U.S. sprinters not looking at Usain Bolt’s injury as equalizer

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EUGENE, Ore. — Justin Gatlin paid no attention to the Jamaican Olympic Trials on Friday night, until he received a text message from a friend.

That’s how Gatlin learned that Usain Bolt scratched before the 100m final in Kingston due to a grade-one hamstring tear.

Gatlin’s response? You’re lying.

“Get a text out of nowhere saying that, it’s like April Fool’s,” Gatlin said. “Like, let me check the calendar real quick.”

Gatlin, the primary rival to Bolt since the 2012 Olympics, had no problem at his Olympic Trials on Saturday afternoon. He won his 100m first-round heat in 10.03 seconds. The semifinals and final are Sunday (7:30 p.m., NBCSN and NBC Sports app).

Though Gatlin has been slower this spring than his torrid pace of 2015, he obviously stands to benefit if Bolt is less than 100 percent at the Rio Olympics in one month. Assuming Bolt is named to the Jamaican team, which is expected but still complicated.

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Gatlin is the only man to beat Bolt in the last four years in a 100m or 200m (once, by .01, in June 2013).

He was favored to hand the Jamaican defeat at the 2015 World Championships, until Gatlin uncharacteristically lost his signature running form in the final strides of the 100m final and lost by .01.

Since, the 34-year-old Gatlin has downshifted, partially due to a serious offseason ankle injury. His best wind-legal 100m time so far this season is 9.93 seconds. At this same point last year, Gatlin had already clocked 9.74 and 9.75.

Bolt, meanwhile, ran 9.88 on June 11, his fastest time this early in a year since 2012. He was looking like a far stronger favorite for Olympic gold than in 2012, until Friday night happened.

Gatlin isn’t yet looking at Bolt’s setback as an equalizer. The key date is July 22, when Bolt is next scheduled to race and prove he deserves an Olympic berth.

“Maybe if I was a rookie, I would have thought I hit the lotto,” Gatlin joked. “Right now I’m just worried about beating a United States field.”

That field includes Trayvon Bromell, the 20-year-old co-world bronze medalist in the 100m from last year. Bromell had the fastest time of everybody on Saturday, taking his heat in 9.94 seconds. It was his first race since suffering a grade-one Achilles tear one month ago.

Bromell shares an agent with Bolt. He refused to speculate if a victory over a less-than-100-percent Bolt would mean any less than one over a fully fit world’s fastest man.

“I don’t look at anything like that,” Bromell said. “We all have the same dreams. You just want to make it to that level.”

Bolt has been injured going into global championships before. In 2004, he made his Olympic debut at age 17 as a medal contender but was eliminated in the first round, slowed by a hamstring injury. In 2012, he pulled out of his last meet before the Olympics citing a back injury.

“It’s a tradition,” Bolt’s former top rival, Tyson Gay, joked after advancing Saturday.

One man who knows what it’s like to race a doubted Bolt is Mike Rodgers. Rodgers came within .03 of Bolt at a meet in London on July 24 of last year, when Bolt showed medal-worthy form for the first time since 2013.

Rodgers deemed it fair that Bolt can be named to the Jamaican Olympic team without earning his place at Trials. But he didn’t agree with it.

“I feel like it’s a cop out,” said Rodgers, who is 0-16 in his career in individual races against Bolt, according to Tilastopaja.org. “He should run just like everybody else. But at the end of the day, he’s Bolt. … It’s fair. He’s the man. You can do what you want to do. It’s like Jordan. He’s the man. LeBron’s the man. So you know how that go.”

One track superstar who gets no such second chance is Allyson Felix, racing with a significantly painful ankle injury at Trials this week. The owner of 19 Olympic/world medals fought through it for a second straight day Saturday, advancing to the 400m final Sunday.

She has four more races left in Eugene, and she has to contest all of them if she wants to make the Olympic team in the 400m and 200m.

“If I could have another month, that would be ideal,” Felix said. “That’s not how it goes here in America, so just keep fighting.”

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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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