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Sarah True, after post-Rio suicidal thoughts, tackles Ironman Kona

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Post-Olympic depression hit Sarah True hard after she tottered, right leg cramping, off the Rio triathlon course, pushing her bike to a street-side barrier while being lapped.

“This continued into 2017, and for a good part of that year I couldn’t experience any joy whatsoever,” True, who struggled with clinical depression since her early teens, wrote for Outside magazine. “I obsessively thought about taking my own life. I’d be out on long training rides and couldn’t stop thinking about swerving into oncoming traffic, every truck becoming an object that could end it all. Month after month passed, and I kept thinking it can’t get any worse, and yet it just kept on getting worse.”

True sought help. From a therapist. From connecting socially. From doing art and cooking. From knowing that the feelings would eventually pass.

“No matter how bleak and despairing it feels, it’s not real,” she said. “The people around you still love you. You’re not this burden to them. One of the most important things was I finally acknowledged the fact that I needed help. At that point I realized that I think it’s time to revisit this thing that I filed away in my brain. This Ironman thing.”

Last October, True had a “light-bulb, epiphany” moment, waking up with a new goal of doing an Ironman triathlon — a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile marathon run. It’s more than four times longer than the Olympic distance.

“I was in a pretty dark, scary place last year, and when I came out I was just so grateful for life that honestly the best celebration of being alive I could think of was doing an Ironman,” she said Wednesday.

True, 36, has been in Hawaii for the last month, preparing to race the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona on Saturday.

The biggest event in triathlon streams on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app with a 90-minute NBCSN broadcast at 12:30 p.m. ET. Live reports on NBCSN and NBC will air throughout the day, beginning at 2 p.m. NBCSN will air recap coverage Sunday at 12 a.m. and 1 p.m.

“I would be disappointed with anything outside the top 10, but I also recognize that extremely fit people with far more experience in Ironman have had disastrous races here because of the conditions,” True said.

Her first triathlon memories were watching Kona legend Paula Newby-Fraser racing in a fluorescent two-piece suit on NBC. Newby-Fraser won a record eight Kona crowns between 1986 and 1996.

True grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., playing pranks on MLB Hall of Fame visitors seeking directions. She swam and ran at Cooperstown High, then swam at Vermont’s Division III Middlebury College and made what she called a natural progression to triathlon.

By 2011, True had become the best U.S. female triathlete. She finished fourth at the London Olympics, missing bronze by 10 seconds, and briefly considered moving toward the Ironman distance.

After Rio, True tried to resume an Olympic-distance career. But after DNFing and finishing 34th in the first two World Series races in 2017, she gave it up. She remembered a coach four years earlier asking what motivated her to wake up every morning. It was Olympic-distance triathlon. Not anymore.

“I was still carrying the heartbreak from Rio,” True said on the IronWomen podcast. “My heart wasn’t in it.”

True made her half Ironman distance debut the following month and finished second in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“It was kind of a test for whether or not I would call it a very happy, successful career or version 2.0, long-course, non-draft athlete phase,” she told Ironman historian Bob Babbitt. “I loved it.”

True is now in Kona as an experienced racer, having placed fourth and 10th at the last two half Ironman 70.3 World Championships and second to three-time reigning Kona champ Daniela Ryf at the European Championships in July, her first full Ironman. (Granted, Ryf, who was 40th at the 2012 Olympics, won by 26 minutes.)

True has been remarkably strong amid many rookie moments. In her first 70.3, she took in just 350 calories over more than four hours of racing (and none on the 13.1-mile run), causing her dietitian to laugh, gobsmacked she didn’t blow up during the half marathon. She had massive blisters on her feet from not wearing socks. True did her first three 70.3 races in an exhausting span of six weeks.

The longest run of her life before the European Championships was 18 miles. True grabbed the wrong bag in the transition off the bike in Frankfurt, Germany. She had to go back after being dumbfounded by the unfamiliar shoes and running equipment she had pulled out.

She is asked what scares her about Saturday’s race, one of the toughest events in all of sport, that starts at 6:40 a.m. local time.

“Things can go very badly in the heat,” she said. “It’s not fear. It’s a healthy respect for what could potentially go wrong. It’s Ironman. When things go wrong in a nine-hour race, they go really wrong.”

The feeling is not comparable to the days leading up to an Olympics. Kona is every year. True is right now on a two-year plan, to spend next year training specifically for Kona.

