Unlikely hurdles ‘Dream Team’ heads to Rio after more Trials heartbreak

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EUGENE, Ore. — Before the most competitive race of the Olympic Trials, Brianna Rollins envisioned she would be joined in the top three by Kristi Castlin and Nia Ali. Nobody else predicted it, except for maybe Castlin and Ali.

The vision played out in the 100m hurdles final at Hayward Field. Rollins, Castlin and Ali made the Olympic team and shared a group hug after emerging from the deepest pool of talent from one nation in any track and field event.

Though all are Olympic rookies, and Castlin and Ali have little outdoor international acclaim, they are instantly favorites for gold, silver and bronze in Rio, for two reasons.

  • Five Americans combined to clock the 15 fastest 100m hurdles times in the world last year, the kind of grip over one track and field event that no other nation can boast. Though Castlin and Ali were not among that handful, they did beat four of those women in Friday’s final, which ended up being one of the fastest 100m hurdles races of all time.
  • The reigning Olympic and world champions Sally Pearson of Australia and Danielle Williams of Jamaica won’t be in Rio. Pearson tore a hamstring tendon. Williams crashed out of the Jamaican Trials.

The world’s fastest time from a non-American this year — 12.62 seconds — would have tied for sixth in the U.S. Olympic Trials final.

“You can pretty much equate us to like a Dream Team,” Castlin said, not just of the trio at the press conference table but of everyone that qualified for the U.S. final (so strong that Dawn Harper-Nelson, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist and 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was eliminated in the semifinals). “It’s unfortunate that all eight ladies couldn’t go, but again, if we had three different people up here, they could still do a great job [in Rio].”

Rollins won in 12.34 seconds, her fastest time since breaking the American record with a 12.26 at the 2013 U.S. Championships, en route to a world title that year at age 22. She ceded that American record to Keni Harrison on May 28. Though Harrison, one of 11 children, nine adopted, entered the Trials as the favorite, Rollins was arguably her closest pursuer.

Harrison finished sixth in the final and will be one of the best athletes across all Olympic sports who won’t be competing in Rio.

“I don’t worry about my competitors,” Rollins said when a reporter brought up Harrison’s American record of 12.24. “I’m always motivated, no matter what time anyone runs.”

Rollins’ training partner Castlin ran 12.50 on Friday evening, shaving .06 off her personal best from 2012. She made her first global championship team, a day after turning 28 years old. Castlin ranked seventh in the U.S. last year and fifth this year before Trials.

“We saw all those [NBA] games Golden State won, and they got to the championship and couldn’t close it out,” said Castlin, who reportedly left Atlanta in April to join Rollins and coach Lawrence Johnson in California. “It’s just one race. I know a lot of the times, Brianna and I, a lot of races we went to, we didn’t have fresh legs. We were training really hard. Our coach was really preparing us for this moment.”

Then there’s Ali, who has twice won the world indoor 60m hurdles title but had never translated the success outdoors to the longer distance. She missed all of 2015 due to childbirth and ran 12.55, .07 off her personal best, in Friday’s final.

After crossing the finish, Rollins and Castlin hugged before each came to a stop on the wet track. A minute later, Ali joined in. They piggybacked off each other’s answers in a post-race press conference.

“I really would like to acknowledge how much of a great feat and responsibility it is to have a young child and to still be a role model and run on this level,” Castlin said of Ali. “I have so much admiration for that.”

Rollins, Castlin and Ali are all aware of what happened at the 2015 World Championships. Four Americans went to Beijing with a legitimate chance at sweeping places one through four. Rollins ended up the top finisher — in fourth place.

“We really have some big shoes to fill,” Castlin said. “This is our new opportunity to come back.”

The most difficult competition is behind them.

“We can actually breathe now,” Castlin said. “I think all three of us can agree and say we all can breathe a sigh of relief.”

U.S. Track and Field Trials: ResultsDaily Schedule | TV Schedule

The other biggest stories of Trials on Friday were of heartbreak. In addition to Harper-Nelson and Harrison in the 100m hurdles:

Women’s 400m Hurdles: In perhaps the upset of the meet, Shamier Little failed to make the eight-woman final. Though she had the sixth-fastest time overall in the two semifinals, she was fifth-fastest in her heat. Little came into this meet a career 14-0 in races at Hayward Field. She was the reigning world silver medalist and fastest woman in the world this year and turned professional on the eve of her first-round race. Her absence opens the door for 16-year-old Sydney McLaughlin, second-fastest in the semis, to become the youngest U.S. Olympic track and field competitor since 1976.

Men’s Steeplechase: Stanley Kebenei wasn’t the pre-race favorite, but he was in a three-man chase for two Olympic spots going over the final water jump. The Kenyan-born Kebenei splashed and then stumbled, losing all of his momentum and finishing in a distant 13th.

“That was a lifetime chance,” he said later. “I missed that.”

Men’s DiscusSam Mattis, the only American to throw 67 meters in this Olympic cycle and the seventh-ranked man in the world this year, finished ninth. Jared Schuurmans, the 2015 U.S. champion, was seventh. Neither go to Rio.

MORE: LaShawn Merritt returns to 200m, eyes Rio double

Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 19, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

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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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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