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

Can T.J. Oshie, other established Olympic hockey stars hold on for 2022?

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T.J. Oshie will be 35 years old during the next Winter Olympics. Jonathan Quick will be 36. Now that the NHL is one key step closer to returning to the Winter Games, the question surfaces: which 2014 Olympians will have a difficult time returning to rosters in 2022?

Oshie was the last of the 14 forwards chosen for the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, beating out Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad, in part for his shootout prowess.

In group play against Russia, Oshie was memorably tapped by U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma six times in a shootout, including all five in the sudden-death rounds. Oshie beat Sergei Bobrovsky four times, including the game winner.

“After I went out for my third attempt, I figured I was going to keep going,” Oshie said, according to USA Hockey. “Each time I would look up to see what [Bylsma] had to say, and he would just give me a nod every time. I kind of started laughing toward shot five and six because it was getting kind of ridiculous.”

Oshie became known as “T.J. Sochi” on social media. President Barack Obama congratulated him on Twitter. The U.S. eventually lost to Canada in the semifinals and Finland in the bronze-medal game.

When the NHL chose not to send its players to the PyeongChang Winter Games, it may have spelled the end of Oshie’s Olympic career.

Consider that the oldest forward on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team was 29, six years younger than Oshie will be come 2022. A recent Olympic roster prediction from The Hockey Writers put Oshie in the “Just Missed Out” list.

NBC Sports NHL analyst Pierre McGuire has Oshie among the finalists for the last forward spots in his early U.S. roster prediction.

“I wouldn’t discount T.J. Oshie because shootout is still part of it,” McGuire said. “He still has his shootout moves, even though he’s not getting any younger.”

Quick, the unused third goalie in 2010, played 305 out of 365 minutes in net for the U.S. in Sochi. He was coming off a Stanley Cup in 2012 and en route to another one in 2014.

Since, he was sidelined by a knee injury that required surgery. He remains the Los Angeles Kings’ No. 1 goalie, which almost automatically puts an American in the Olympic roster discussion these days.

“Somebody like Jonathan definitely merits consideration just because of his achievement level over time, but I think he’d be the first person to tell you injuries have definitely affected him,” McGuire said of Quick, looking to become the second-oldest U.S. goalie to play in the Olympics after Tom Barrasso in 2002. “It’s not going to be easy for him.”

The U.S. could bypass Quick for three Olympic rookies in 2022. Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson and Ben Bishop have superior save percentages and goals-against averages and more games played than Quick since the start of the 2018-19 season.

A wild card is Spencer Knight, the 19-year-old No. 1 from the world junior championships who last year became the highest-drafted goalie since 2010 (No. 13 to the Florida Panthers). Knight would break defenseman Bryan Berard‘s record as the youngest U.S. Olympic hockey player in the NHL era.

The Canadian roster has traditionally been deeper than the U.S. The talent is overwhelming at center, led by Sidney CrosbyConnor McDavidPatrice Bergeron and Nathan MacKinnon. The Canadians must get creative if the likes of veterans Jonathan Toews and John Tavares will join them in Beijing.

Toews, then 21, was the best forward at the 2010 Vancouver Games and Canada’s only one on the all-tournament team. While Toews’ last NHL All-Star selection was in 2017, his last two seasons have been his best in terms of points per game since 2011.

“The one thing that Canada is very good at, they do it extremely well, they select players that fit roles,” McGuire said, noting Mike Richards shifting to the wing during the 2010 Olympics. “When you look at the overwhelming depth that Canada has, that’s going to be the thing that’s going that’s going to be very interesting to watch to see how it plays out at center.”

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NHL closer to Olympic hockey return for 2022, 2026

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The NHL just took a major step to returning to the Olympics in 2022 and 2026 after skipping the 2018 Winter Games.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that includes Olympic participation at the next two Winter Games in Beijing and Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.

Should the NHL, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the IOC agree, expect the world’s best players to compete for their nations during breaks in those NHL seasons.

Nine of the 12 nations have already qualified for the 2022 Olympic men’s hockey tournament. The groups and qualifiers are here.

The NHL participated in five straight Olympics from 1998-2014 before declining to pause its season for PyeongChang.

The 2018 Olympic men’s hockey rosters included players from every other major international league, led by Russia’s KHL, which made up the entire Olympic Athletes from Russia team that beat Germany in the final. The U.S. team included veterans in European leagues, the minor league AHL, collegians and captain Brian Gionta, a 2006 Olympian who had stepped away from the NHL.

In April 2017, the NHL announced it would not send its players to the 2018 Olympics due to a lack of concession from the IOC, IIHF or the NHLPA to entice owners and officials. At the time, the CBA did not include Olympic participation.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman then cited “fatigue” among team owners about taking an Olympic break every four seasons. Owners mentioned the risk of having their stars get injured, away from their teams in the middle of their seasons. South Korea, with its 14-hour time difference from New York, was also not as enticing a Winter Olympic host as, say, Canada or Russia.

Other issues Bettman and other league and team officials expressed included a lack of exposure and benefit for the NHL, the league’s inability to use the Olympics for marketing due to sponsorship rules and money.

MORE: 2014 Olympic stars on the 2022 Olympic roster bubble

Before and after the PyeongChang Olympics, Bettman doubted that the NHL would return for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

“I don’t want to sound like a broken record on the subject, but I think going to the Olympics is a challenge for us,” Bettman said last November after meetings with the IIHF. “I know the players love representing their countries. I know that the players like going. I know that the players that don’t go like having a break in the middle of the season. But from our standpoint, we have found going to the Olympics to be incredibly disruptive to our season.

“For us, at best, it’s a mixed bag.”

Canada came to dominate Olympic men’s hockey in the NHL era, taking gold in 2002, 2010 and 2014. Sidney Crosby, gold medalist in 2010 and 2014, will be 34 years old come the 2022 Olympics.

Alex Ovechkin, a three-time Olympian for Russia with zero medals, will be 36 years old. Only two Russian male Olympic hockey players have been older: Igor Larionov in 2002 and Sergei Fedorov in 2010, according to Olympedia.org.

Younger stars Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews (USA), Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy (Russia), Connor McDavid (Canada), David Pastrnak (Czech Republic) and Leon Draisaitl (Germany) could each play in their first Olympics in 2022.

MORE: NHL players vote on world’s best female hockey player

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