Ato Boldon
NBC

Ato Boldon reflects on track and field season breakouts, looks to 2019

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Track and field was supposed to suffer in 2018. Usain Bolt‘s first year in retirement. No Olympics or world outdoor championships. Even the other established stars — Allyson FelixJustin GatlinWayde van Niekerk — scarcely competed or missed the season altogether due to injury. 

In their absence, new blood rejuvenated the sport in the middle of the Olympic cycle. Christian ColemanNoah Lyles and Michael Norman kept U.S. men’s sprinting to the top. The 400m and 400m hurdles will offer some of the most anticipated head-to-heads in 2019, with at least one world-record watch.

NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon recapped the season in the sprints and looked ahead to 2019 in a Q&A [editor’s additions in brackets] …

OlympicTalk: Overall thoughts on the year, the first post-Bolt and without a major championship?

Boldon: I never bought the whole argument that Bolt’s going to leave this huge void athletically. I thought he would leave a void personality-wise, and I think maybe that has been nullified a little bit with the likes of [Qatar’s] Abderrahman Samba [second-fastest 400m hurdler of all time in just his second season in the event] and Noah Lyles and Sydney McLaughlin. It turned out to be a pretty good year.

The 400m went through a huge change with the addition of Michael Norman to the mix. In the women’s 400m, I finally got the sub-49 I’ve been waiting for since Sanya Richards-Ross [in 2009]. I’m really excited to see the next worlds, Olympics, worlds cycle [2019, 2020, 2021] because there’s just so much young talent. There are a bunch of world records coming.

OlympicTalk: Who is the man in the sprints right now?

Boldon: I don’t know if that’s for sure yet. It could be Christian Coleman. We saw that last year when he ran 9.82. That last race he ran to win the Diamond League [a 9.79, factoring in conditions arguably the best 100m ever outside the Bolt era], to end the season with that sort of statement, to say I’ve gone to a place none of you guys have ever been, makes him the man unless I see differently.

OlympicTalk: Who is more likely to be challenged in 2019 – Coleman in the 100m or Lyles in the 200m?

Boldon: Coleman, though Lyles is going to have better competition next year [than in 2018]. Michael Norman is going to go back to practice and say, “Nobody understands how good I can be at the 200m. That’s probably my better event.” [though Norman ran the world’s fastest 400m of 2018 and broke the indoor 400m world record]

Norman has a natural rivalry with Lyles [they were 2016 Olympic Trials breakouts, finishing fourth and fifth in the 200m as 18-year-olds]. He did not take that loss to Lyles [in the 200m in Lausanne] as well as some people may think.

OlympicTalk: We barely saw Allyson Felix compete this year. What do you see from her?

Boldon: I think she felt like she had some unfinished business after the Olympics [edged for 400m gold]. The problem is that when you’re Allyson Felix, nothing less than gold is going to be the goal. And now her path to gold is harder than it has ever been in her career in any event.

At age 33 next year, it looks like she will have to run a time that she’s never run to beat Shaunae Miller-Uibo, who just ran 48.9 [at age 24], and Salwa Eid Naser, who just ran 49 flat [at age 20]. I don’t see any way Allyson Felix [personal best 49.26] wins another 400m world title or Olympic title.

OlympicTalk: Would her chances be better if she focused on the 200m?

Boldon: The 200m is not an option for her anymore. As you get older, the speed goes [away] first. She doesn’t have 21.6 speed anymore. And guess what, Shaunae Miller-Uibo is still going to be in that event. You have the Olympic champion, Elaine Thompson, if she can overcome the Achilles injury. Allyson’s chance might be slightly better in the 200m, but I think it’s like zero [in the 400m] versus a one.

OlympicTalk: Wayde van Niekerk will go more than a year between races, possibly as much as 18 months, after meniscus and ACL tears last fall. How concerned are you about him getting back to his best?

