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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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Weekend Gymnastics Roundup: Carey and McCusker on World Cup podium

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World medalists Jade Carey and Riley McCusker headlined gymnastics action over the weekend as the World Cup circuit continued with an all-around competition in Birmingham, England, and an apparatus event in Doha, Qatar.

Carey won both the vault and floor events in Doha, pushing her to the top of the standings on both apparatus (she also won the vault and floor competitions the previous weekend at the World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan).

Doha marked the halfway point of apparatus World Cups, putting Carey in a promising position to qualify for the Tokyo Games heading into the next four events. The apparatus World Cup series includes a total of eight competitions spread over two seasons, and one gymnast per apparatus will qualify for the Olympics based on his or her top three results across the eight events.

Carey, 18, was the 2017 world silver medalist on vault and floor. But she opted not to try for a spot on the 2018 World Championships team due to the International Gymnastics Federation’s rules that active team members who help their countries qualify team spots for Tokyo (as the U.S. women did in November) cannot earn individual spots. Carey, an apparatus specialist rather than an all-around gymnast, chose the World Cup route to keep open her options of qualifying individually.

McCusker, who was part of the U.S. team that won the world title last year, finished second at the all-around World Cup in Birmingham, posting the top scores on the uneven bars and floor. Russia’s Aliya Mustafina, a seven-time Olympic medalist, won the event. Mustafina bounced back from a shaky showing last weekend at the World Cup in Stuttgart, where she finished fifth in an event won by Simone Biles. Mustafina, 24, is trying to qualify for her third Olympics after giving birth to daughter Alisa in June 2017.

The all-around World Cup circuit continues on April 7 in Tokyo, Japan, where two-time world all-around medalist Morgan Hurd and two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak are expected to compete.

First Olympic women’s aerials champion Cheryazova dies at 50

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MOSCOW — Lina Cheryazova, the first woman to win an Olympic aerials skiing gold medal, has died. She was 50.

Officials in the Russian city of Novosibirsk, where Cheryazova was living for the last two decades, said she died “following a lengthy illness,” without giving further details.

Competing for Uzbekistan, Cheryazova won gold with a triple flip when aerials skiing debuted on the Olympic program in 1994 in Lillehammer.

Shortly after winning, she learned her mother died three weeks before.

Cheryazova’s career was derailed later that year when she suffered a serious head injury while training in the United States, and spent days in a coma. She retired after failing to qualify for the 1998 Winter Olympics.