Shalane Flanagan, Des Linden, Molly Huddle
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Shalane Flanagan, U.S. women are the story at New York City Marathon

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NEW YORK — If there is one news angle leading into Sunday’s New York City Marathon, it’s a collective: the rise of U.S. women.

Last year, Shalane Flanagan became the first U.S. female runner in 40 years to win New York, the world’s largest annual marathon.

Des Linden watched the broadcast from Michigan. Five minutes before Flanagan crossed the Central Park finish line, an already crying Linden tweeted from her iPhone, “Thank you @ShalaneFlanagan for giving us something to believe in.”

Flanagan responded two days later amid a victory whirlwind: “Now it’s your turn,” with emojis of a fist, a flexed bicep and an American flag.

Then 160 days after that, Linden broke a 33-year drought for U.S. women at the Boston Marathon on perhaps the worst weather day in the 122-year history of the world’s oldest annual marathon.

“My legs have never been more sore. They hurt so bad I couldn’t sleep,” tweeted Flanagan, a Massachusetts native who finished seventh in what she said was her final Boston Marathon as an elite. “BUT @des_linden won the @bostonmarathon so life is good.”

Flanagan, 37, and Linden, 35, headline Sunday’s race, along with the arguably more promising 34-year-old Molly Huddle. None of those multiple-time Olympians is considered the favorite. Kenyans Mary Keitany and Vivian Cheruiyot have personal bests three minutes faster than any American, but the power of the red, white and blue surge is irresistible.

In the last year, Flanagan’s two-word expletive from her 2017 win became a rallying cry. She appeared in a Super Bowl commercial with Chris Pratt. Countless girls dressed as her for Halloween.

Linden had a viral moment, chugging champagne from a lightly used running shoe hours after the Boston win. Flanagan and Linden received the highest appearance fees for Sunday’s race among runners of either gender, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“Any chance that we get to be in the spotlight, the American women and the women’s field, that’s something to be relished,” Flanagan said Friday. “I don’t know that I’ve always been a part of races where it is like that.”

Linden can relate. The self-labeled “grinder,” book nerd and Scottish whiskey connoisseur began marathoning in 2007, when 2004 Olympic silver medalist Deena Kastor was the only relevant U.S. woman on the global stage. In 2007, 69 women broke 2 hours, 30 minutes around the world. None were Americans.

“Anything under 2:30 was Deena territory. That was reserved for greatness,” Linden said. “Everyone else was just trying to break 2:30. That was where the bar was. It’s like this men’s 2:10 right now. If you can get through there, then you’re a real threat.”

Last year, the U.S. had seven women in the top 85 in the world, all with sub-2:27:30 times.

Contrast that with the U.S. men, who haven’t put anybody other than Galen Rupp in the yearly top 150 since 2014.

The men’s race Sunday should come down to the usual Kenya-Ethiopia battle, including defending champion Geoffrey Kamworor.

The most intriguing American is 43-year-old, five-time Olympian Bernard Lagat, who in his marathon debut hopes to break Meb Keflezighi‘s over-40 U.S. age group record of 2:12:20.

Such is the state of American men’s running that If Lagat does that on the difficult five-borough course, he would be the second-fastest American this year behind Rupp and arguably a favorite to make the Tokyo Olympic team. Lagat is already the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time. In 2020, he could become the fourth-oldest Olympic male runner ever.

“2:15 is the time to qualify,” for the 2020 Olympic Trials, Lagat said, noting the A standard. “If I run really well, and I feel good on Sunday, I don’t see why not just go try.”

Technically, Lagat isn’t yet committing to running another marathon. Neither is Flanagan. She and Linden both had retirement thoughts in the last year, though Linden now talks about the Olympic Trials. That women’s race on Leap Day 2020 could be one to savor.

Not only the prospect of Linden and Flanagan going for their third and fifth Olympic teams, but also a field with 2017 World bronze medalist Amy CraggJordan Hasay (the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner ever) and Huddle.