Boldon: Any time you’re the world-record holder, the best in the history of the event, there’s concern. But it’s a knee, and people recover from knees a lot better than other things. On a one-to-10 scale of being concerned, I’m probably about a four. It’s on the lower side. He’s going to be back. He’s young enough [26]. I expect him to be back if not at his best, then very close.

OlympicTalk: Single best performance of 2018?

Boldon: Samba in the 400m hurdles, that he ran 46.98 [second only to Kevin Young’s world record at the 1992 Olympics] with nobody around him. When him and Rai Benjamin [who won NCAAs in 47.02] hook up next year, I want to be there. Samba has run less than 20 races in that event in his career. The guy has basically rewritten what a great season is in that event with very little experience.

OlympicTalk: After all the breakouts in the last year, name somebody who will in the next year.

Boldon: There’s a young lady from the University of Georgia in the 400m. Her name is Lynna Irby. She ran 49.8 to win the NCAAs as a freshman, taking down Kendall Ellis. She also ran a really fast 200m [22.25, third fastest American this year]. I think she’s the next American star in the 200m and 400m. I love everything about her, how she competes, her form.

OlympicTalk: Justin Gatlin didn’t race much this year but has a bye into the world championships as defending 100m gold medalist. Can he contend with Coleman and Lyles?

Boldon: He did the right thing this year. When you’re an old gunslinger [Gatlin is 36], you only have so many shots left. You don’t shoot them in a year where you don’t have a world championships. I don’t know that Gatlin’s going to beat Coleman if Coleman stays healthy, but he can still be a factor, no question about it.

OlympicTalk: Does Coleman break the American record in the 100m next year [9.69]?

Boldon: Yes.

OlympicTalk: How fast does Lyles go in the 200m next year?

Boldon: 19.5 [after running in the 19.6s four times this year].

OlympicTalk: Do Coleman and Lyles each double up in the 100m and 200m in 2019?

Boldon: You’re going to see Coleman and Lyles running the 100m and the 200m next year at the world championships trials.

Lyles can be Olympic champion and world champion in the next three years if they fix his start [in the 100m]. He’s way better in the last 50 than Coleman. It could be that if Lyles showed up next year with a proper drive phase and better start mechanics, that Lyles can be a 100m-200m threat just like everybody else.

Everybody forgot that Coleman is a 19.8 performer [in the 200m from 2017]. I think he’s actually faster than that. His mechanics issues come late in the race.

OlympicTalk: What races are you looking forward to most next year?

Boldon: The matchup between Shaunae Miller-Uibo and Salwa Eid Naser in the women’s 400m and the 400m hurdles between Rai Benjamin and Abderrahman Samba.

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Surfing world champion Gabriel Medina’s birthday bond with Neymar

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Of Brazilian Gabriel Medina‘s 7.7 million Instagram followers, most began tracking him after his first world surf tour win at age 17, his first world title at 20 or his second crown last year at 24.

But not Neymar. The soccer icon with 113 million followers got in on the ground floor. On Medina’s 14th or 15th birthday, to be more precise.

At the time, either in 2007 or 2008, Neymar was already big in Brazil, though he didn’t start playing professionally until 2009 and didn’t move from Brazil’s domestic league to the titans of Europe until 2013.

“My manager told [Neymar] I wanted to meet him, and then he pretty much organized it,” Medina said in December. “I met [Neymar] first time at his house in Santos.”

Medina, who lived a 90-minute drive from Santos in Sao Paulo, celebrated his birthday by presenting a gift to his fellow precocious athlete, a surfboard.

The two since palled around Brazil and Europe, playing Counter-Strike and poker and hanging at Carnival and on cruises, Medina said. In 2014, Neymar promoted on his social media a live broadcast of Medina’s competition as he tried to become South America’s first world champion in surfing, which makes its Olympic debut in 2020.

Neymar, whose lone sibling is a younger sister, calls Medina his brother. He attended a World Surf League contest in Portugal in October.

“Really good friend outside of the beach and inside of the beach and in the soccer fields,” Medina said. “He put a lot of work and is one of the best. It’s good to have a friend like that.”

