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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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Allyson Felix withdraws from Prefontaine Classic

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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.

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Will Japan’s Olympic legend return for Tokyo 2020?

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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.”

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