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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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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Kenya’s best to race Norway’s best on different continents in June track meet

Ingebrigtsen, Cheruiyot
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Kenya’s top 1500m man is expected to run with a team in Nairobi. Norway’s fastest will be together at a stadium in Oslo. The two contingents will face off in a virtual 2000m team event during the June 11 Impossible Games, the most significant track and field meet since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Organizers of the meet held in Oslo, typically part of the top-level Diamond League circuit, are billing the Norwegian team to include all three Ingebrigtsen brothers — Henrik (2012 European champion), Filip (2017 World bronze medalist), and Jakob (second-fastest in the world in 2019).

The Kenyan team is “Team Cheruiyot,” named after world champion Timothy Cheruiyot, though organizers did not confirm in a press release that Cheruiyot will be part of the squad that races. Later, World Athletics reported that the Kenyan team will include Cheruiyot, plus 2017 World champion Elijah Manangoi.

In the 2000m competition, each team will have five runners. The winner will be the team with the best overall time for three runners, which sounds similar to long-track speed skating’s team pursuit.

Again, the Kenyans will be racing in Nairobi. The Norwegians at the Bislett stadium. A broadcast stream will be a split screen.

“This will be the first virtual race at such level in the history of athletics,” according to a press release.

Also, Therese Johaug, the reigning World Cup overall cross-country skiing champion, will run a 10,000m on the track, organizers announced Tuesday.

Johaug, 31, is one of the world’s dominant athletes. Last season, she notched 20 World Cup victories, 17 more than any other woman. She did so after being banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after testing positive for a steroid found in a cream given to her by a team doctor to treat sunburned lips.

Johaug also has some distance-running credentials. Last year, she won the Norwegian national title in the 10,000m, clocking 32:20.86 to rank 88th in the world. The Olympic qualifying standard is 31:25.

Also slated for the June 11 meet with limited athletes and no fans in the stadium: world 400m hurdles champion Karsten Warholm of Norway, the top two ranked pole vaulters in history — Swede Mondo Duplantis and Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie — and world discus champion Daniel Stahl of Sweden.

Duplantis is expected to be at the Oslo stadium, while Lavillenie will pole vault remotely from his home in France. Warholm was announced last month to race the 300m hurdles, eyeing the fastest time in history in the non-Olympic event, in a solo race.

This year’s Diamond League season has been readjusted to start in August.

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