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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.

MORE: Usain Bolt’s Olympic spikes stolen

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Three questions with Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea before the U.S. Championships

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2016 U.S. national champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea changed coaches to kick off the new season. Now under Dalilah Sappenfield in Colorado Springs, the oft-injured team said they’re healthier than ever heading into the U.S. Championships this weekend in Detroit.

The 2018 Four Continents Champions got off to a “slow start” this year, with a seventh place finish a silver medal on the Challenger Series. On the Grand Prix series, though, they had a fifth place finish in Japan and a silver medal-performance in France. It was their first-ever Grand Prix medal. They told reporters on a media teleconference ahead of nationals that both of their Grand Prix performances “showed growth.” Since then, they’ve spent time drilling on their programs.

Here’s what we learned from their teleconference:

1. They’ve made huge strides from where they are today compared to where they were this time before nationals a year ago.

Tarah Kayne: “There’s a huge difference for me specifically mentally and physically. Last year I was coming off of a right knee surgery where I had my patella tendon reconstructed. For nationals, we were just getting started back into competitive shape. We had maybe a handful of free skate run-throughs under our belts going into nationals. I was just starting to get comfortable doing throws again. We were purposefully trying to make our throws smaller to cut back the impact on my right knee, and to make it as safe as possible.”

“Now this season, I am feeling so much healthier and stronger. We’re making our throws bigger again! Which is a great feeling for me to feel comfortable and to be in that place physically. And also mentally to feel safe doing that. A huge part of that has been being at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and training under Dalilah who I find to be very empowering.”

Danny O’Shea: “We’re healthy. That’s been the goal for a very long time. We have been elusive for a lot of our career so far. Feeling healthy going into nationals is a very comforting place to be in. Not having to scramble, rely purely on mental toughness to overcome what may be a lack of physical training is a very nice place to be in.

2. They feel like they got a fresh start under their new coach.

TK: “With Dalilah, we started from scratch. We just came to her and let her mold us. Whatever she wanted us to do, we did. We didn’t question things. We didn’t say, ‘that’s not how we do things, how we’re used to.’ We just let her change whatever she wanted to change because we didn’t want to get the same results we have always gotten. We wanted to improve. We wanted to be bigger; we wanted to be better; we wanted to be faster.”

DO: “When you’re with a coach for seven years as a team, things are second-nature. There’s been definite differences in what we’ve been doing throughout the year. Some took some getting used to. Some were very comfortable right off the bat. Overall, it’s been a positive for us and that we’re in a very good place physically right now, which is helping us be able to train hard and keep pushing throughout the year.”

3. Kayne and O’Shea don’t want anyone else to miss out on the Olympics (like they did, as 2018 Olympic alternates) or the world championships. And with only one U.S. pair spot at Worlds this year, they know what’s at stake.

DO: “It’s on our minds.”

TK: “It’s a hard job. It’s a hard position to be in. I wish I wasn’t in this position. I would love to be walking into this with three spots and have a little bit of wiggle room… it’s a job. I have to go and do my job at nationals to get to Worlds. And then I have to do my job at Worlds to make sure no one else is in this position again… We’re capable at this place and time to accomplish that goal for ourselves and for the United States.”

DO: “We have always gone into nationals trying to skate our best, but this year we know we have to go and do that and we have to win. You wanna go into every competition to try and be your best, but with the way things are, we’re going in to win nationals and make that world team again, and go to Worlds and start turning this around. We don’t want to have one spot for Worlds or one spot for the Olympics any longer.”

MORE: Three questions with Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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U.S. junior champions crowned in ladies’ and men’s events

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Gabriella Izzo is the newest junior ladies’ national champion, crowned this week at the U.S. Championships in Detroit. Junior ladies’ national champions of the past include eventual Olympians Mirai Nagasu, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Bradie Tennell.

Izzo had a commanding lead after the short program, with 60.97 points, where she pulled off her first-ever triple Lutz, triple loop combination in competition. (However, it was deemed under-rotated.) Regardless, her 111.45 points in the free skate combined for 172.42 points and the gold medal.

Audrey Shin, who actually won the free skate by just over a point, earned the silver medal with 165.61 points. Emilia Murdock took home the bronze with 154.48 points.

On the junior men’s side, Ryan Dunk rebounded from second after the short program to win the event. His 132.85-point free skate was enough to crack the 200-point overall score, the only man in the field to do so, and win the gold.

Men’s junior champions include eventual world champion Nathan Chen (twice) as well as Olympians Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown.

Dinh Tran finished second with 196.03 points after a fourth-place short program. Joonsoo Kim, who lead after the short program on Tuesday, ended up with the bronze medal with 187.95 points.

NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will live stream each junior competition and replays will also be available on-demand. Check out the full schedule and live streaming information here.

The junior rhythm dance took place earlier Wednesday. Siblings Caroline and Gordon Green lead the field with 70.82 points, while Avonley Nguyen and Vadym Kolesnik are second with 65.92 points. The brother-sister team of Oona and Gage Brown are in third with 63.34 heading into Friday’s junior free dance.

Also Wednesday, Laiken Lockley and Keenan Prochnow took the lead in the junior pairs’ short program. The junior pairs’ free skate is Thursday. Kate Finster and Balazs Nagy are second, followed by Isabelle Martins and Ryan Bedard in third.

MORE: Full streaming schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the junior and senior U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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