Trey Hardee returns to world stage without Ashton Eaton

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LONDON (AP) — Trey Hardee wants to set the record straight.

No, he’s not retired. Never has been. The thought really never crossed his mind.

The two-time world champion decathlete understands why everyone may have jumped to that conclusion.

He’s 33, has been sidelined by an assortment of injuries and did some broadcasting work for the Rio Olympics.

On top of that, his Wikipedia page actually listed him as retired.

“I still really love what I do,” he said.

With world-record holder and two-time Olympic gold medalist Ashton Eaton surprisingly announcing his retirement in January, the stage now belongs to the “other” American who, in virtually any other era, wouldn’t have been relegated to such status. Once the top rival of Eaton, Hardee could take his spot atop the medal stand at the world championships in London.

“I consider myself the bread in the Ashton sandwich,” Hardee joked about being around before Eaton’s arrival and still around now. “When we were (competing), we were always like, ‘Let’s finish 1-2.’ Neither of us cared. We were like, ‘Let’s dominate this event and represent the United States, make sure we show what the American decathlon stands for.’”

For years, it was the Eaton and Hardee Show in a 10-event competition spread over two days. At the 2012 London Games, Eaton took gold while Hardee grabbed silver. That despite Hardee having surgery on his throwing elbow a few months before the Olympics.

Another showdown loomed in Brazil. But Hardee was hobbled heading into the Olympic Trials and withdrew from the competition after aggravating his hamstring.

There went Rio for him as a competitor. Instead, he earned his way as an analyst and had a front-row seat for Eaton’s title defense.

“It was a bittersweet moment, watching my countrymen and cheering for them. But really, really in the bottom of your heart, you think, ‘I should be out there,’” Hardee recounted. “It was tough. It gave me more resolve to come back this year.”

A healthy Hardee turned in quite a performance at the USATF Outdoor Championships in June, when he won the decathlon with 8,225 points. He held off the next wave of American decathletes eager to take over — such as 24-year-old Zach Ziemek and Devon Williams. Both will accompany Hardee to London.

“It’s a nice time to be a decathlete in the U.S.,” Hardee said.

Hardee is part of a distinguished list, joining Eaton (2013, 2015), Dan O’Brien (1991, 1993, 1995), Tom Pappas (2003) and Bryan Clay (2005) as the only Americans to win the world decathlon title. Hardee captured his titles in 2009 and ’11.

“Whatever my legacy is, it’s not for me to determine,” said Hardee, who trains in Austin, Texas. “I was just led down the right path. All I needed to do was put in the work.”

His venture into the decathlon was almost by accident. Cut from his high school basketball team, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound Hardee turned to pole vaulting and went to Mississippi State hoping to become the next Sergey Bubka. But Hardee was introduced to the decathlon and began to flourish. He transferred to Texas, where he became an NCAA champion.

Ever since, he’s been chasing that “unicorn,” which he calls the mythical perfect score in the competition. His personal-best mark of 8,790 points was set at the 2009 world championships in Berlin. In contrast, Eaton has set the world record twice — 9,039 points at the 2012 Olympic Trials, then 9,045, which he attained at the 2015 world championships in Beijing.

Recently, Hardee added another event to his plate — the getting-his-daughter-to-laugh competition. He scores big numbers in that area.

“She can smile at you, and turn you into a puddle on the floor,” said Hardee, whose wife — a retired pole vaulter — gave birth to their daughter, Frankie, on Dec. 5. “When she’s happy, we’re happy. I’ve never been more heartbroken than when I’m holding her and she’s crying.”

The family won’t be accompanying him to London. This is more of a business trip. He feels confident heading into London, though, even if he’s dealing with a nagging foot ailment.

“I’m dangerous, because I still got some pop,” Hardee said. “I’m the wild card.”

Asked when he might step aside for real, Hardee just laughed.

“If I do retire, it will be a pretty quiet and an uneventful affair,” said Hardee, who dabbles in real estate on the side. “They’ll be like, ‘Did Trey retire?’

“But I still go to bed every night thinking about the decathlon and I wake up each morning ready to practice.”

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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