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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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Federica Brignone passes Mikaela Shiffrin for World Cup overall lead

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Italian Federica Brignone passed an absent Mikaela Shiffrin for the World Cup overall standings lead by winning a combined in Switzerland on Sunday.

Brignone prevailed by .92 of a second adding times from super-G and slalom runs in Crans-Montana. Full results are here.

Brignone moved 73 points ahead of Shiffrin in the overall through 29 of 40 scheduled races. A race winner receives 100 points on a descending scale through the 30th-place finisher. The season runs through March 22.

Shiffrin, the three-time reigning World Cup overall champion, has not competed since the unexpected death of her father on Feb. 2. She has not announced if or when she will return this season.

Brignone, 29, is having a career season with five wins and 10 podiums across four disciplines.

Brignone’s best previous World Cup overall standings finish was fifth. She earned giant slalom medals at the 2018 Olympics (bronze) and 2011 World Championships (silver).

She could become Italy’s first female World Cup overall champion. The last Italian male winner was Alberto Tomba in 1995.

The women’s Alpine skiing World Cup moves to La Thuile, Italy, for a super-G and a combined next Saturday and Sunday.

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Jade Carey on brink of becoming first gymnast to qualify for U.S. Olympic team

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The U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials aren’t until late June, but Jade Carey is in position to qualify for the Tokyo Games in March.

Carey, seeking an individual Olympic gymnastics spot outside of the team competition, earned the maximum points in a World Cup series that is one path to Olympic qualification.

Carey has three wins each on floor exercise and vault with two World Cups left in March. Carey will mathematically clinch an Olympic spot if no other gymnasts earn maximum points on one of the apparatuses to force a tiebreaker.

A gymnast’s top three finishes across the eight-stop series count in Olympic qualifying. If Carey finishes atop the floor or vault standings, she goes to the Olympics.

Carey picked up those third wins on floor and vault at the sixth World Cup in Melbourne, Australia, this weekend.

So far, no other gymnast has two wins on floor. One other gymnast can get to the maximum points on vault with one win between the last two stops (and others with two).

The one downside to qualifying this route: Carey would not be able to compete in the team competition at the Olympics. Those four spots will be determined at and after June’s trials in St. Louis, with Simone Biles likely grabbing one of them.

“I knew I would be giving up being on the team,” Carey said in October of going the World Cup route, “but I think, for me, it made sense to just go for it.”

Carey is a world medalist on vault and floor, but she doesn’t have the all-around credentials of Biles and some other U.S. gymnasts.

Olympic team event roster sizes were cut from five to four for Tokyo, putting a greater onus on all-around prowess given a team must put three gymnasts on each apparatus in the Olympic final.

The U.S. is the deepest country in women’s gymnastics, so the only truly safe pick to make the four-woman Olympic team event roster is Biles.

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