Matthew Centrowitz, after ‘rock bottom,’ glad with runner-up at USAs

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Matthew Centrowitz said he hit rock bottom two weeks ago.

“I was ready to do the depressed thing that most people do,” Centrowitz, whose normal dark buzz was topped with faded blonde, said Saturday. “Bleach it like Justin Bieber.”

Back then, Centrowitz did not believe he would be racing this weekend at the USATF Outdoor Championships, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.

The Olympic 1500m champion was sidelined for weeks due to a series of ailments.

A left adductor strain in April. A May visit to the emergency room with a viral infection similar to his 2014 bout with pericarditis. His heart rate was through the roof. Then, a right adductor tear.

“I was ready to can the season, to be honest with you,” said Centrowitz, who in Rio became the first U.S. Olympic 1500m gold medalist in 108 years. “I was like, no one’s going to see me. I’m done with my year. So I dyed it.”

The next day, people told Centrowitz that, regardless of hair color, he would be racing. At some point, he came to believe them.

So, on about 10 days of training, Centrowitz came to Sacramento to try and earn a place on the three-man world championships team.

Centrowitz did just that Saturday, finishing second to Robby Andrews in the 1500m final.

Third is as good as first,” said Centrowitz, who is going to his fourth straight worlds, seeking to complete his medal collection (bronze in 2011, silver in 2013).

Andrews, in fifth place going into the final lap, surged past Centrowitz on the last straightaway to win in 3:43.29. Centrowitz was second in 3:43.41.

“He’s been banged up, I’m not going to say it’s a true battle,” said Andrews, who was second to Centrowitz at the 2015 USATF Outdoors, 2016 USATF Indoors and 2016 Olympic Trials.

Andrews, who was disqualified in the Rio semifinals, is not yet on the team for worlds in London in August. He must still run the world championships qualification standard of 3:36.00 by July 23.

USATF OUTDOORS: Broadcast Schedule | Full Results

Earlier Saturday, Allyson Felix headlined the qualifiers for Sunday’s 200m semifinals, which do not include Justin Gatlin.

World-record holder Keni Harrison won the 100m hurdles in 12.60 seconds, after shockingly failing to make the Rio Olympic team. Harrison was followed by Olympic silver medalist Nia Ali in 12.68. Also making the world team was 2008 Olympic champion Dawn Harper.

Harrison had not raced since May 5 after breaking her left hand in a warm-up and undergoing surgery.

“In a few more weeks, my hand will be back to normal,” said Harrison, whose world record from July is 12.20. “I’m not race sharp.”

Olympic bronze medalist Jenny Simpson took the women’s 1500m in 4:06.33. She’s joined on the world team by Olympian Kate Grace and surprise Sara Vaughn, a 31-year-old mother of three daughters.

“It’s a lot of times about squeezing in the training whenever I can do it,” Vaughn, a first-time world team member, told media in Sacramento. “It’s not always the primary focus, so coming out to Sacramento for a week and pretending to be nothing but a professional runner is kind of weird for me. I feel like I’m forgetting something, but I felt extra light on the track. It brings a lot more joy to the sport when I can share it with my three daughters.”

American record holder Shannon Rowbury shockingly missed the world team, fading to eighth.

In the 400m, Fred Kerley and Quanera Hayes each won their first U.S. titles.

Kerley, who didn’t make it out of the Olympic Trials first round, won comfortably in 44.03 seconds. The NCAA champion from Texas A&M now owns the five fastest times in the world this year.

Kerley is joined on the world team by Olympian Gil Roberts (44.22), Wil London III (44.47) and 2008 Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt. Merritt has a bye into worlds as the 2016 Diamond League champion, so he didn’t race the 400m in Sacramento.

Kerley and Merritt are medal contenders, though gold will be difficult against South African Wayde van Niekerk, who broke Michael Johnson‘s world record in Rio.

Hayes, who was eighth at the 2016 Olympic Trials, won the women’s 400m in 49.72 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year. She’s joined on the world team by Olympian Phyllis Francis and Kendall Ellis.

Three-time Olympian Natasha Hastings finished fourth, just missing the individual 400m world team. She also finished fourth in the Rio 400m.

Hayes, Francis and Ellis join the 2015 World champion Felix on the U.S. team in the 400m in London. They’re looking to unseat Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas.

Olympic champion Michelle Carter was upset in the shot put, finishing third behind Raven Saunders and Dani Bunch. They’re all going to worlds.

