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.”

MORE: Russian Olympic boss takes swipe at Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay

Mark Spitz takes on Katie Ledecky’s challenge

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Swimmers around the world took on Katie Ledecky‘s milk-glass challenge since it became a social media sensation, including one of the few Americans with more Olympic gold medals.

Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games, took 10 strokes in an at-home pool while perfectly balancing a glass of what appeared to be water on his head.

“Would’ve been faster with the ‘stache, @markspitzusa, but I still give this 7 out of 7 gold medals,” Ledecky tweeted.

Spitz joined fellow Olympic champions Susie O’Neill of Australia and American Matt Grevers in posting similar videos to what Ledecky first shared Monday.

In Tokyo next year, Ledecky can pass Spitz’s career gold-medal count of nine if she wins all of her expected events — 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles and the 4x200m free relay.

Then she would trail one athlete from any country in any sport — Michael Phelps, the 23-time gold medalist who has yet to post video of swimming while balancing a glass on his head.

MORE: Spitz puts Michael Phelps’ career in perspective

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Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

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Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

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