Injuries bite biggest Olympic track and field stars as Trials begin

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EUGENE, Ore. — Around the time Sanya Richards-Rosstorn right hamstring ended her career on the Hayward Field backstretch, Usain Bolt was being diagnosed with a torn hamstring of his own.

Allyson Felix, running in significant pain and in a 400m first-round heat following Richards-Ross, managed her injury to finish second and advance to Saturday’s semifinals, the second of a planned six races in nine days at Hayward Field.

An anticipated update from Felix on her grade-two right-ankle sprain with partially torn ligaments was not available. She left the track and did not pass by media. Word came that she was receiving treatment for the toughest injury of her decorated career.

The Rio Olympics open Aug. 5. Track and field is the marquee sport. And its headliners are ailing.

Not only Bolt and Felix, but also concerning is the form of Ethiopian distance queen Genzebe Dibaba, who failed to finish in her first race since March 20 and was wheeled out in a chair on Thursday.

In Eugene, the first day of Trials saw the end of Olympic careers for Richards-Ross, the 2012 400m gold medalist, plus lesser-known veterans — 2004 shot put gold medalist Adam Nelson and 2012 shot put bronze medalist Reese Hoffa.

Three more Olympic medalists in their twilights — Jeremy WarinerDeeDee Trotter and Bernard Lagat — came into races Friday as underdogs and remained that way afterward, though their Trials are not yet finished.

Richards-Ross’ right hamstring, torn in a 100m race June 4, would not let her accelerate to a speed fast enough to advance out of her heat Friday.

She came to a stop with about 150 meters to go. Her first thoughts?

“No Rio. No Rio,” she said. “That’s the toughest part for every athlete is you really want to go to the Olympics. No matter how banged up you are, you still think it’s possible.”

Richards-Ross, largely sidelined by toe problems since her London title, had said in April this would be her final season. She said Friday night, just before tears began flowing, that the Olympic Trials were her final meet.

Richards-Ross has a book coming out in 2017, wants to work in broadcasting and start a family with husband Aaron Ross, an NFL cornerback.

“This is really the end of it for me,” she said.

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Richards-Ross, 31, and Wariner, 32 and the 2004 Olympic men’s 400m champion, have long been stablemates under venerable Baylor coach Clyde Hart.

Wariner, too, is present for one more Olympic Trials. After being sick for a month and a half, he reached the 16-man 400m semifinals with the 12th-best time Friday. It took his best race of the season to advance. Wariner has no real expectations for the rest of the weekend.

“If I make the next round, enjoy it, run my heart out, leave it all on the track,” he said. “Then if I make final, do it again.”

Wariner has a Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches franchise in Dallas, Texas, waiting for once he completes his final lap.

“I’m looking for the future,” Wariner said, his trademark shades resting on his forehead while speaking to media for 20 minutes after his 46-second race, “but at the same time do what’s in the present.”

In the 10-day Trials’ very first event, Nelson returned to the shot put circle for qualifying in the morning, six days before his 41st birthday.

Nelson was here to bring more attention for athletes’ rights amid growing sponsorship and contract disputes. And to inspire younger athletes.

He was introduced in front of a sparse crowd as “Olympic champion Adam Nelson” for the first time. Nelson, originally the Athens 2004 silver medalist, was upgraded to gold in 2013 after Ukraine’s Yuriy Bilonog was stripped for doping.

“Waited a long time to hear that,” Nelson, the man known for his intense, shirt-ripping pre-throw routine, said as he fought to hold back tears. “As Olympians we have to know the process, and medals are just tangible reminders or a representation of everything that it took to get to that moment. For eight years in my life, a silver medal sort of changed the way I looked at things. It really inspired me to keep going in the sport.”

Nelson was later honored at the Trials’ opening ceremony with the medal presentation he should have received 12 years ago in Olympia. Then Nelson, recently slowed by a groin injury, finished an admirable seventh in the shot put final.

“Things don’t always hold together the way they’re supposed to,” Nelson lamented of aging.

Later Friday night, the 41-year-old Lagat dropped out of the 10,000m final that would be won by Galen Rupp for a second straight Olympic Trials. He didn’t cite injury, though Lagat had not raced since May 28, according to Tilastopaja.org, when he dropped out of the Prefontaine Classic 5000m with a cold.

