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Brianna McNeal, after strange year off, returns to clearing hurdles

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Brianna McNeal will race internationally on Friday for the first time in 625 days, since leading a U.S. sweep of the 100m hurdles at the Rio Olympics.

She headlines one of the fastest fields in history at the Diamond League opener in Doha (11:15 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold, and noon, Olympic Channel).

McNeal never thought she would take this long of a competition break after claiming gold in 12.48 seconds in Brazil, when she was known as Brianna Rollins. She looked forward to 2017. She could capitalize financially on that Olympic title on the track. She would marry Bryce McNeal off of it.

But first came September 2016. McNeal was not present when drug testers showed up at her Georgia home twice in the month after the Rio Games.

McNeal, already with a missed test from April 2016, received her second and third strikes. Three missed tests in a 12-month period can be tantamount to a failed test.

McNeal had failed to update her whereabouts on an online system so drug testers could find her for out-of-competition visits on all three occasions. In September, she was at “Brianna Rollins Day” in her Florida hometown and at the traditional Team USA visit to the White House on the days drug testers arrived in Georgia, where she had said she would be.

She had never failed a drug test, and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report on her strange case labeled her “a brilliant athlete who is not charged or suspected of using banned substances of any kind.”

“However,” the report continued, “while there is much at stake for [McNeal], there is not much in dispute as to the facts or law of this case.”

McNeal, speaking by phone Thursday from Doha, could not recall exactly where she was when she learned of her third missed test. But she remembered what went through her head.

“I was actually, like, thinking back throughout the year how many [misses] I had, and then I think I emailed my agent,” she said. “I think I had three missed tests, but I wasn’t sure.”

McNeal’s agent went through her log. McNeal had missed a test a few years ago — many athletes have, for reasons ranging from being unable to hear a doorbell to being unable to provide a sample due to kidney stones — but all that mattered here was whether she had missed at least two others in the previous 12 months. She had.

“I was trying to stay optimistic,” McNeal said. “Hopefully I was going to end up winning [the arbitration].”

The standard penalty is a two-year suspension, but given McNeal’s circumstances and spotless reputation, it was cut to a one-year ban in arbitration. She would have to sit out all of 2017.

“When that happened, that’s when the emotions came,” she said of the decision rendered April 14, 2017, nearly eight months after her third missed test. “I was a little upset, of course, but at the end of the day, it was my responsibility to update my whereabouts. I have to deal with the consequences. I was content with it.”

McNeal said the four-month arbitration process was more difficult than the four months of outdoor meets she had to pass up.

“There’s been athletes that have tested positive for things, and they get a less sanction or suspension than I do,” she said. “I just wasn’t home. I wasn’t dodging them or anything like that. It was a mistake. I just forgot. I’m human. Everybody forgets certain things. I do think it was unfair, but whom am I, I guess.”

This year is what’s called the fallow year in track and field. No Olympics. No world outdoor championships. But McNeal found motivation when watching the 2017 World Championships 100m hurdles final go on without her.

She saw a strong U.S. foursome that included the world-record holder (Kendra Harrison), Rio silver medalist (Nia Ali) and 2008 Olympic champion (Dawn Harper-Nelson) beaten by Australian Sally Pearson.

She texted her coach.

“Let’s get ready to win this Diamond League next year so I can get the bye for the 2019 World Championships,” she said.

Historically, the reigning world champion and Diamond League season champion in every event get automatic byes into the next worlds, as long as they’re not from the same country. Since an American did not win the world title, every American is vying this Diamond League season to get a bye into worlds.

Which brings us to Qatar. McNeal will line up against the other four fastest active U.S. female hurdlers — Harrison, Harper-Nelson, Jasmin Stowers and Sharika Nelvis. The last time they entered the same meet, McNeal won the 2016 Olympic Trials (and none of the other four even made the Olympic team).

McNeal is off to her fastest start ever for a season, winning her first two domestic meets in 12.62 and 12.43 seconds. Those are the two fastest wind-legal times in the world this year. Harrison, once a teammate of McNeal’s at Clemson, clocked 12.40 and 12.37 with too much tailwind in different meets.

“I already feel like within myself that I’m back,” said McNeal, who went about six months between clearing hurdles intensely in 2017, her longest break since being forced to redshirt her freshman year at Clemson with a back injury. “Yes, the 12.43 solidifies that, but I don’t need too much reassurance from anyone.”

Beating Harrison or taking her world record is not the goal. She would rather become the first woman to win multiple Olympic 100m hurdles titles.

“Records are always broken,” she said. “My gold medal, no one can take that away from me.”