Medina was in Rio for the start of the Olympics, a few weeks after he became the first surfer to land a backflip in a contest. But he had to leave before Neymar penned the moment of the Games, slotting the shootout winner to deliver Brazil its first Olympic soccer title.

Two months later, Medina’s stepfather and coach, known in Brazil as Charlão, was involved in an unspecified incident involving World Surf League officials.

He was suspended for six months. Medina struggled early in the 2017 season, rebounded to win the ninth and 10th events but lost in the quarterfinals of the Billabong Pipe Masters finale, ending his comeback bid and allowing American John John Florence to clinch a repeat title.

Medina said his climb back in 2018 to his first world title in four years was more difficult than earning that maiden crown, when he became the youngest male world champ since Kelly Slater won the first of his record 11 titles in 1992. Medina, whose favorite tattoo is a family crest inside his upper arm, mentioned dealing with his dad’s situation.

“When you win the first one you kind of get in a comfortable zone, you know?” he said. “That’s why I think the second is harder. You have to put a lot of work, even more than the first one.”

Brazil had its most successful Olympics ever in Rio, unsurprisingly, with national records of seven gold medals and 19 total medals. It finished 13th in the medal standings, also a best. Those numbers are expected to descend without a home-field advantage in Tokyo. The addition of surfing should be a boost, though Medina is not guaranteed one of two Brazilian spots at the Games. Three of the top four men in last season’s world tour standings were from Brazil.

Which led Medina to proclaim that surfing has passed volleyball as Brazil’s second-most popular sport.

“Of course,” Medina said, “soccer is No. 1.”

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MORE: Top U.S. female surfer has Olympic swimming, Egg McMuffin ties

Nathan Chen, Alina Zagitova among the top takeaways for the figure skating season

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A baker’s dozen takeaways, with some looks to the future, from the 2018-19 figure skating season, which ended Saturday in Japan with the United States winning the World Team Trophy.

1. It’s time to give Russia’s Alina Zagitova full – and massive – credit for what she has done the past two seasons.

Zagitova and her coaching team were unfairly criticized in some quarters for what turned out to be a brilliant strategy of doing all seven jumping passes in the second half bonus area of the 2018 Olympic free skate. Not only was that an impressive feat of stamina, the bonus points Zagitova got for those jumps were the difference between her winning gold and getting silver.

When a Zagitova worn down by a post-Olympic whirl of appearances flopped to fifth in the 2018 World Championships, staggered to fifth at this season’s Russian Championships and was beaten at Europeans, there were suggestions she might be a one-hit wonder. Then, as she later said in an interview on the Russian Skating Federation website, Zagitova became so unsettled by the pressure and the thought of failure at worlds her jumps deserted her in practice, and she had thoughts of quitting.

Some of her struggles were not unexpected. She had grown some three inches since the Olympics. Her body proportions were changing from those of a girl to those of a young woman. New rules minimized one of her strengths by limited skaters to just three jumping passes in the bonus area.

And Zagitova overcame all that, the psychological and the physical issues and the scoring changes, to win the 2019 worlds with two clean programs, a dazzling short and a strong, commanding free. At 16, she had added a world title to her Olympic title. That is worthy of unqualified acclaim.

2. Nathan Chen had a remarkable season, even if judged only by what he did on the ice.

When one puts his undefeated record in the context of having done it while simultaneously being a full-time freshman student at Yale University whose coach was 3,000 miles away, Chen’s was a season for the ages.

Chen was lights out in winning a third straight U.S. title. Then, he was even better in winning a second straight world title, this one more significant because two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan was in the field.

Chen has not yet decided – or perhaps just not yet announced – whether he will be a full-time student again next season, although there doesn’t seem any reason to mess with success given there are two more seasons before the next Olympics.

If Yale allows him three straight semesters off – and the University already has been very accommodating of his travel schedule and his need for ice time on the Yale rink – it would make more sense for him to take an academic leave beginning with the second half of the 2020-21 season and academic year and going through the 2022 Winter Games.