Tianna Bartoletta edged Brittney Reese in a battle of Olympic long jump champions, 7.05 meters to 6.98 meters.

Olympic bronze medalist Sam Kendricks became the first American to clear six meters in the pole vault since 2008.

MORE: Gatlin gets one more shot at Bolt after surprise U.S. 100m title

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A 1983 world champion will become the oldest Olympic table tennis player ever

Ni Xia Lian
European Table Tennis Union
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Ni Xia Lian, a 55-year-old, Chinese-born table tennis player for Luxembourg, is set to become the oldest Olympian ever in her sport.

Ni earned Luxembourg a quota spot at the 2020 Tokyo Games by bagging bronze at the European Championships on Wednesday. Ni will fill that spot and compete at her fifth Games next summer, according to Luxembourg’s table tennis federation.

Ni’s first senior medal at a global competition came with China at the world team championships in 1983.

Ni moved to Luxembourg in the 1990s, running a hotel with her husband. She kept competing, with a five-year break between 2002 and 2007, and set a record in 2017 for the longest table-tennis match at 1 hour 33 minutes.

She would already be the oldest Olympic table tennis player if not for He Zhiwen, who was born in China and competed for Spain with the nickname Juanito at the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics. He retired after Rio at age 54, according to the International Table Tennis Federation.

Ni will be 57 next summer, older than any previous female Olympians outside of archery, equestrian, shooting and art competitions, according to the OlyMADMen. Her best Olympic finish was ninth in Sydney in 2000.

Chinese-born players represent many countries in table tennis, including European Games gold and silver medalists, Fu Yu of Portugal and Han Ying of Germany.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

MORE: Most experienced Olympian in history retires at age 72

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Phil Dalhausser, tempted by retirement, partner switch, forges to final Olympics

Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena
AVP
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At one point last summer, Nick Lucena made an unusual move for an Olympic beach volleyball player. He suggested to his partner, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser, the best American for the last decade, that Dalhausser might be happier playing with somebody else.

“I thought, man, Phil’s not enjoying this, he wants to retire,” said Lucena, who at the time was sidelined by a minor injury. “The last thing I want to do is slow you down. I was like, if he’s going out, it’s not going to be on my account.”

Lucena even offered a replacement: the up-and-coming Taylor Crabb, who at 27 is 12 years younger than both Lucena and Dalhausser, Floridians who paired at the Rio Olympics (lost in the quarterfinals), for the last four years and to start their careers from 2003-05.

“Taylor is a special player,” Lucena said. “Them together, I thought they’d be a special team.”

Dalhausser agreed to an extent. Crabb is the best defender in the world, he said. But Dalhausser, the bald, 6-foot-9 blocker known as the “Thin Beast,” waved off Lucena’s humility.

“If I were to rate a defender one through 10, Taylor being a 10, say Nick is a nine,” Dalhausser said earlier this month. “But we’re buddies. We get along. We’ve been friends for 20 years. That just adds a point value to him, so now he’s a 10.”

Crabb, based in California, sensed from afar that Dalhausser might be interested in a change last year. So, he called him.

“I’d be crazy not to ask Phil or for us to talk,” said Crabb, in his third season with three-time Olympian Jake Gibb. “We had talked a little bit, but at the end of the day … “

Crabb cut his answer short in a Midtown Manhattan hotel breakfast booth as Lucena walked by.

Even though they didn’t split, Lucena worried that Dalhausser’s heart was not in the sport anymore. Dalhausser isn’t one to show emotion on the sand, but it was clear that 15 years traveling the world took its toll. He’s married now with 4- and 6-year-olds, but he spends more time every summer with Lucena, a fellow 39-year-old father of two.

“I just wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t going to become happy with making a change in volleyball or whatever,” Dalhausser said. “It had to come from inside.”

An epiphany came last offseason. Dalhausser dived into self-help books: Jack Canfield‘s “The Success Principles,” Eckhart Tolle, Tony Robbins.

“One day, I was walking around the kitchen, thinking aloud, what the hell is my purpose?” he said. “I said, I guess it’s volleyball. My wife [former beach volleyball pro Jennifer Corral] was sitting right there and said, you’re an effing idiot if you don’t think it’s volleyball.

“Since then, I was like, all right, I guess I’m going to make a run.”

An Olympic run. Dalhausser and Lucena are about to start a crucial stretch of international tournaments in Tokyo 2020 qualifying. It begins this weekend at the world championships in Hamburg, Germany.

