Keni Harrison emerges from 11 siblings to brink of Olympic berth

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EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Even as the middle child in a family with 11 kids, Keni Harrison always stood out.

Only fitting, then, that her family stands out, too. A few of them are hoping they’ll be at the stadium in Rio de Janeiro later this summer – dressed in their familiar neon shirts to cheer on Keni, the American record holder in the 100-meter hurdles, at the Olympics.

The 23-year-old Harrison used sports – first gymnastics, then soccer, then, finally, track – to carve her path in an oversized family that wasn’t originally planned that way.

At first, her mother, Karon, didn’t want kids, yet ended up with one short of a dozen – nine of whom are adopted, including Keni, who will try to secure her spot in Rio next week at Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon.

“I know it wasn’t easy raising all of us,” said Keni, who broke the American record last month. “But my parents found a way. They always found a way.”

The Harrison crew grew up in a six-bedroom house in Clayton, North Carolina. Bathroom space was at a premium and meals were typically on the run – many of them eaten out of the back of a hotel shuttle bus the family used to transport all the kids from one activity to another.

Keni was born in Tennessee to a mother she never knew. Karon and Gary had just adopted a daughter, Tasha, when they got a call from the agency about another infant in need of a home. Were they interested?

Next thing they knew, they were on their way home from a camping trip to pick up Keni. She and Tasha are 11 days apart.

The Harrison house has always been filled with noise, screams, love and caring. Casey, 33, is the oldest and Kara, 18, the youngest in a family that includes kids of many nationalities – including two from Bolivia and two of Korean heritage.

“It was always busy, but you don’t think about it,” their mom said. “You had birthday parties out of the back of the car. You always keep snacks in the car. You’re running here and there.”

Both the parents are retired military, with Gary now working for the Transportation Security Administration and Karon as an assistant preschool teacher.

They bought toilet paper in bulk, along with cereal, mac and cheese, fish sticks and milk – lots of milk. The family went through nearly seven gallons a week.

Gary and their grandpa built a large dining room table so they could congregate. One problem: They were rarely home together. Their schedules were just too frenzied; Karon memorized everything and jotted it all down for her husband.

They made plenty of memories. A few embarrassing ones, too.

Like when the family picked pick up Casey after high school cross country practice in a shuttle bus with the word “Marriott” fading on the side but still visible.

“They’d all yell my name and wave,” laughed Casey, an Air Force major living in Anchorage, Alaska. “You sort of pretend you don’t know the people yelling out the window at you.”

It was hard to ignore the talent of Keni, though.

At first, she appeared headed toward a soccer career. She was super-fast, which drew the attention of the track coach who asked her to run in a few meets.

She showed so much potential even with little training and wearing tennis shoes. It didn’t take long until she hit her stride, capturing 100 and 400 hurdles titles at the 2010 USA Junior Olympics. She caught the attention of Clemson, where she went before transferring to Kentucky and going on to twin two individual NCAA titles.

Keni remains a volunteer assistant coach for Kentucky while training under Wildcats coach Edrick Floreal. At the recent NCAA championships in Eugene, she helped out the team before squeezing in her own workouts.

“She’s the kind of kid that doesn’t take anything for granted,” her mom said. “Keni feels she has to live up to a lot of expectations and doesn’t want to disappoint people. She doesn’t realize that everyone will be proud of her no matter how she does.”

Support. This group has that in abundance.

Whenever Keni competes, there’s sure to be family around. Usually in bright attire. That’s the way it was when Casey graduated from the Air Force Academy, her family driving out to Colorado and wearing fluorescent green shirts.

“People were like, `Where is the (family) section?”‘ Casey recounted. “I’m like, `See all those green shirts? It’s right there.”‘

Just thinking about the trials has Keni’s mom on edge, especially since she has to miss it for a previously planned trip. Her husband will be there, though.

It’s a loaded field, too, one that includes 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson, Lolo Jones and Brianna Rollins, the 2013 world outdoor champion. But Harrison is the one to catch after breaking the American record last month at the Nike Prefontaine Classic in a time of 12.24 seconds. It was just 0.03 shy of eclipsing the fastest time in history.

“To everybody else, she’s a superstar,” Casey said. “To us, she’s just Keni.”

MORE: U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials broadcast schedule

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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