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Wayde van Niekerk rides record into Lausanne Diamond League; preview

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Wayde van Niekerk set personal bests in the 100m, 200m and 300m in the last month. On Thursday, the South African races his first international 400m since breaking Michael Johnson‘s world record at the Rio Olympics.

Van Niekerk headlines a Diamond League stop in Lausanne, Switzerland, live on Thursday at 1:15 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold and 2 p.m. on NBCSN.

Van Niekerk is preparing for the world championships in London in August, when he is expected to race both the 200m and 400m. The only man to sweep both races at a worlds? Johnson in 1995.

Last Wednesday, Van Niekerk ran the fastest 300m of all time — breaking Johnson’s record — with a 30.81 in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

On June 20, Van Niekerk lowered his 100m personal best to 9.94 seconds. He’s the only man to run sub-10 for the 100m, sub-20 for the 200m and sub-44 for the 400m. On June 10, Van Niekerk dropped his 200m personal best to 19.84 seconds, a national record.

The last month has certainly boosted hopes that Van Niekerk may be able to lower his 400m world record this year. That makes Lausanne a must-watch meet.

Lausanne start lists are available here. Here’s the schedule (all times Eastern):

1:20 p.m. — Men’s shot put
1:25 p.m. — Women’s javelin
1:30 p.m. — Women’s long jump
2:03 p.m. — Women’s 400m hurdles
2:13 p.m. — Men’s 1500m
2:23 p.m. — Women’s 100m hurdles
2:25 p.m. — Men’s pole vault
2:33 p.m. — Women’s mile
2:44 p.m. — Women’s 200m
2:45 p.m. — Women’s high jump
2:54 p.m. — Men’s 400m hurdles
2:55 p.m. — Men’s triple jump
3:04 p.m. — Men’s 5000m
3:20 p.m. — Men’s 100m
3:30 p.m. — Women’s 800m
3:40 p.m. — Men’s 400m

Here are five events to watch:

Women’s 400m hurdles — 2:03 p.m.
Every Rio Olympic medalist is in this field — Americans Dalilah Muhammad and Ashley Spencer and Dane Sara Petersen. Plus 2015 World gold and silver medalists Zuzana Hejnova and Shamier Little.

Watch Muhammad. She is coming off winning the U.S. title in the fastest 400m hurdles race of all time — three women under 53 seconds and six under 54, both unprecedented. Her time — a personal-best 52.64 — is .17 off Lashinda Demus‘ American record.

Women’s 200m — 2:44 p.m.
It looks like Elaine Thompson and Tori Bowie are skipping the 200m at worlds after taking gold and bronze in Rio. Bowie, in fact, was signed up for the 200m in Lausanne but recently withdrew.

In their absence, the Olympic second- and fourth-place finishers headline Thursday’s field — Dutchwoman Dafne Schippers and Ivorian Marie Josee Ta Lou. They’re joined by Kimberlyn Duncan, who was runner-up at the USATF Outdoor Championships. They’re among those in world medal contention behind favorite Shaunae Miller-Uibo, the Olympic 400m champion who is not in Lausanne.

Men’s Triple Jump — 2:55 p.m.
Double Olympic champion Christian Taylor headlines the strongest triple jump field since Rio. It includes all three Olympic medalists, the top three jumpers in the world this year and the top three all time among active athletes.

It will be a test for Taylor, who hasn’t lost internationally since May 2015 and is seeking his first undefeated season overall (USATF Outdoors no-mark aside). In their last three meetings, Taylor edged countryman Will Claye by six, 11 and 10 centimeters, respectively.

Men’s 100m — 3:20 p.m.
Justin Gatlin needs a win here to be considered a world championships medal favorite. The other London contenders — Usain BoltAndre De GrasseYohan Blake and Christian Coleman — are not in this field. But Gatlin does face South African Akani Simbine and Ivorian Ben Youssef Meite, who finished fifth and sixth in Rio, and surprise U.S. bronze medalist Chris Belcher.

Gatlin ran 9.75 at this meet two years ago at the peak of his post-doping ban career. But he has been slow this season, impacted to some degree by a leg injury. Gatlin has one sub-10 to his name in five wind-legal races this season, but at least it came in his most recent outing, when he won the national title. The 35-year-old could be ramping up for worlds.

Men’s 400m — 3:40 p.m.
Van Niekerk should have no problem here. His top rivals — LaShawn Merritt and Kirani James — and the fastest men this year — Fred KerleyGil RobertsSteven Gardiner — are not in Lausanne. What’s left are the USATF Outdoors fifth- and sixth-place finishers (Tony McQuay and Michael Cherry) and Olympic fourth-place finisher Machel Cedenio of Trinidad and Tobago.

Van Niekerk memorably ran 43.03 in Rio. His best time in four 400m races this year (all in South Africa in March and April) was 46.28 seconds, which ranks him near No. 200 in the world in 2017, according to Tilastopaja.org. Given Van Niekerk’s more recent form in shorter sprints, he should challenge the world’s top time this year, Kerley’s 43.70.

