After Trials chaos, it’s Caster; U.S. 800m Olympians get no break in Rio

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EUGENE, Ore. — Chrishuna Williams has never raced against Caster Semenya, but she has watched video of the dominant South African this year.

“I notice how her first lap, she like sits behind,” Williams said after finishing third in the turbulent U.S. Olympic Trials 800m final, earning a Rio berth on Monday. “Then her last lap, she just takes off. … That’s something I’ve never seen.”

Williams, a 23-year-old who shifted from the 400m to the 800m in 2015, is one of three U.S. women, and everyone else, who are overwhelming underdogs behind Semenya in the two-lap race in Rio.

Williams ran a personal-best 1:59.59 in Monday’s final at Hayward Field, getting on the three-woman team for Rio by .04 of a second over Molly Ludlow.

Winner Kate Grace also had a personal best, 1:59.10, after not racing on the track in 2015 due to tearing a toe-joint tendon. Grace had never made the podium at an NCAA or U.S. Championships and didn’t decide to run the 800m (in addition to the 1500m) at Trials until two or three weeks ago.

Ajee’ Wilson, the fastest woman in the world in 2014, was second to Grace in 1:59.51. Wilson, who turned professional after high school in 2013, grabbed third place at the 2015 U.S. Championships while running with one shoe on. She withdrew from the world championships team six weeks later due to a stress reaction in her left tibia.

The unlikely trio of Grace, Wilson and Williams emerged Monday from a chaotic last 200 meters that doused the hopes of six-time U.S. champion Alysia Montaño and Brenda Martinez, the only U.S. woman to earn an Olympic or world 800m medal since 1988.

The 800 meters is the shortest track event where runners (sprinters from the gun, in the case of some) are not separated by lanes for the entire race.

“There’s going to be casualties,” Wilson said. “It sucks when it’s you.”

Track and Field Trials: Daily Schedule | TV Schedule

Yet few expect Semenya to draw that kind of misfortune in Rio.

Semenya, best known for a gender-testing scandal after winning the 2009 World title at age 18, re-emerged this year with her fastest times in five years. The sudden revival came after a July decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport that suspended for two years a 2011 IAAF ruling that regulated women’s testosterone levels for competition eligibility.

Semenya, who was kept out of competition by the IAAF for 11 months in 2009 and 2010 while undergoing gender tests, has performed well at various times before the 2011 ruling, during the regulation period (2012 Olympic silver medal) and now without the regulation.

While the Americans ran in the 1:59s on Monday (and no faster earlier this year), Semenya has clocked no slower than 1:58.26 at her last four meets. Semenya is undefeated in 10 800m races this year and, in the higher-profile ones, has appeared to win comfortably without requiring full effort.

As Williams hinted, Semenya hangs back for the first lap (the first 700 meters, really) and shows her cards for, at most, the final 100 meters. In Doha. In Rabat. In Rome.

The world record of 1:53.28, set by Czech Jarmila Kratochvílová in 1983, is talked about as under threat. Semenya has also clocked personal bests in the 400m and 1500m this year, though they aren’t quite medal-caliber times. Her coach said in May there was no plan to add a second individual event in Rio.

Of Grace, Wilson and Williams, only Wilson has raced against Semenya. Wilson finished higher than Semenya in their first three races — all during Semenya’s down years in 2013 and 2014 — and then was dusted by the South African in Rome on June 2.

“I don’t really remember much of it,” said Wilson, who ran 2:03.33 (her worst international time as a pro) to Semenya’s 1:56.64 and was the last finisher of 11. “I was kind of off my game myself. It was kind of like, I was watching the race from second-hand anyway.”

The philosophy against Semenya is the same against anybody. Run to win, Wilson said.

“If I need to be in 1:56, 1:57 shape, then that’s what we’re going to do,” Wilson (personal-best 1:57.67 from 2014) said, pausing before adding, “regardless of who’s in the race.”

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40 years ago today: Jimmy Carter lays plan for Olympic boycott

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On Jan. 20, 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he would not support sending a U.S. team to the Moscow Olympics later that summer if the Soviet Union did not withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Carter detailed his stance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” airing that Sunday. A transcript:

Bill Monroe: Assuming the Soviets do not pull out of Afghanistan any time soon, do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics, and if not, what are the alternatives?

Carter: No. Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to alternate site or multiple sites or postponed or canceled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan — within a month — I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics. It’s very important for the world to realize how serious a threat the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan is. I do not want to inject politics into the Olympics, and I would personally favor the establishment of a permanent Olympic site for both the Summer and the Winter Games. In my opinion, the most appropriate permanent site for the Summer Games would be Greece. This will be my own position, and I have asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to take this position to the International Olympic Committee, and I would hope that as many nations as possible would support this basic position. One hundred and four nations voted against the Soviet invasion and called for their immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan in the United Nations, and I would hope as many of those as possible would support the position I’ve just outlined to you.

Monroe: Mr. President, if a substantial number of nations does not support the U.S. position, would not that just put the U.S. in an isolated position without doing much damage to the Soviet Union?

Carter: Regardless of what other nations might do, I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow while the Soviet invasion troops are in Afghanistan.

Three days later, Carter said in his State of the Union address, “I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

The Soviets did not withdraw troops.

Though Carter did not have the authority to order a boycott, the U.S. Olympic Committee did decide on April 12 not to send a team.

The U.S. was among more than 60 nations that were invited to the Moscow Games and did not participate (for various reasons). Other notable absences included Canada, West Germany, Japan and China.

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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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