3. Vincent Zhou of the U.S. no longer is just that guy who goes from jump to jump (while collecting under-rotation marks.)

Zhou’s improvement in the last two months of the season was tremendous. He went on from a bronze medal at worlds to do two terrific skates at the World Team Trophy, his free skate a seamless, compelling performance and an athletic tour de force. The under-rotation calls were disappearing.

Doing three quads at World Team Trophy instead of his usual four seemed to give Zhou the time to breathe and create an entertaining impression. Maybe he should keep thinking less is more.

4. The changes in the scoring system had a small mathematical effect on their goal of rebalancing athletic (TES) and artistic (loosely, PCS) scores in singles free skates, especially among the men.

This is tricky to calculate, because the drops in value of the highest scoring jumps were offset by the possibility of higher (and lower) Grades of Execution when the range was expanded from +3/-3 to +5/-5. And the limiting of free skate bonus area jumping passes lowered potential TES scores.

At the 2017 worlds, each of the top four men in the free (Hanyu and Shoma Uno of Japan, Boyang Jin of China, and Chen) had significantly higher TES scores, with none getting more than 44 percent of the total from PCS.

At the 2019 worlds, the top four men in the free did get a higher percentage of their total from PCS, even if the difference was insignificant for winner Chen (43.8 to 43.9). The others: Hanyu, 46.5; Vincent Zhou, 46.7; Uno, 49.8 (Uno’s TES scores were dramatically affected by two downgraded quads).

The women’s scores shifted in the opposite way. At the 2017 worlds and 2018 Olympics, six of the top eight in the free had higher TES. This season, it was seven of the top eight (only fifth-place Kaori Sakamato of Japan had a higher PCS, and it was a minimal difference of less than one percent). Japan’s Rika Kihira, second in the free, had a TES score nearly 12 points higher than her PCS, accounting for 54 percent of her total, even though she fell on a triple Axel.

Given the concurrent rise of PCS scores, almost across the board, it would have seemed the change in score percentages might have been more dramatic.

5. Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron could take the next two seasons off and return to waltz to the 2022 Olympic gold.

The French ice dancers have a greater gap on their competition than any team in the 15-season history of the IJS. They won the 2019 world title by 10.89 points, a margin topped only by their 10.96 of a year ago, when reigning Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada skipped worlds.

In the 13 previous seasons, no team had won by more than 5.95 (Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov of Russia in 2005).

Ice dance had been blessed with compelling rivalries from 2010 through 2018: Virtue/Moir vs. Papadakis/Cizeron, Virtue/Moir vs. Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S. Now the French are unrivalled, competing only against themselves and abstract ideas of brilliance. So far, they haven’t been slowed down by having to play a solo game of “Can you top this?”

6. The most anticipated figure skating event in the United States next season is the Aug. 28-31 Junior Grand Prix stop in Lake Placid, N.Y.

That is where reigning U.S. senior champion Alysa Liu, 13 (until Aug. 8) and ineligible for senior international competition until the 2021-22 season, will likely debut in a consequential junior international junior event. (She could be in a lesser event before that.) Liu, who hit three triple Axels at nationals, may have added a quad by Lake Placid. She tried two unsuccessfully in last season’s U.S. Regionals.

7. The quad wave is about to sweep into senior women’s competition.

Russians Anna Shcherbakova (quad Lutz) and Alexandra Trusova (quad Lutz, quad toe, quad Salchow) who finished 1-2 in seniors at this season’s Russian Championships and 2-1 at the World Junior Championships, are the headliners. They join Kazakh Elizabet Tursynbaeva, whose quad Salchow at worlds made her the first woman to land a quad in a senior event.

8. Ting Cui, 16, looks ready to take one of the two U.S. singles spots at next year’s senior worlds.

Cui, 2019 junior world bronze medalist and fifth at senior nationals (third in the free skate), has a good chance to bump either Mariah Bell or Bradie Tennell, more likely the former. Bell has finished an unremarkable ninth, 12th, and 12th in the last three worlds. After underwhelming performances much of this season, 2018 U.S. champion Tennell (seventh and sixth) in the last two worlds, ended with the best free skate of her career at the World Team Trophy.

