Getty Images

Andre De Grasse’s return headlines Drake Relays on NBC Sports

Leave a comment

Andre De Grasse believes he could have entered the Drake Relays as the world champion in the 100m and 200m. Instead, he watched those finals last August. One from his hotel room. The other on replay on social media.

De Grasse, the Rio Olympic 100m bronze medalist and 200m silver medalist, will race for the first time in nine months at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday as part of NBC Sports’ weekend track and field coverage.

NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold will air live coverage of the Drake Relays and Penn Relays.

Friday
Penn Relays: 5-6 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold

Saturday
Penn Relays: 12:30-3 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold
Drake Relays: 3-5 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold

The Canadian De Grasse is the Drake Relays headliner, racing for the first time since suffering a grade 2 right hamstring strain four days before last year’s worlds in London.

De Grasse faces a Drake field that includes six other men who have broken 10 seconds, but of them only U.S. Olympian Mike Rodgers (9.85) has a better personal best than De Grasse’s 9.91 from the Rio Olympic final.

Rodgers, a decade older than De Grasse, hasn’t broken 10 seconds in his last 28 wind-legal races, according to Tilastopaja.org.

The field is not of much concern for De Grasse.

“I’m not looking for a specific time or anything,” he said Monday. “Just looking to get my legs under me, get the rust off, see what I can do and go from there.”

De Grasse said in a recent CBC interview that he’s been training for five months since the injury. He remembers the thoughts as he watched the world championships, starting with Usain Bolt‘s relegation to bronze in his last individual race won by Justin Gatlin‘s late surge.

“I knew that it could have been anybody’s race; [silver medalist Christian] Coleman could have won, Bolt could have won or Gatlin,” De Grasse said Monday. “When I watched it, I was surprised because usually Bolt would usually catch [up to win]. Coleman was out in front. You couldn’t really see where Gatlin was. Usually, Bolt would come back at the end. It looked like, for sure, that would happen. It looked like from my view that Coleman won. When I saw the replay, Gatlin kind of just snuck in there. … I was definitely surprised of the outcome. … I wish I could have been in it, but there’s going to be more opportunities for me.”

(De Grasse said he has not recently spoken with Bolt or “anybody in track in a while.” Last July, De Grasse’s coach was quoted saying that his sprinter was “booted out” of a race per Bolt’s wishes, which De Grasse later denied in a report, calling Bolt a legend.)

Gatlin’s winning time was 9.92 seconds into a .8 meters/second headwind. De Grasse failed to break 10 seconds in all five of his wind-legal 100m races last season, but he did run 9.69 with a mammoth 4.8 meters/second tailwind a month and a half before worlds.

Then came the world 200m final five days later. De Grasse said he had never heard of surprise winner Ramil Guliyev of Turkey. Guliyev won in 20.09, the slowest Olympic or world gold-medal time since 2003.

“I ran against all of those guys before and felt like I was capable of winning a race like that if I wasn’t injured,” De Grasse said. “To be honest, I had never heard of most of those guys in the 200m final except for I think a couple of guys, Wayde van Niekerk and [Nethaneel] Mitchell-Blake from Great Britain.”

De Grasse’s goals this season include breaking the Canadian 100m record of 9.84 (shared by Bruny Surin and Donovan Bailey, the latter’s time a then-world record at the 1996 Olympics). He would like to lower his 200m personal best of 19.80 from Rio.

He wants to win a Diamond League trophy for being the best man over 100m or 200m through the season. The 100m remains his preferred distance (“That’s the glory event.”).

De Grasse said he plans to race most of the Diamond League schedule, starting with the first two meets in Doha and Shanghai the next two weeks. De Grasse and Coleman are slated for a head-to-head at a Diamond League meet in London in July.

No matter what De Grasse does this season, he does not believe he can wrestle the mantle of world’s fastest man from Gatlin or Coleman.

“You can’t say off this year that you’re the fastest man in the world,” De Grasse said, noting it’s the only year in the quadrennium without a global championships. “You’ve got to wait until next year to do that.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Usain Bolt sets extended stay with Borussia Dortmund

Allyson Felix withdraws from Prefontaine Classic

AP
Leave a comment

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

PRE CLASSIC: Full TV Schedule | Preview | Start Lists

Will Japan’s Olympic legend return for Tokyo 2020?

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Helen Maroulis wrestled in the dark with concussion