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Dominik Paris, world champion skier, suffers season-ending injury

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Italian Dominik Paris, the reigning world champion in the super-G, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a training crash Tuesday ahead of this weekend’s speed races in Kitzbuehel, Austria.

Paris crashed in super-G training not far from the hallowed World Cup venue, slipping into a curve and damaging his right knee. He also suffered a fibula microfracture, according to the Italian federation.

“My season ends here,” he said, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS). “Unfortunately while I was sliding, the inside ski caught too much and the ligament broke. There is not much to add. In the next few days we will evaluate, together with the medical staff, how to proceed.”

Paris won his third Hahnenkamm downhill title last year and was one of the favorites for Saturday’s downhill, the most prestigious annual race in the sport. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage for “Snow Pass” subscribers at 5:30 a.m. ET.

Paris, 30, won a pair of downhills in Bormio in December among five total podiums this season.

In his absence, Swiss Beat Feuz and German Thomas Dressen lead the podium contenders.

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It’s Nathan Chen’s time at nationals for a feat 32 years in the making

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Nathan Chen can join Brian Boitano in U.S. figure skating history this week, a decade after holding Boitano in the palm of his hands with a program set to music from “Kung Fu Panda.”

Chen seeks a fourth straight national title in Greensboro, N.C. He would be the seventh man to do so since World War II. Five of the previous six won Olympic titles — Dick Button, Hayes Jenkins, David Jenkins, Scott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano from 1985-88.

Boitano remembered the first time he met Chen. He and Kristi Yamaguchi were compelled to leave their seats to find the teeny, tiny wunderkind who performed that program to the 2008 DreamWorks film.

“He was taking off his skates, and he probably came up to our waist,” Boitano said. “We knew when we saw him back then that he was going to be something special. He was really quiet. He’s still very quiet.”

In an interview last week, Chen focused on the present — coming back from a two-week cold or flu bug — rather than the perspective.

“I don’t like to typically think about that,” Chen said when asked about his streak. “It’s just different [from year to year]. It’s not really necessarily easier or harder.”

It is also different from previous eras. The last five men to win four in a row did it all in one Olympic cycle, then stepped away from competition after the Winter Games. That was back when turning professional meant the end of an Olympic career.

“It was kind of the norm back then,” Hamilton said. “After that it was kind of back and forth a lot [until Chen]. The business of skating changed so skaters could stay in a lot more, a lot longer. With all the money they brought in, they were able to prevent skaters from turning professional. So that brought in a different approach to nationals.”

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Both Hamilton and six-time (non-consecutive) U.S. champion Todd Eldredge could think of just one name to compare Chen’s dominance in the history of U.S. men’s skating: Button, who won the first seven national titles after World War II, plus two Olympic golds.

Button earned national and world titles as a Harvard student. Chen is on a two-season win streak while majoring in statistics and data science at Yale. Button was the first skater to land a double Axel and a triple jump of any kind. Chen was the first to land six quads in one free skate.

Eldredge coaches skaters at the same rink where Chen trains when Chen visits his Southern California-based coach Rafael Arutunian. He is awed by watching Chen working out. Though Eldredge owns more national titles, he never felt the massive favorite status that accompanies Chen.

Eldredge competed in the post-Hamilton/Boitano era, when national champions began competing over multiple Olympic cycles. Eldredge ebbed and flowed from his first national title in 1990, when compulsory figures were still around, to 2002, when he defeated Timothy Goebel, then known as the Quad King.

“Physically, the demands of the sport take their toll on your body,” Eldredge said. “It’s hard to maintain that same level for that length of period of time.

“[In] 12 years [since Chen’s first national title], when he’s 29 years old, is he going to be able to continue to sustain that?”

All of the recent top U.S. men competed in multiple Olympic cycles. The last multiple national champion was Jeremy Abbott, who earned two titles each in two different Olympic cycles. Abbott finished his career in a third Olympic cycle, placing fifth at the 2015 U.S. Championships. Abbott didn’t remember that Chen made his senior nationals debut that year, finishing eighth at age 15.

“For me, winning the third and the fourth [titles] were harder because I started thinking about winning,” Abbott said. “After the second one, I was heading into a new quad and I was two-time U.S. champion. Then my focus was, oh, I’m expected to win. So that was a harder mental game rather than just focusing on making an Olympic team. The expectation now that I’ve done this twice in a row, I’m expected to win again and again and again.”

Abbott and Chen came up in the era of the points-based judging system instituted in 2004.

“Now with the way the scoring system is very different [from the old 6.0], cumulative points, if you have a bad day as a national champion, that’s it. You can’t get the points,” Eldredge said. “[In previous eras], if a certain skater was, I’ll say politically supposed to be the champion, you got a higher score, and rightfully so in most cases.”

Chen has the benefit of going into competitions knowing the kind of advantage he has in base value points from his jumping arsenal. He won last year’s national title by 58 points. This international season, he is 80 points clear of the next-highest-ranked U.S. man, Jason Brown.

“I don’t think that the try-to-push technique is necessarily my goal here,” at nationals, Chen said. “Hopefully just to maintain my body, maintain my health and try to prepare myself for the second half of the season.”

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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.