Lagat, a 2000 and 2004 Olympic 1500m medalist when he represented Kenya, said he pulled the plug Friday night when he realized his chance of finishing in the top three to make the Rio team was weak. He’s conserving energy for the 5000m, which starts here Monday.

“I’m a guy that looks forward,” Lagat said. “I still have one more shot.”

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Bernard Lagat reminded of Atlanta Games at U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

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ATLANTA — As 45-year-old Bernard Lagat sat inside a hotel overlooking Centennial Olympic Park, he spoke one sentence that prefaced the start of his Olympic journey more than two decades ago.

“We are doing this in a special place,” he said of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which finish at the park on Saturday (12 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Lagat is an underdog, but has a chance to make a sixth Olympic team by placing in the top three. He can break his own record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history.

Lagat was reminded this week of the Atlanta Olympics that got away.

In 1996, the Kenyan-born runner was coming off his freshman year at Jomo Kenyatta University Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi. He studied mathematics and computer science.

Lagat debuted at the Kenyan Olympic Trials. He remembered finishing seventh in the 1500m, having exhausted himself by clocking a 3:37 semifinal.

“They had fancy shoes, nice clothing,” he said of the pros. “Me, I was like hand-me-down spikes.”

Lagat’s coach at the time, Nganga Ngata, arranged for him to transfer to Washington State later that summer. But first, Lagat watched on TV the Olympic 1500m final — famous for then-world-record holder Noureddine Morceli and current world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj making contact at the bell; El Guerrouj fell, Morceli won.

Days later, Lagat headed to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. He was to fly to the United States for the first time, embarking on a journey that would lead to U.S. Olympic teams in 2008, 2012 and 2016 after he represented Kenya in 2000 and 2004.

Before a 21-year-old Lagat boarded his flight, he encountered a reception. The Kenyan Olympic team was arriving back from Atlanta after collecting eight medals, including in every men’s distance-running event.

“They had all these celebrations, traditional milk and the gourds,” Lagat said. “Oh, it was amazing. … That fire, seeing them coming home with medals, and I thought, I want to be like those guys.”

Lagat went on to earn eight combined Olympic and world championships medals between the 1500m and 5000m. Lagat qualified for one last Olympics on the track in 2016, going from sixth place at the bell to win the trials 5000m. He was fifth in Rio.

Then he turned to the marathon. Lagat has raced two of them. He clocked 2:17:20 in New York City in 2018, saying he was “running blind” with inexperience. He ran 2:12:10 at the 2019 Gold Coast Marathon in Australia, ranking him outside the 20 fastest Americans in this Olympic cycle.

Lagat went back to Kenya last month to train for the trials with the likes of world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge. Lagat soaked up so much that he likened it to a six-week school term.

At one point, Lagat was part of a 30km training run with Kipchoge. By the end he rounded a bend and saw the Olympic favorite just 60 seconds ahead.

“You think about Eliud being 60 seconds ahead of you in a 30K?” an incredulous Lagat said. “I thought, I’m done. Now I can buy my flight and go back to USA. I’m ready.”

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Chris Lillis, after missing Olympics, back atop aerials podium

Andrey Kulagin
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U.S. men’s aerials skiers had gone four years between World Cup victories. Now, they’ve won back-to-back events.

Chris Lillis prevailed in Kazakhstan on Friday, six days after Justin Schoenefeld ended the U.S.’ longest men’s victory drought since aerials became an Olympic medal sport in 1994.

Lillis, the 21-year-old brother of 2017 World champion Jon Lillis, landed a double full-full-full in the super final to score 121.27 points. Full results are here. He beat a field that included Schoenefeld (sixth place) and his older brother (14th) but lacked the world’s best from China and Russia.

“That was definitely one of the best jumps of my career,” Chris Lillis said. “Moving forward I’m feeling deadly.”

Chris has earned back-to-back World Cup podiums, his first top-three finishes since missing the PyeongChang Olympics with a torn ACL.

Also Friday, American Megan Nick finished second in the women’s event for her second runner-up this season. The last U.S. woman to win a World Cup was Kiley McKinnon on Jan. 6, 2018.

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