Five women’s events to watch at USATF Outdoor Championships

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As always, there are Olympic champions competing at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships this week. There are world-record holders, too. But the woman with the most buzz this season has neither of those accolades. Or even a single U.S. title.

She is Sydney McLaughlin, an 18-year-old who just turned professional after her freshman season at the University of Kentucky. McLaughlin’s breakout came in 2016, when she became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to compete at an Olympics in 44 years, making the 400m hurdles semifinals.

McLaughlin dropped to sixth at the 2017 U.S. Championships in perhaps the greatest 400m hurdles race ever. While three women in one race went sub-53 for the first time, McLaughlin lowered her personal best by .21. Her star did not fade as she moved from New Jersey to Lexington.

This year in NCAA competition, McLaughlin lowered her personal bests in the 200m, 400m and 400m hurdles (all by more than a second). The 400m hurdles time, fastest in the world this year by nine tenths, would have won the 2016 Olympics and 2017 World Championships.

She now ranks Nos. 54, 26 and 5 all time in the U.S. in those events. Perhaps the woman who reached anywhere near that versatility was Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who ranks No. 37 in the 200m and No. 43 in the 400m hurdles but never ran the 400m at her peak.

McLaughlin had her choice of events this week, and her decision might surprise. Five women’s events to watch in Des Moines:

USATF Outdoors: TV Schedule | Entries | Women’s Preview | Men’s Preview

10,000m (Thursday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold)
American record holder Molly Huddle eyes her fourth straight national title in the 25-lap race, but the more intriguing entrant is Gwen Jorgensen. The Olympic triathlon champion announced in November that she was switching to the marathon with the ultimate goal of gold in Tokyo. Jorgensen, a 32-year-old mom, has yet to announce her first marathon since the switch (though she was 14th in the 2016 NYC Marathon on triathlon training). In her first outdoor track race in eight years, Jorgensen set a personal best in the 10,000m on March 30 in a time that would have ranked eighth among Americans last year. Reason to believe that another strong effort on Thursday could confirm that she is ready for a fall marathon.

1500m (Final — Saturday, 4:46 p.m. ET, NBC)
A strong field is headlined by a rematch between Jenny Simpson and Shelby Houlihan. Simpson, an Olympic medalist and world champion in the 1500m, saw the Olympic 5000m runner Houlihan pass her in the final strides of the Pre Classic 1500m on May 26. Simpson eyes her fifth straight national title in the 1500m. Houlihan is also entered in Sunday’s 5000m. Other contenders include Olympians Brenda Martinez and Kate GraceSara Vaughn, the mother of three who made the 2017 Worlds team, and Alexa Efraimson, a former high school phenom who turned pro at age 17 in 2014.

400m (Final — Saturday, 5:08 p.m. ET, NBC)
Sydney McLaughlin chose not to race her trademark 400m hurdles this week. Instead, she takes on a burgeoning crops of one-lap sprinters in her first race since turning pro. There’s Kendall Ellis, who ran that incredible 4x400m anchor leg at the NCAA Championships. Shakima Wimbley, a 23-year-old who took third at the Pre Classic behind the Olympic and world champions. And Courtney Okolo, who entered the 2016 Olympic Trials as the fastest American for the year and NCAA champion (and finished sixth) and won the world indoor title on March 3. The last two world champions, Allyson Felix and Phyllis Francis, are not entered.

100m Hurdles (Final — Saturday, 5:52 p.m. ET, NBC)
The U.S. is so deep in this event that it’s one of the headline acts despite lacking the women who swept the Rio Olympic medals (Brianna McNeal, Nia Ali, Kristi Castlin). This field still has a world-record holder (Kendra Harrison, the favorite), an Olympic champion (Dawn Harper-Nelson from 2008 in her last nationals before retirement) and a world champion (Kori Carter, gold medalist in the 400m hurdles last year).

Pole Vault (Sunday, 2:55 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold)
So long an event dominated by one vaulter. Not so much anymore. Olympic champion Stacy Dragila won nine of 10 national titles between 1996 and 2005. Olympic champion Jenn Suhr won 10 of 11 between 2006 and 2016. Sandi Morris since ascended with Olympic and world silver medals, plus her first national title in 2017. Suhr, 36, considered retirement last year but came back and cleared a personal-best outdoor height on April 14 and broke the Pre Classic meet record on May 26. Morris was third at Pre after missing training due to injury, then won the next two Diamond League meets. But Suhr still has the top clearance in the world this season.

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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier top pairs’ short at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier
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World champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier lead after the pairs’ short program in what may be their last U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Knierim and Frazier, who last March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, tallied 81.96 points to open the four-day nationals on Thursday.

They lead by 15.1 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe going into Saturday’s free skate in San Jose, California. The top three teams from last year’s event — which Knierim and Frazier missed due to him contracting COVID-19 — are no longer competing together.

After nationals, a committee selects three U.S. pairs for March’s world championships in Japan.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Before the fall Grand Prix Series, the 31-year-old Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.

“I don’t like to just put it out there and say it is the last or not going to be the last because life just has that way of throwing curveballs, and you just never know,” Frazier said this month. “But I would say that this is the first nationals where I’m going to go in really trying to soak up every second as if it is my last because you just don’t know.”

Knierim is going for a fifth U.S. title, which would tie the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka Ina, Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner, Karol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Knierim is also trying to become the first female pairs’ skater in her 30s to win a national title since 1993. Knierim and ice dancer Madison Chock are trying to become the first female skaters in their 30s to win a U.S. title in any discipline since 1995.

After being unable to defend their 2021 U.S. title last year, Knierim and Frazier reeled off a series of historic results in what had long been the country’s weakest discipline.

They successfully petitioned for an Olympic spot and placed sixth at the Games, best for a U.S. pair since 2002. They considered retirement after their world title, which was won without the top five teams from the Olympics in attendance. They returned in part to compete as world champions and to give back to U.S. skating, helping set up younger pairs for success.

They became the first U.S. pair to win two Grand Prix Series events, then in December became the first U.S. pair to make a Grand Prix Final podium (second place). The world’s top pairs were absent; Russians banned due to the war in Ukraine and Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China leaving competition ice (for now).

Knierim and Frazier’s real test isn’t nationals. It’s worlds, where they will likely be the underdog to home favorites Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who edged the Americans by 1.3 points in the closest Grand Prix Final pairs’ competition in 12 years.

Nationals continue with the rhythm dance and women’s short program later Thursday.

NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships scores, results

2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships
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Full scores and results from the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose …

Pairs Short Program
1. Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier — 81.96
2. Emily Chan/Spencer Howe — 66.86
3. Ellie Kam/Danny O’Shea —- 65.75
4. Valentina Plazas/Maximiliano Fernandez — 63.45
5. Sonia Baram/Danil Tioumentsev —- 63.12
6. Katie McBeath/Nathan Bartholomay —- 56.96
7. Nica Digerness/Mark Sadusky — 50.72
8. Maria Mokhova/Ivan Mokhov —- 46.96
9. Grace Hanns / Danny Neudecker — 46.81
10. Linzy Fitzpatrick/Keyton Bearinger — 45.27
11. Nina Ouellette/Rique Newby-Estrella — 43.99

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

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