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Alina Zagitova wins Rostelecom Cup; Gracie Gold withdraws

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova dominated the Rostelecom Cup, while Gracie Gold withdrew before Saturday’s free skate at her first competition in 22 months, citing emotional stress.

Zagitova skated a flawed free, but still totaled 222.95 points and prevailed by 24.94 over countrywoman Sofia Samodurova. Zagitova qualified for December’s Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual international competition, which takes the top six skaters from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Gold, coming back from treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder, was in last place of 10 skaters after struggling with jumps in Friday’s short program.

Gold, a Sochi Olympian and two-time U.S. champion, later tweeted that she withdrew because competing in the free skate would be damaging to her mental health and confidence.

“It was a difficult decision to make, but ultimately I need to put my mental health first and focus on the big picture,” was tweeted from Gold’s account. “Looking forward, I need to keep improving both my physical and mental condition. I thought checking into treatment last fall was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but skating my short program last night might have topped it. I do not want to undo the tremendous progress I’ve made in these last few months.”

The Grand Prix season continues next week with Nathan Chen headlining Internationaux de France, the last event before the Grand Prix Final.

ROSTELECOM CUP: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Zagitova, 16, is undefeated in three events this season and owns the world’s top overall score (238.43) by a whopping 14.12 points. However, Japanese 16-year-old Rika Kihira has the highest total on the Grand Prix of 224.31.

Zagitova struggled Saturday with the difficult triple Lutz-triple loop combination and doubled a flip at the end of her free skate.

Her primary rival last season, countrywoman Yevgenia Medvedeva, has finished second or third in her four competitions in the last year and likely must reach the podium next week in France for a chance at the Grand Prix Final and her first matchup with Zagitova since PyeongChang.

It’s likely that no U.S. woman makes the Grand Prix Final for a third straight year, after never previously going back-to-back years without a qualifier. U.S. champion Bradie Tennell likely must win in France to reach the Final.

Earlier Saturday, double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu won the men’s event, hours after twisting his right ankle in a hard practice fall. Hanyu hopped on a crutch backstage and said he is uncertain for the Grand Prix Final and Japanese Nationals later in December. More here on Hanyu’s day.

Russian favorites Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin won the pairs’ and ice dance titles, respectively, qualifying for the Grand Prix Final.

Tarasova and Morozov, two-time world medalists, posted 220.25 points, moving up to No. 2 in the world behind French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, who were not in the Rostelecom field. None of the Olympic pairs’ medalists are competing this fall. Earlier Saturday, Tarasova received five stitches after cutting her chin in a practice crash into the boards.

In dance, Stepanova and Bukin tallied 199.43, keeping them close to U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue in the world rankings. Those two couples face off for the first time this season at the Grand Prix Final.

The top returning couple this season, French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, competes next week at the top international level for the first time since winning a third world title in March. They are not eligible for the Grand Prix Final after withdrawing from last week’s NHK Trophy due to Cizeron’s back injury.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE 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.

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Yuzuru Hanyu wins Rostelecom Cup, hops on crutch to press conference

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Yuzuru Hanyu won Rostelecom Cup by nearly 30 points, then hopped on a crutch backstage.

The double Olympic champion twisted his right ankle in a hard practice fall Saturday morning, then several hours later had the highest-scoring free skate with three quadruple jumps.

Hanyu said he is uncertain for the Grand Prix Final in three weeks — and a showdown with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno and, likely, world champion Nathan Chen according to The Associated Press.

“It really hurts,” Hanyu said, according to Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “This injury made me change my program, and sadly I couldn’t perform the way I wanted. I could have done better.”

ROSTELECOM CUP: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Hanyu apologized to a TV camera following his free skate, after falling and popping an Axel on his last two jumps.

Last November, Hanyu damaged right ankle ligaments in a practice fall, forcing him off the ice for more than a month. He said this injury is not as bad. Still, coach Brian Orser said “it was a big question” whether Hanyu would withdraw before the free skate, according to Olympic Channel.

Hanyu endured, taking out the quadruple loop that he fell on in practice but still adding 10 points to his lead from Friday’s short program. For the first time in nine seasons, Hanyu won his two Grand Prix Series qualifying events, cruising into December’s exclusive, six-skater Grand Prix Final.

Georgian Morisi Kvitelashvili took second, followed by Japanese Kazuki Tomono.

Two other men who came to Moscow with Grand Prix Final hopes — Russian Mikhail Kolyada and Canadian Keegan Messing — struggled in Friday’s short program and could not get onto the podium, placing fourth and fifth. They won’t be at the Final, assuming Chen finishes in the top six at next week’s event in France.

Rostelecom Cup continues later Saturday with the free programs for ice dance, pairs and women, streaming live on NBC Sports Gold.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE 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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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