If the U.S. women’s marathoning story writes itself Sunday, it would be the New York state native Huddle breaking the tape in Central Park to make it a true winning streak. That would fulfill another tweet, one week after April’s Boston Marathon.

“Head up,” Linden tweeted to Huddle, who finished 16th with hypothermia in Boston. “You’re next.”

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MORE: Galen Rupp out several months, to miss spring marathon

Daniel Romanchuk’s ascent to marathon stardom accelerated at University of Illinois

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The rise of Daniel Romanchuk has been one of the major stories of this Paralympic cycle. The wheelchair racer was eliminated in the first round of all five of his races in Rio.

But now, he’s the world’s best marathoner with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, a world-record holder on the track and already qualified for the Tokyo Games.

Romanchuk, born with spina bifida, was profiled by NBC Sports Chicago as part of a series of NBC Sports Regional Networks pieces published this week — marking 150 days until the Tokyo Olympics and six months until the Tokyo Paralympics.

NBC RSN Olympic and Paralympic Profiles
NBC Sports Bay Area

Abbey Weitzeil (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Boston
Margaret Bertasi (Rowing) — LINK
Abbey D’Agostino Cooper (Track and Field) — LINK

NBC Sports Chicago
Ryan Murphy (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Northwest
Galen Rupp (Marathon) — LINK
Mariel Zagunis (Fencing) — LINK

NBC Sports Philadelphia
Vashti Cunningham (Track and Field) — LINK
Julie Ertz (Soccer) — LINK

NBC Sports Washington
Katie Ledecky (Swimming) — LINK
Kyle Snyder (Wrestling) — LINK

Romanchuk, 21, swept the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City Marathon titles in 2019. He attributes that success to his native Baltimore and his training residence of the University of Illinois.

At age 2, he was enrolled in Baltimore’s Bennett Blazers, an adaptive sports program for children with physical disabilities. Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist who dominated women’s wheelchair marathons, planted her athletic roots there.

“Their motto is to teach kids they can before they’re told they can’t,” Romanchuk said.

Things really blossomed for Romanchuk after he moved from Baltimore to the University of Illinois. Illinois was designated a U.S. Paralympic training site in 2014 and has produced McFadden, Jean Driscoll and other U.S. Paralympic stars.

“Without this program, I certainly would not be where I am,” Romanchuk said. “It’s a very unique combination of coaching and teammates.”

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MORE: Ten Paralympic hopefuls to watch for 2020 Tokyo Games

Chloé Dygert wanted to be Steve Prefontaine. Then Larry Bird. Now, her coach.

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Chloé Dygert is the U.S.’ top cyclist, an Olympic medalist and world champion in line to race on the track and the road at the Tokyo Games.

To get to this point — leading the American contingent at the world track cycling championships this week — Dygert was kicked off a soccer team, bribed by her father and, when she thought her career was over, enrolled in 5 a.m. classes to get back on the bike.

“I had no interest in being a cyclist. I did not want to be a cyclist,” she said. “The funny thing is, my dad kept getting me bikes.”

It began in Brownsburg, Ind., a 25,000-person town 15 miles northwest of Indianapolis. Dygert had an older brother, younger brother and a BMX dirt bike track on a 4.5-acre property.

She played soccer, but was moved from the girls’ team to the boys. Dygert developed physically earlier than the other girls. And, “I was a little too mean and aggressive,” she said.

She played basketball but broke too many bones — her own and those of other girls. “Not on purpose,” she said, “but I was just so much bigger and naturally so much stronger.”

Dygert ran cross-country, too, but none of those sports worked out.

“I was going to be Steve Prefontaine,” she said of the fabled 1972 Olympian. “I had some injuries, and I started playing basketball. I was going to be Larry Bird. I had some more injuries, and cycling was just kind of my go-to.”

Dygert, at first reluctant, picked up cycling at the urging of her father, David, a mountain biker. She received bikes for Christmas and her New Year’s birthday, but it wasn’t until later, when she was 15, that her father’s words changed her life.

