Wayde van Niekerk breezes to another historic 400m time (video)

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In his first major 400m since Rio, Wayde Van Niekerk showed promise that he could challenge his world record at the world championships next month.

The South African won in 43.62 seconds in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Thursday, easing up in the final few strides in the fastest time in the world since his 43.03 world record at the Olympics.

“I do have a love-hate relationship with the 400m,” Van Niekerk said, according to the IAAF. “Finishing a 400m is always painful but, this time around, I am actually pleasantly surprised about how I digest the lactic acid.”

Full Lausanne results are here.

It’s Van Niekerk’s third-fastest time ever — trailing only Rio and his 2015 World title. Nobody else has run that fast since 2007. Only Michael Johnson‘s 43.44 from the 1996 Olympic Trials was faster this early in a year.

Van Niekerk is the clear favorite for worlds in London, where the men’s 400m final is Aug. 8 and he plans to race the 200m later in the meet. Upstart American Fred Kerley is the only other man to break 44 seconds this year, clocking 43.70 at an NCAA meet on May 26.

Van Niekerk has already set personal bests in the 100m, 200m and 300m this year.

Also Thursday, Justin Gatlin won the 100m in 9.96 seconds, his third straight race between 9.95 and 9.98 seconds. However, the 35-year-old Gatlin has slowed this year, coming off a leg injury. He ran 9.80 and 9.75 in Lausanne in 2014 and 2015.

“I’m not at my A-game at the moment,” Gatlin said, according to the IAAF. “That shows I am human. … And I’ve shown that even with setbacks in my preparation, I am still a competitor. I have been consistent under 10 [seconds], and that is important.”

Gatlin, the Rio silver medalist, beat a field Thursday that did not include Usain Bolt (who has not broken 10 in two races this year), Jamaican champion Yohan Blake or Olympic bronze medalist Andre De Grasse.

In the women’s 400m hurdles, Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad walked off after the first hurdle. Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Spencer won in 53.90, though Spencer failed to qualify for worlds by placing fourth at the USATF Outdoor Championships two weeks ago.

Rio gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz finished seventh in the 1500m in his first Diamond League meet of the year. Centrowitz, the first U.S. Olympic 1500m champion in 108 years, was second at the USATF Outdoor Championships after a series of setbacks, including an emergency room visit.

Dutchwoman Dafne Schippers took the women’s 200m in 22.10 seconds, well off the fastest time in the world this year held by Tori Bowie (21.77). However, Bowie and Olympic 200m gold medalist Elaine Thompson may both skip the 200m at worlds, opening the door for the defending world champ Schippers and Olympic 400m winner Shaunae Miller-Uibo.

Christian Taylor lost an international triple jump for the first time since May 2015. Cuban rival Pedro Pablo Pichardo outdistanced the double Olympic champion, 17.60 meters to 17.49.

Olympic champion Ryan Crouser won the shot put with a 22.39-meter heave. Crouser and 2015 World champion Joe Kovacs have combined for the 18 best throws in the world this year, with Crouser holding 14 of them. But Kovacs wasn’t in the Lausanne field.

Maria Lasitskene, competing as a neutral high jumper during Russia’s ban, missed on three attempts at a world-record height of 2.10 meters. Still, the 2015 World champion cleared 2.06, best in the world since 2011.

The Diamond League moves to London on Sunday, with NBC Sports Gold coverage at 7:20 a.m. ET and Universal HD coverage at 9 ET.

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WATCH LIVE: Simone Biles returns to U.S. Gymnastics Championships

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Simone Biles‘ comeback continues at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Friday night.

Biles enters her second meet since the Rio Olympics, where she earned four gold medals.

She is a clear favorite to win her fifth U.S. all-around title, which would break the record she currently shares.

LIVE STREAM: U.S. Gym Championships — 8 p.m. ET (for Olympic Channel subscribers)

Biles showed her comeback was for real at her first meet back three weeks ago, winning the U.S. Classic despite an uneven bars fall. Her all-around score was the highest in the world since Rio.

Friday marks the fifth anniversary of Biles’ first national title, when she was a braces-wearing, first-year senior gymnast oozing with talent but also unproven. She became so dominant that the prevailing notion was that everyone else was competing in a non-Simone division.

A new generation of women go up against Biles in the two-day meet that concludes Sunday.

That includes Ragan Smith and Morgan Hurd, who won the U.S. and world all-around titles in Biles’ absence last year, and Riley McCusker, who led the U.S. Classic going into the final rotation.

Gymnasts are competing to impress a world championships team selection committee. The five-woman world team will be named after an October selection camp.

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Ragan Smith defends U.S. gymnastics title, competing through pain

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BOSTON — When Ragan Smith won the U.S. all-around title last August, her margin of victory was greater than Simone Biles‘ average the previous four years.

At the world championships in October, Smith fell off the balance beam in qualifying and still posted the second-highest all-around score, just .001 off the lead. If Smith hit all four routines in the final, she would be crowned the world’s greatest gymnast of 2017 (during Biles’ break from the sport).

But as the all-around final began at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, Smith crutched out of the training gym. She suffered three torn left ankle ligaments on a warm-up vault, according to the Dallas Morning News, that needed four to five months to heal.

Smith is expected to compete in the all-around at the U.S. Championships on Friday and Sunday (broadcast schedule here), looking to impress a world championships team selection committee. The five-woman world team will be named after an October selection camp.

The ankle still hurts sometimes. So do her three or four broken toes. Smith doesn’t know the exact number because she doesn’t like to get medical check-ups before meets. She would think too much about the diagnosis.

In fact, Smith said she felt pain in practice every day for the last year.

“Everything starts hurting worse because we’re getting older,” said Smith, who turned 18 last week. Smith added that a coach joked to her recently, “You already have a 100-year-old body.” 

“Everybody I feel like has injuries here and there,” she said. “Everybody’s like banged up right now. We [gymnasts] are so strong mentally and physically that I feel like we push through it.”

Back home in the Dallas area, Smith marks her goals on a dry-erase board. The chief one for her two summer meets is this: Be the best Ragan I can be.

“That’s all I’m really striving for this competition,” she said Wednesday.

Smith did not do the all-around at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago, skipping floor exercise because she wants to debut it as a surprise this week. She called Classic “a practice run,” where her best result was third on beam.

Only two gymnasts per nation can compete in a world all-around final. If Biles is one of them, then Smith has to beat out Morgan Hurd (who won the 2017 World all-around title after Smith’s injury) and Riley McCusker (second to Biles at the U.S. Classic).

Smith, the youngest Rio Olympic alternate, is determined to compete on the elite level through 2020. She can take motivation from her bedroom wall and that dry-erase board, both of which had the same quote posted — “She believed she could so she did.”

“These coming up years, it’s definitely who’s in the game the longest. It’s definitely who’s not injured,” she said. “That’s pretty much who they pick, I feel like. You’re training your whole life for one year of gymnastics because that’s when you have to be at your highest peak. I definitely feel like it’s who’s in the game the longest and who can survive and who can help their body the best.”

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