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Olympic marathon silver medalist unsure when he will return to Ethiopia

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Since the Rio Olympics, when Feyisa Lilesa made an anti-government gesture during the marathon, he has traveled from country to country out of fear of going home. He worries about the family he left behind in Ethiopia. His young kids ask when they will see him again.

That one he just can’t answer at the moment.

Lilesa became an international figure when he crossed his wrists at the finish line last month in Brazil on his way to a silver medal. The gesture drew global attention to the recent deadly protests in his home region of Oromia.

Concerned with what might happen to him should he return to his country, Lilesa spent 2½ extra weeks in Rio before arriving in the U.S. about a week ago on a special skills visa, which allows him to train and compete until January. He hasn’t seen his wife, 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter since Aug. 17.

“If I would’ve taken my medal and went back to Ethiopia, that would’ve been the biggest regret of my life,” Lilesa said through a translator in a phone interview with The Associated Press as he begins speaking out in the U.S. “I wanted to be a voice for a story that wasn’t getting any coverage.”

The Oromia region has experienced enormous anti-government protests in the past few months. The government is now vowing to take drastic measures to deal with mismanagement, corruption and nepotism. But yet, the government has shown few signs of opening up the political space for opposition.

Many social media users have changed their profile pictures with the image of Lilesa crossing his wrists, and many are describing him as a national hero for speaking up and bringing it to the international arena.

The crossed-wrists gesture has been widely used by anti-government protesters in recent nationwide demonstrations as a sign of peaceful resistance, and before that by the Muslim community when it revolted against the government. It is meant to symbolize being handcuffed by security forces.

Lilesa’s not alone, either: Fellow Ethiopian Ebisa Ejigu flashed a similar gesture when he won the Quebec City Marathon on Aug. 28. Over the weekend, another Ethiopian, Tamiru Demisse, also made the “X” sign at the Rio Paralympic Games after capturing silver in the 1,500 meters.

That solidarity meant a great deal to Lilesa.

“It gives me hope — them following in my footsteps and making a stand by saying, ‘Enough,'” said Lilesa, who has no plans to file for political asylum.

With about 40 million people, the Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Their region has seen anti-government protests since November 2015 that activists say have left more than 400 dead.

Ethiopia’s government is often accused of silencing dissent, even blocking internet access at times. Recently, video obtained by the AP showed Ethiopian security forces beating, kicking and dragging several protesters during a rare demonstration in the capital.

There’s been increased international pressure on Ethiopia and its treatment of protesters.

The United States, for one, last week said it has raised “grave concerns” about what it called the excessive use of force against protesters in Ethiopia, describing the situation there as “extremely serious” and calling for an independent investigation.

“What we are asking for is peace, justice and freedom,” said Lilesa, who’s currently in Washington, D.C., but hoping to train in a city with a higher elevation. “If the situation continues as it is, without any change, it’s going to degenerate into a conflict that could take a very, very bad direction. … We need peace. We need change.”

Lilesa said his wife’s brother — a student at Mada Walabu University in Bale — was arrested in a protest nearly eight months ago. They still don’t know his whereabouts.

“One of my main concerns if she finds out her brother was one of those who were killed is what will she do? How will she feel?” he said. “I’m not there to support her and comfort her.”

Ethiopia’s state broadcaster, EBC, did not re-broadcast images of Lilesa’s gesture when he finished runner-up on Aug. 21. Some people who were watching live and cheering for Lilesa quickly hushed when they saw his gesture.

Lilesa said in a follow-up email he’s received no backlash from the International Olympic Committee for his gesture.

“They came and asked me what the gesture was. I explained,” Lilesa said. “They empathized with my situation.”

And while the government assures him he will not face prosecution upon his return home and will have a “heroic welcome,” as a government spokesman recently said, he’s wary of it.

“Usually, what the government says and what the government does are very opposite,” Lilesa said. “If change comes to Ethiopia, and the regime changes, and people are finally free, I look forward to the day I can go home and meet with my people. Live with my family in peace.”

MORE: U.S. Olympic champion set for marathon debut in New York

U.S. beats Japan in Olympic baseball qualifier, may still need help

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The U.S. handed Japan its first loss in the Premier12 global Olympic baseball qualifier, at the Tokyo Dome no less, but now the Americans must root for the host nation.

The Americans, with a roster mostly of Double-A and Triple-A players, won 4-3 over a Japanese team that includes some of its domestic league’s biggest stars like two-time Central League MVP Yoshihiro Maru and veteran shortstop Hayato Sakamoto.

Outfielder Jo Adell, MLB Pipeline’s top-ranked prospect on the U.S. team, starred by reaching base four times with a home run.

Japan is already qualified for baseball’s Olympic return as the host nation.

The U.S., meanwhile, has a sense of urgency at Premier12, the first of a possible three tournaments in which it could clinch an Olympic spot.

At Premier12, the top-ranked nation from North and South America qualifies for the Olympics. The tournament is at the super-round stage of the final six teams, and two are from the Americas: the U.S. and Mexico.

The top four nations after each has played five games advance to gold- and bronze-medal games.

Mexico already beat the U.S. and ran its super-round record to 3-0 on Tuesday, clinching a spot in the medal round.

The U.S. moved to 1-2 in the super round on Tuesday and must at least get into the same medal-round game as Mexico to keep its hope of finishing as the top team from the Americas.

Japan could help, since it plays Mexico on Wednesday. If Mexico beats Japan, the Mexicans clinch a spot in the gold-medal game, which would put more pressure on the U.S. to win its last two games (vs. Australia on Wednesday and Chinese Taipei on Friday). Even then, South Korea would get into the gold-medal game if it wins out.

If the U.S. is not the top team from the Americas at Premier12, it can still earn an Olympic berth in March. But then it faces trying to come up with a roster at the end of MLB’s spring training rather than during the offseason. MLB teams may be less inclined to release minor leaguers.

“That’ll be a delicate dance,” U.S. general manager Eric Campbell said before Premier12.

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MORE: AL MVP nixes unretirement for Olympic baseball qualifying

College gymnast dies after practice accident

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — An accomplished gymnast at Southern Connecticut State University has died following a serious spinal cord injury suffered in a training accident.

Melanie Coleman, 20, of Milford, Connecticut, was training Friday at New Era Gymnastics in Hamden when she was injured, said her mother, Susan Coleman.

She was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital and died Sunday.

Coleman was a former All State gymnast at Jonathan Law High School in Milford and was captain of the school’s gymnastics team. She was named a Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association Scholastic All-American this year.

Her former club coach, Tom Alberti, said she attained a level 10, the highest level in the USA Junior Olympics Program.

She was a junior studying nursing, following in the footsteps of her two older sisters, her mother said.

“She’s from a very large, loving family; there’s seven of us, we were the Coleman seven,” Susan Coleman said. “We spent every day together for the past 20 years.”

She volunteered at the gym where her accident occurred.

Her coaches and professors described her as a special young woman who excelled in both the classroom and gym, college President Joe Berolino said in a written statement.

“Our deepest sympathies are extended to her family and friends on this tragic loss,” he said.

People the family has met by traveling to gymnastics events around the country are giving support that is “holding us up,” Coleman’s mother said.

She described her children, which also include two sons older than Melanie, as “inseparable.”

“We’re going to leave an empty space in our photos for her” from now on, Susan Coleman said.