9. Rika Kihira rose and fell (literally) on the success of her triple Axel.

The jump carried her past Zagitova to win the Grand Prix title. Then it cost her a chance at the world title after Kihira popped (singled) the jump in the short program.

Kihira’s season triple Axel tally, in ISU or national championship events: 13 clean in 23 attempts (56.5 percent), with five falls, three pops, one downgrade and one double.

10. Yevgenia Medvedeva showed she deserved her spot at worlds. So did Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who did not get one.

Sofia Samodurova’s surprising win at the European Championships and the illness that sidelined Tuktamysheva at her nationals left the Russian federation in a quandary.

They couldn’t keep the European champion off the team. And they wanted to include Medvedeva, no matter that she had struggled – but slowly improved – all season after leaving Russia to train in Canada with Brian Orser. And hadn’t Tuktamysheva been an also-ran for the three seasons after her 2015 world title, no matter that she won two Grand Prix events and a bronze at the Grand Prix Final this season?

Medvedeva skated well enough at worlds to win a bronze medal when Kihira and Sakamoto made big mistakes.

Tuktamysheva went to the World Team Trophy and was outstanding in winning the free skate and finishing second in the short program. She did a massive, effortless triple Axel in each program, having regained full command of a jump she added to her arsenal in 2015 but could not land cleanly the next three seasons.

Beyond that, Tuktamysheva at age 22 became a presence: she developed a funny, outgoing persona on social media, pushed the limits with a sexy “striptease” in her exhibition program – and accepted her worlds snub with grace.

11. It’s great that French pair Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres have decided to keep competing.

They began 2018-19 uncertain about their future beyond the season, then reached heights they never imagined possible a few years ago, coming into worlds as the undefeated European and Grand Prix Final champions. That worlds was their one poor competition of the season, leaving them fifth, undoubtedly was a motivation to continue.

James and Cipres finished with a stunning free skate at World Team Trophy, showing flawless unison on their big tricks.

It would be a real treat to see what the judges do if they and the sparkling Chinese world champions, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, both skate cleanly in the same competition next season.

12. Canada went without a world medal for the first time since 2004**.

Its best finish at the 2019 worlds was fifth in dance.

Its top woman’s singles finish, 11th by Gabrielle Daleman, was the lowest since Alaine Chartrand was 11th in 2015. And, according to Skate Canada, its top men’s finish, 15th by Keegan Messing, was its lowest ever (the previous low was 13th by Kevin Pockar in 1979.)

So why the asterisks**?

The gold and bronze medalists in ice dance, from France and the USA, are coached by Canadians Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in Montreal.

Montreal is also the site of the 2020 worlds, but Canada’s medal chances don’t look much better even on home ice. It earned just one 2020 worlds spot in men’s singles and barely got two in women’s singles.

13. Yuzuru Hanyu’s desire to push the technical envelope, admirable as it is, may shorten one of the greatest careers in the history of skating.

The Japanese superstar was out of competition for three months in both the last two seasons, missing two Grand Prix Finals and Japanese Championships, after injuring his right ankle while attempting quad Lutz (November 2017) and quad loop jumps (November 2018).

He has done just one quad Lutz in a competition. Although he has had 10 clean quad loops in 18 attempts, according to skatingscores.com, Hanyu won the 2018 Olympics without that difficult edge jump.

After he finished second at the 2019 worlds, the Japanese Skating Federation announced Hanyu would need two to three months of treatment on the long-term ligament damage in his ankle. Getting the ligaments to heal completely will not be easy, especially should Hanyu choose to try to reach his stated goal of landing a quad Axel.

Hanyu means too much to the sport for him to risk his future on jumps he likely can still win without if the rest of his skating is flawless.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Takeaways and top moments from the World Figure Skating Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2018-19 figure skating season 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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