MORE: Beach Volleyball Worlds TV/Stream Schedule

A maximum of two U.S. pairs can qualify for the Games. Dalhausser and Lucena are outside the world top 25, but, more importantly, third among Americans about halfway through qualifying. They’ve only played four events; most have played at least six. Each team’s 12 best finishes in the two-year qualifying window count when the Olympic field is determined next summer.

“Results wise haven’t been great up to this point,” said Dalhausser, who won at least one international event each of the previous 13 seasons, but none since Olympic qualifying began last June. “I feel like we’re going to hit our stride here, the more we play consistently and get into a rhythm. I think we’ll be fine. I’m not really worried about it.”

Come next summer, Dalhausser and Lucena will both be older than all but one previous Olympic beach volleyball player. Dalhausser said this is his last Olympic cycle and that he will not play internationally after the 2020 season, but could continue on the domestic AVP tour.

“You see these grays here?” Dalhausser said, pointing to his chin stubble. “Obviously, when I was 28 in Beijing [the 2008 Olympics with Todd Rogers], that was probably my peak as far as vertical goes. But I’m not so sure I’m that far under it.”

Still, injuries are creeping up. They withdrew from a recent event in Poland, citing Dalhausser’s ab injury that has limited his jump serving.

While Dalhausser and Lucena were arguably medal favorites going into Rio, there is no debate about the new No. 1 going into worlds.

“Hands down,” Dalhausser said. “Norway.”

Anders Mol, 21, and Christian Sørum, 23, have won eight of their last 11 international events together. Norway has never put a men’s or women’s team into an Olympic beach volleyball quarterfinal. But the Beachvolley Vikings, who honed their skills at a Hogwarts-like academy called Top Volley Norge in a village named Sand, are unlike any team Dalhausser has ever seen.

“They just don’t have any holes in their game,” Dalhausser said.

It was about this time five years ago when Dalhausser was part of the world’s hottest team. He and Sean Rosenthal won three Grand Slams in a four-event stretch in the summer of 2014. But Dalhausser suffered an oblique injury at about this time in the last Olympic cycle, and they plateaued. Lucena emailed Dalhausser about his availability, and they reunited a year before the Rio Games.

Dalhausser actually wanted to retire after he and Lucena lost to eventual gold medalists Alison and Bruno in the Olympic quarterfinals. He spoke with his alma mater, the University of Central Florida. Had the school started a beach volleyball program, he would have left for a job there.

Even up until this past January, Lucena said he was trying to talk Dalhausser into playing this summer’s world championships. Finally, Dalhausser was asked by his agent and USA Volleyball for a 2019 season schedule. He submitted one with 15 events, mostly international ones, and shared it with Lucena.

“It kind of told me, oh damn, we’re going to try to make a run, which I was not ready for, but I was kind of excited,” Lucena said. “I still felt like I had a lot left in the tank. Maybe not a lot, but enough to make a push.”

Lucena said he’s seen a change in Dalhausser’s demeanor. They won for the first time in seven events together this season at the AVP New York City Open earlier this month, rallying past Crabb and Gibb in a three-set semifinal. Lucena, known more for his defense, earned the AVP’s Hammer Award, given to the top offensive player of the tournament.

“A wise man once said,” Dalhausser deadpanned, sitting next to Lucena at the event, “a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”

Lucena and Dalhausser came up together in the early 2000s, playing for a few hundred dollars a tournament and holding part-time jobs, including as substitute teachers. When Dalhausser left to pair with Rogers, Lucena spent nearly a decade with the motivation to become a strong enough player to get Dalhausser back as a partner.

It didn’t surprise NBC Sports analyst Kevin Wong that Lucena would willingly let Dalhausser leave for another partner in the middle of their last Olympic cycle.

“Those guys are lifelong friends,” Wong said. “Nick’s that guy who can see the bigger picture, life outside of volleyball. The crazy thing was last year on tour, Phil never told me this, but there were two or three different people saying, hey, we think Phil’s going to retire after this year. His motivation, his energy were pretty low and so the question was, is this like a little lull, recharging the battery before one last Olympic push? Or is this the swan song?”

Now Dalhausser seems firm in pushing ahead for one more year.

“It was tempting [to switch partners], but, again, at the end of the day, family then volleyball,” Dalhausser said, noting that sticking with the Tallahassee-based Lucena allows him to spend more time at home in the Orlando area. Most elite beach volleyball players live in California, including Crabb.

“I guess I can be like, hey, Taylor, you want to make a run? It’s not too late,” Dalhausser said. “But my gut’s not telling me that’s the right thing.”

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