This one is for gaining experience, handling the head- and cross-winds biking on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway. Surviving the Energy Lab on the run after more than 130 miles of racing. The forecast says it’ll reach 86 degrees by 9 a.m. with a coin-flip chance of rain.

“There’s no amateur component to the Olympics,” True said. “I’m here with 2,500 amateur athletes, and it’s a traveling circus. The vendors are here. All the media is here. This town has just been overrun by triathlon. The Olympics is a celebration of Olympic sport. Kona is a celebration of triathlon.”

MORE: Gwen Jorgensen questions marathon after Chicago disappointment

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Grigory Rodchenkov, Russian doping whistleblower, still lives in fear

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His head covered in a black balaclava, adjusting dark goggles obscuring his eyes, Grigory Rodchenkov grows anxious if any part of his face can be seen.

Exposing Russia’s state-sponsorship doping scheme forced Rodchenkov into hiding in the United States five years ago. Revealing his current identity is still too risky for the chemist turned whistleblower, even in a video interview from an undisclosed location.

“It’s my security measures because I have physical threats to be assassinated,” Rodchenkov told The Associated Press. “And I want to live.”

Evidence from Rodchenkov that has already turned Vladimir Putin‘s Russia into international sporting outcasts continues to be used in cases against athletes along with data from his former laboratory in Moscow.

“Putin, he is quite logical. He separates opposition in two ways — enemies … betrayers,” Rodchenkov said. “I am falling in the betrayers’ category and all betrayers should be beheaded, cut, dead. So there is no doubt that he wants me to be dead.”

It has not deterred him from documenting his life story in “The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire,” revisiting how he conspired with his country to corrupt sports and then tries to show contrition by turning star witness.

Rodchenkov was the brains behind the Duchess cocktail of anabolic steroids and cover-up that turned Russia into a medal machine at the home Olympics in Sochi in 2014, topping the standings with 13 gold medals before disqualifications.

Russian spies ensured the Duchess would not be detected in doping tests as FSB agents used a hole in the wall of the Sochi laboratory to swap out the dirty samples with clean urine at night.

“For me, it was the end of doping control,” Rodchenkov said. “If we can do it, why others cannot?”

The doping cover-up extended beyond the Winter Olympics, into the Summer Games, Paralympics, world track and field championships and every major sport.

Some Russians were barred from competing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to blanket bans on countries.

So Russian athletes can still compete on the international stage if they can show they are clean, despite a four-year ban from major international sporting events being imposed on the nation last year for a fresh cover-up, including tampering with data gained from Rodchenkov’s former lab in Moscow.

“Sport is a part of Putin’s politics and showing to the West how good Russia is,” Rodchenkov said. “You cannot trust Russia. You cannot trust the certification authorities, and (anti-doping) laboratories cannot be allowed to be restored within the foreseeable future.”

Especially now, according to Rodchenkov, following constitutional changes allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030,

“Until 2036,” Rodchenkov said, “no trust.”

But why now trust Rodchenkov as he presents a virtuous image at odds with his deep collusion with the state to cheat?

“When you are laboratory director and you have 50 employees and you are reporting to your high ups at the ministry, I could not even think about morals,” he said, dismissing concerns about any long-term damage to the health of athletes he allowed to be pumped with steroids.

“It’s extremely debatable and still ungrounded,” he said. “We see the generation who is now in the end of their lives of 70s and 80s, which are still … in a good physical condition after steroid programs.”

Go back four decades and Rodchenkov was starting out in a Soviet system learning how to manipulate doping controls.

“I had honestly, I’m sorry, but I had huge feelings of accomplishment,” he said. “Those athletes I helped to (win) were extremely talented and I could not understand, with the coach, how he or she may lose to others. The only explanation was doping. Then using some programs, we won gold medals. Honestly it was like leveling the field.

“Again, ‘morals’ is maybe vocabulary from American life but not from Soviet and Russian. In (the) Soviet (Union) it was the Soviet moral, in Russia there is no morals.”

It helps when the athletes are compliant.

“This is the huge problem of the militarization of Russia sport,” Rodchenkov said. “They follow orders, they are disciplined but they cannot tell the truth because they have given the oath to the Russian state and consider foreigners as potential enemies or even actual enemies. That’s why in Russia there are three ways – lying, cheating and denying.”

Rodchenkov has had to convince the world he has shed those ways and is coming clean. More of the cases he helped to cover-up could soon come to light after the World Anti-Doping Agency shared data – of samples tested up to 2015, and tampering that continued into 2019 – that was retrieved from the Moscow testing lab at the heart of the state-backed doping program.