That summer, when Dygert needed a shoulder surgery from a basketball injury, she went for a ride at a local park with her father. David marveled.

“He said, ‘Chloe, I don’t think a girl your age should be able to put out the power that you’re putting out,'” Dygert remembered. “That kind of stuck with me and got me into wanting to ride a little bit more and seeing where I could go with it.”

David lured her: a pair of Oakleys if Dygert won at her first major competition. She entered junior nationals and grabbed a victory.

“That’s kind of what gave me the motivation to keep going,” she said. “It took me a while to actually love the sport. It definitely was not an interest that I had. But I thrive on winning. I love to win.”

Dygert pursued cycling, but she didn’t stop basketball. Everything changed when she tore an ACL on the court at age 17, a nine-month injury. She never returned to competitive basketball, but she also lost motivation to get back on the bike. Again, David urged her. One last time.

She joined the cycling team at Marian University, a private Catholic school in Indianapolis. David signed her up for 5 a.m. classes.

“I’m still not happy about it,” she said. “I got really disciplined.”

And reinvigorated. The freshman Dygert noticed in a power booster class that her wattage was impressive.

“If it wasn’t for that and the structure and the discipline that I had gotten from that and my dad, I would not be here,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by, I’m just so thankful for that and for him.”

Dygert dropped out after that first fall semester to focus on a cycling career. That winter, she won a world title with the U.S. team pursuit and was named to become the youngest female U.S. Olympic track cyclist in history.

“I see myself being a Kristin Armstrong, following in her footsteps, being a good all-around rider and a very good time trialist,” Dygert said before earning team pursuit silver at the Rio Olympics, according to The Associated Press.

Armstrong earned her third Olympic road time trial title in Rio, a day before turning 43. She retired and transitioned from Dygert’s mentor to her coach. Dygert recently moved to Armstrong’s native Idaho.

On the eve of September’s world road cycling championships time trial, Armstrong told Dygert to make sure she hurt more than any other rider on the 18-mile course. Dygert obeyed. She went out and won by 92 seconds, the largest margin in history, to become the youngest world champion ever in the event. She collapsed onto the pavement getting off her bike.

“I didn’t race with a power meter,” Dygert said that day, “and I think that really helped not restricting myself, just kind of going as fast as I could the entire time and not really have anything to gauge it off of.”

It qualified Dygert for the Tokyo Olympics on the road. The track team hasn’t been named, but Dygert will surely anchor a new team pursuit quartet. The U.S. has never won an Olympic women’s track title, but the pursuit has been its trademark event — world titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Olympic silver medals in 2012 and 2016.

The only woman on both of those Olympic teams retired (Sarah Hammer).

The cycling community was floored when Kelly Catlin, on all three world title teams with Dygert, committed suicide last March at age 23.

“It’s definitely hard not having her there, but we will carry her legacy on,” Dygert said. “She will be with us every step of the way when we win gold in Tokyo.”

The U.S. women’s team pursuit finished seventh at last year’s worlds without Catlin and without Dygert, who sat out nearly a year after a May 2018 concussion from a road crash. Dygert wondered if she might not be able to come back from the head injury. Expectations were tempered when she and a new team entered a November World Cup in Belarus.

A coach predicted nothing faster than 4 minutes, 17 seconds. They clocked 4:13 and won in what Dygert believed was the U.S.’ second-fastest time since the Rio Games.

“We’ve never raced together before,” Dygert said. “We didn’t really know what we would be able to do.”

Dygert is bidding to race in three events in Tokyo — road race (July 26), road time trial (July 29) and team pursuit (Aug. 3-4). People compare combining the road and the track to training for both the sprints and the marathon. The plurality of the focus will be on the time trial and to follow the path set by Armstrong to the top of an Olympic podium. Hopefully, road and track podiums.

“We’re going to be smart about which event that we choose to be full gas for so my fitness is still there for all the other events,” Dygert said. “Being fit for the time trial will also correlate for the track.”

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