Hilary Knight’s golden goal lifts U.S. past Canada for world title

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Hilary Knight scored the golden goal as the U.S. beat Canada 3-2 in overtime to win its fourth straight world title and its first on home ice in Plymouth, Mich., on Friday.

“We’re usually up in Canada or over in Europe, and we get a lot of the boos,” Knight said on TSN after scoring. “So to have the cheers is a pretty good feeling.”

The U.S. now goes into the Olympic year as the clear favorite for gold in PyeongChang, boosted by its recent labor deal with USA Hockey, struck three days before this tournament began on the threat of boycott.

“We had a short training camp, but I think that negotiation created a bond that’s unbreakable among this group,” said Knight, who upon the boycott threat last month said she would have skipped the Olympics under the same circumstances.

Beware. The U.S. also won the 2005, 2009 and 2013 World titles, but Canada earned Olympic gold each of the following years, including in the compelling 2014 Olympic overtime final. Their rivalry is so close that the two nations played into overtime at five of the last seven gold-medal-games between the Olympics and worlds.

“You never want to hear another person’s anthem,” Canada coach Laura Schuler said, according to the Canadian Press.

Defenseman Kacey Bellamy scored the first two U.S. goals in her 37th career world championship game on Friday. She had scored two goals total in her previous 36 worlds games.

Goalie Nicole Hensley, in her first gold-medal-game start, hunkered down after allowing a goal on Canada’s first shot, 61 seconds in. Hensley stopped 28 of the next 29 shots after blanking Canada in group play one week ago. A full box score is here.

Knight recorded her 62nd and 63rd career worlds points, moving past Jenny Potter for second on the U.S. list behind Cammi Granato‘s 78.

Knight, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, was world tournament MVP in 2015 and 2016 and also scored a gold-medal-game winner against Canada in 2011. She reportedly considered retiring after the Sochi Olympics at age 24.

“She comes up big when you need her, and the moment is huge,” Bellamy said, according to media in Plymouth.

Bellamy has played in every Olympics and world championship since 2008, developing into a physical shot blocker rather than an offensive creator. Her work ethic was likely honed by her upbringing. Bellamy’s parents averaged 40,000 miles per year on their cars while making significant financial sacrifices for their three hockey-playing kids.

Bellamy’s goals came with the aid of the U.S.’ top line of forwards. Kendall Coyne and Brianna Decker assisted on her first-period tally. Knight and Decker had the helpers in the third period.

Hensley was a revelation in the weeklong tournament. All three U.S. goalies received a start in group play, as is tradition for the team, but Alex Rigsby was believed to be the No. 1 entering worlds. New U.S. coach Robb Stauber refused to name a favorite, though.

Rigsby stopped all 32 Canadian shots in the 2016 Worlds final, handing Canada its first shutout in a gold-medal game since 2005.

But it was Hensley who started this tournament’s opener against Canada, recording a 2-0 shutout. Rigsby got her turn three days later against Finland and gave up three goals.

Hensley got the nod in the semifinal, an 11-0 win over Germany, cementing her place in the crease Friday.

“When somebody comes in in game one and pitches a shutout against an opponent of Canada’s caliber, you don’t forget about it,” Stauber, a backup goalie on Wayne Gretzky‘s Los Angeles Kings teams of the early 1990s, said Friday, according to Sports Illustrated.

The 22-year-old Hensley is the only player on the U.S. roster of 23 who didn’t play for a club or college team this season. She graduated from Lindenwood University in Missouri last spring and, rather than going to a post-graduate team, served as an assistant coach with the program.

Before this past week, Hensley was most known for holding the NCAA record of 4,094 saves, plus stopping 90 shots in a three-overtime game as freshman (a 2-1 loss).

On Friday morning, Stauber told her personally that she would start the biggest game of her life that night. Around that time, friends from Lindenwood set out to drive 16 hours roundtrip to attend.

“You’re going to start it, you’re going to finish it,” Stauber told her, “and we’re going to be world champions at the end of the game.”

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NBC Olympic researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report from Plymouth.

Allyson Felix withdraws from Prefontaine Classic

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Allyson Felix withdrew on the eve of the Prefontaine Classic and will miss Saturday’s anticipated 400m showdown with Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and world champion Phyllis Francis.

No reason was given by the meet director at a Friday press conference, according to media in Eugene, Ore.

Felix, a nine-time Olympic medalist and 16-time world outdoor championships medalist, was scheduled to race on the top international level for the first time since Aug. 20. She has raced in smaller meets this season, most recently last Friday.

This is the one year in the four-year cycle without an Olympics or world outdoor championships, making the Diamond League, and the Pre Classic in particular, marquee meets.

“In the 19 years that I’ve been running track, I’ve never taken a break,” the 32-year-old Felix said in an Instagram video Thursday after an intense training session but before her name was taken off Saturday’s start list. “Never had a year where I took it easy. … Now that this is kind of a year without a championship, I’ve had to force myself to have a different approach because my goal is 2020. … To be able to be at my best when it counts, I think that means not having as intense of a year as I usually do. Being a competitor and an athlete, that’s something that I struggle with. … This year, that’s what I’m really trying to force myself to do is have quality races, quality over quantity. … So, if you guys don’t see me at as many of the races as I usually run, don’t worry, I’m fine, I’m just challenging myself to be smarter.”

Felix will miss the Pre Classic for the second time in the last nine years. She was absent in 2016 with an ankle injury.

