1 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe going into Saturday’s free skate in San Jose, California. The top three teams from last year’s event — which Knierim and Frazier missed due to him contracting COVID-19 — are no longer competing together.

After nationals, a committee selects three U.S. pairs for March’s world championships in Japan.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Before the fall Grand Prix Series, the 31-year-old 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.

“I don’t like to just put it out there and say it is the last or not going to be the last because life just has that way of throwing curveballs, and you just never know,” Frazier said this month. “But I would say that this is the first nationals where I’m going to go in really trying to soak up every second as if it is my last because you just don’t know.”

Knierim is going for a fifth U.S. title, which would tie the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka Ina, Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner, Karol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Knierim is also trying to become the first female pairs’ skater in her 30s to win a national title since 1993. Knierim and ice dancer Madison Chock are trying to become the first female skaters in their 30s to win a U.S. title in any discipline since 1995.

After being unable to defend their 2021 U.S. title last year, Knierim and Frazier reeled off a series of historic results in what had long been the country’s weakest discipline.

They successfully petitioned for an Olympic spot and placed sixth at the Games, best for a U.S. pair since 2002. They considered retirement after their world title, which was won without the top five teams from the Olympics in attendance. They returned in part to compete as world champions and to give back to U.S. skating, helping set up younger pairs for success.

They became the first U.S. pair to win two Grand Prix Series events, then in December became the first U.S. pair to make a Grand Prix Final podium (second place). The world’s top pairs were absent; Russians banned due to the war in Ukraine and Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China leaving competition ice (for now).

Knierim and Frazier’s real test isn’t nationals. It’s worlds, where they will likely be the underdog to home favorites Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who edged the Americans by 1.3 points in the closest Grand Prix Final pairs’ competition in 12 years.

Nationals continue with the rhythm dance and women’s short program later Thursday.

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

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships scores, results

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

Pairs Short Program
1. Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier — 81.96
2. Emily Chan/Spencer Howe — 66.86
3. Ellie Kam/Danny O’Shea —- 65.75
4. Valentina Plazas/Maximiliano Fernandez — 63.45
5. Sonia Baram/Danil Tioumentsev —- 63.12
6. Katie McBeath/Nathan Bartholomay —- 56.96
7. Nica Digerness/Mark Sadusky — 50.72
8. Maria Mokhova/Ivan Mokhov —- 46.96
9. Grace Hanns / Danny Neudecker — 46.81
10. Linzy Fitzpatrick/Keyton Bearinger — 45.27
11. Nina Ouellette/Rique Newby-Estrella — 43.99

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

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