“The problem is that the people from outside cannot understand what is going on inside sports,” he said. “Only whistleblowers could do that. But in corrupted countries you have to escape and we need to be preserved.”

For Rodchenkov that means living a life constantly in fear of being recognized as happened on a train in the US.

“It was a student,” he recalled. “I told him, `Forget you are meeting me, yes it’s me, don’t tell anyone.’ … I disappeared again.”

MORE: Russia track and field faces expulsion if it misses deadline

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Noah Lyles, more world champs race in Monaco; TV, live stream schedule

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Noah Lyles headlines a bevy of world champions slated for the first full-on Diamond League meet of the abbreviated track and field season, live on NBC Sports on Friday.

Monaco hosts the strongest fields of any meet since the world championships 10 months ago. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBC Sports Gold air coverage on Friday at 2 p.m. ET.

Reigning world champions include Lyles (200m), Grant Holloway (110m hurdles), Donavan Brazier (800m) and Sam Kendricks (pole vault), and those are just the Americans.

Swede Mondo Duplantis, who twice raised the pole vault world record in February, takes on Kendricks in Monaco. Distance stars Sifan Hassan, Hellen Obiri, Beatrice Chepkoech, Timothy Cheruiyot and Joshua Cheptegei dot the fields, too.

The Diamond League season was due to start in April, but the coronavirus pandemic halted large-gathering track meets until now. Repurposed versions of Diamond League meets in Oslo and Zurich were held the last two months with fewer events and athletes and some entrants racing from different countries.

After Monaco, more Diamond League meets are scheduled for Stockholm (Aug. 23), Lausanne (Sept. 2), Brussels (Sept. 4), Naples (Sept. 17), Doha (Sept. 25) and China (Oct. 17).

Here are the Monaco entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:40 p.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
2:03 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
2:05 — Women’s High Jump
2:12 — Men’s 800m
2:17 — Women’s Triple Jump
2:19 — Women’s 5000m
2:42 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
2:50 — Women’s 100m
2:57 — Men’s 1500m
3:07 — Women’s 400m
3:13 — Men’s 5000m
3:32 — Men’s 200m
3:39 — Women’s 100m
3:47 — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 1:40 p.m.
The top field event of the meet includes the reigning Olympic champion (Brazil’s Thiago Braz), reigning world champion (Kendricks) and the world-record holder (Duplantis, who must be the favorite here). Kendricks and Duplantis already went head-to-head this spring, competing virtually from respective home pole-vault setups. Kendricks took their first six head-to-heads, back when Duplantis was a teenager, but the Louisiana-born Swede won all four of their indoor duels in February. Duplantis is the clear Tokyo Olympic favorite until proven otherwise.

Men’s 800m — 2:12 p.m.
The top four from the 2019 World Championships are entered. Brazier, 23, caught fire the last year. He broke the American record to win the world title. He broke his own American indoor record in February. Then, last month, Brazier took 1.33 seconds off his 1500m personal best. Nobody in the Monaco field has beaten Brazier since the start of 2018.

Women’s 5000m — 2:19 p.m.
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in world champion at 1500m and 10,000m, but she’s lost four of five meetings with two-time world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya at 5000m. Hassan appears to be gearing up to race the 5000m in Tokyo, though, saying last month her eye was on a 1500m-5000m Olympic double had the Games been held this year. The 1500m preliminary heats and the 5000m final are separated by about 12 hours at the Olympics next year. Also in this field: three-time Olympian and former American record holder Shannon Rowbury, set for her first Diamond League race in nearly three years and since the birth of daughter Sienna.

Men’s 1500m — 2:57 p.m.
Last we saw Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in a 1500m, he led wire-to-wire en route to a 2.12-second victory in the world championships final. Only one man has beaten Cheruiyot in three years, countryman Elijah Manangoi, who is provisionally suspended due to whereabouts failures. The Monaco field does include Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen (second-fastest man of 2019), Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha (indoor mile world-record holder), Pole Marcin Lewandowski (world bronze medalist) and Craig Engels (2019 U.S. champion who was 10th at worlds).

Men’s 200m — 3:32 p.m.
Lyles and younger brother Josephus Lyles go head-to-head for the first time since January 2017. Noah has lost just one outdoor 200m since placing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials coming out of high school. Josephus, primarily a 400m sprinter in his developmnt, last month took a half-second off a five-year-old 200m personal best. His new best time — 20.24 seconds — would have placed third at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships behind Noah (19.78) and Christian Coleman (20.02).

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