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Christian Taylor shifts focus from triple jump to the track

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Christian Taylor, a two-time Olympic triple jump champion, plans to race the 400m throughout this season, making him one of the busiest track and field athletes in the so-called fallow year.

This is the only summer in the four-year cycle without an Olympics or a world outdoor championships.

“It kind of opened up the opportunity to try something different and just kind of recharge,” Taylor said Thursday, noting Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton‘s 400m hurdles foray in 2014, “looking forward to the next three years being very serious and championship-focused.”

After winning a third straight global title at 2017 Worlds, Taylor told his coach, Rana Reider, he had something else in mind in 2018. Reider has also coached sprinters, including world 200m champion Dafne Schippers.

“[Reider] was like, the last three years have been pretty solid, what would you like to do?” Taylor said. “I said, I really think I can run 44 seconds. He was like, all right, let’s do it.”

Taylor could reach his goal of breaking 45 seconds at a Diamond League meet in Shanghai on Saturday (live on NBC Sports Gold at 6:10 a.m. ET and NBCSN at 7).

“It’s almost going to be a check off my bucket list if I’m able to break the 45-second barrier,” said Taylor, whose focus the previous several years was on a different number — 18.29 meters, Jonathan Edwards‘ triple jump world record (Taylor’s personal best is 18.21, a cigarette’s length shy of Edwards).

Taylor opened his outdoor campaign clocking 45.48 and 45.44 in March and April at meets at the University of Florida, his alma mater.

His personal best is 45.17 from 2014, the last fallow year and one in which Taylor’s schedule was to focus on the 400m through May and then return to the triple jump.

This season, Taylor plans to race the 400m at least five times, including at the USATF Outdoor Championships in June and hopefully more if he receives invites to summer European meets.

A 44.99-second 400m would not put Taylor in the top 100 Americans all-time in the event, but it would have placed fourth in the 2016 Olympic Trials final. Five other Americans have already broken 45 this year, and 12 broke 45 last year.

He’ll continue to contest the triple jump every time it’s offered in the Diamond League.

Taylor’s focus on sprinting risks defeats in the triple jump, where competition this year may be the greatest of Taylor’s career.

Taylor’s longtime American rival — two-time Olympic silver medalist Will Claye — won the world indoor title in Taylor’s absence in March.

Taylor’s most recent international rivals — Cuban-born Pedro Pablo Pichardo and Frenchman Teddy Tamgho — could both compete regularly this season for the first time since 2013.

Pichardo, back after switching representation to Portugal, beat Taylor at last week’s Diamond League opener in Doha with the farthest triple jump ever this early in a season (17.95 meters).

It marked just the third Diamond League loss for Taylor since the start of 2015. He knows his triple jumping will be affected by the increased sprint training, and he’s content with it.

“I’m going to be in a better place, happier, fresher,” Taylor said. “It’s just a different challenge, you know? That was the whole thing about this year, just trying to recharge physically and mentally. I’m trying to stretch my career out as long as possible.”

Ideally, Taylor breaks Edwards’ world record in 2019 or 2020, wins a third straight Olympic gold in Tokyo (though he values the world record more) and then turns to the 400m full-time at age 30.

“I would be able to lay down knowing I did everything I could in the triple jump,” Taylor said.

How serious is he taking the 400m?

“The first person I hit up was Wayde,” Taylor said of Olympic champion and world-record holder Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa. “What can I do to break this [45-second] barrier? I’m not trying to run 43.0. Just give me a breakdown of the race or things to focus on.”

Americans LaShawn Merritt and Vernon Norwood have been helpful in recent years as well. 

If Taylor breaks 45 seconds this year, he becomes a more intriguing candidate for a 4x400m relay at the 2019 Worlds or 2020 Olympics. In 2014, Taylor ran the 4x400m for the U.S. at the IAAF World Relays.

At the 2019 Worlds, the men’s 4x400m and the triple jump final are in the same session. But the debut of the mixed-gender 4x400m is a week later.

The mixed 4x400m is also on the Olympic program for the first time in Tokyo.

Taylor isn’t thinking that far ahead yet. He hopes more 400m races are in his near future. What he does on Saturday could play a big part in that.

“Every time I run, it opens or closes doors for other opportunities to run again,” he said.

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MORE: Five events to watch at Shanghai Diamond League

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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