The USATF Outdoor Championships are in one month.

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Will Japan’s Olympic legend return for Tokyo 2020?

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NEW YORK — The Tokyo Olympics are in 790 days. Will Japan’s most dominant Olympian compete?

“She hasn’t decided yet,” a translator said beside wrestler Kaori Icho, who stood in street clothes, some given to her by an American host family, matside at the annual Beat the Streets meet on the edge of the East River on Manhattan last week.

Icho, who turns 34 on June 13, is the only woman to earn an individual gold medal at four Olympics. She has not wrestled in competition since capturing that fourth title in Rio. She has not announced retirement, either.

Icho once held a 13-year winning streak on the mat and owns 10 world championships.

While in New York, Icho did a high school clinic in Brooklyn (one wonders if the students knew they were learning from the greatest of all time), met Olympic and world champion Kyle Snyder (a particular highlight of this trip) and trained with Helen Maroulis before attending the meet as a spectator. In Rio, Maroulis became the first American woman to win an Olympic wrestling title.

Maroulis is familiar with Icho. In 2012, they trained together and drove to a Drake concert in Colorado. They met again in 2014. But last week was different. The most intense training they’ve shared. Their first full practice, said Maroulis, recently cleared from a January concussion.

“I think she’s coming back,” Maroulis said with confidence. Here’s why: “[Icho] busted out the video camera,” Maroulis went on. “Like, hey, can I record practice?

“She feels good. She’s still got it. She’s smaller than she was, obviously, right at the Olympics. She’s amazing. There’s so much to learn from her.”

Icho said through the translator that if she does come back, she would start in the next year rather than leaving it a few months before the Tokyo Games.

She is already the oldest woman to win Olympic wrestling gold (women’s wrestling was added to the Olympic program in 2004, Icho’s first Games). By 2020, she will be older than any men’s wrestling champion since Bulgarian Valentin Yordanov in 1996.

How much a home Olympics influences Icho’s decision is something that she didn’t share. Icho said she might go for a fifth Olympics even if the 2020 Games were not in Japan.

“It’s hard to say,” said Ken Marantz, who has covered sports in Japan for three decades. “She’s kind of a quiet person.”

United World Wrestling shadowed Icho and the more-famous Japanese wrestler Saori Yoshida before the Rio Olympics as both trained to go for their fourth gold medals. The international federation made a 20-minute documentary titled, “The Celebrity and the Samurai.”

Yoshida was the celebrity, her face a constant on TV, Icho the samurai, a zen-like warrior. Yoshida would lose in her Rio Olympic final to Maroulis, one day after Icho won her weight class.

“Kaori, she was always more private and less approachable, not in a bad way,” said William May, who has written about international wrestling for 30 years, including for Kyodo News in Tokyo. “She’s always been kind of a mystery to the Japanese.”

Like when she lived in Canada with her sister for months after the 2008 Olympics, skipping a world championships during her peak years.

“It’s not that I don’t like being on TV, but I don’t like my practice time being taken away or to lose time for myself,” Icho said in the 2016 United World Wrestling film.

Something else to consider is that Japan is the world power in women’s wrestling. It might be more difficult for Icho to earn Japan’s one available Olympic spot in the 58kg division than run through the Olympic bracket of the best from the rest of the world.

Japanese women took gold at the 2017 World Championships in both the 55kg and 60kg divisions. Those two women, both several years younger than Icho, must choose to go for the Olympics in the 53kg, 58kg or 63kg divisions.

Maroulis, who now competes at 58kg, wants to face Icho at the Olympics in what she called “a dream” matchup. The American’s dominance the last three years rivals Icho’s heyday — world titles in 2015 and 2017 without surrendering a point, winning the latter title with a torn thumb ligament, and dethroning Yoshida in Rio in between, all three golds at different weights while compiling a 78-1 record before the concussion.

Icho described her recent practice with Maroulis as “very hard.”

“She doesn’t quit,” Icho said through the translator. “She just keeps coming.”

Icho re-emerged in Japanese headlines in recent months as a tragic figure. A reported history of verbal harassment and threats from a Japanese Wrestling Federation director who resigned.

The biggest Japanese athlete story at the Tokyo Games would be if two-way baseball star Shohei Ohtani suited up, Marantz said. But Ohtani is on a Los Angeles Angels contract until 2024, which would keep him out of the Games unless MLB reverses its stance and releases players for the Olympics.

After that, perhaps Kohei Uchimura, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic all-around champion gymnast expected to compete in fewer events in the last years of his career. (Icho said that if she could pick anybody to light the Olympic cauldron, not including wrestlers, it would be Uchimura.)

Or the Japanese men’s 4x100m relay team that took silver in Rio and bronze at the 2017 Worlds. Or a rising group of table tennis players challenging the rival Chinese.

Swimming, gymnastics and judo are more popular sports in Japan than wrestling, Marantz said. But the nation would be pulling for Icho’s pursuit of individual gold in five Olympics, something no man or woman from any nation in any sport has done.

“Icho does not care one bit for records,” Tim Foley, who followed Icho for the 2016 film and escorted her in New York, said before the Rio Games. 

“Of course [Icho] wants to win, but it’s less important than wrestling a perfect match,” May said. That’s one thing she hasn’t done.

“I think she likes the challenge,” Marantz said. “Any tournaments that I went to that she won, which was all the ones she was in, she never, ever said she wrestled good.”

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