Post-concussion, Brittany Bowe back at her best

Brittany Bowe
AP
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At an Oval in Obihiro, Japan, Brittany Bowe crossed the line to win the season-opening 1500-meter World Cup race in November.

It was Bowe’s first World Cup victory in two seasons, and the time that flashed on the board marked a track record. Among the skaters who finished behind her: Ireen Wuest and Miho Takagi, the reigning Olympic gold and silver medalists in the event.

This was one more to add to the list of 17 World Cup victories Bowe already had. But winning has not lost its novelty, not after two challenging seasons that left her wondering if she could return to the level that made her one of the best.

Bowe was back, and she knew it.

“[That race] really proved to myself that I still do have what it takes to be the best in the world,” she said in a telephone interview last month.

For the past six years, Bowe, 30, has been among the sport’s top sprinting talent: she’s a world champion in both the 1000m and 1500m, a two-time sprint world champion, and an Olympic bronze medalist in team pursuit. Among the peaks of her career was the 2015-16 season, when Bowe won more individual medals at the World Single Distance Championships than any other athlete.

But in the summer of 2016, a collision during training left her with a concussion. Bowe was cleared to train a few weeks later, but her symptoms continued to linger. She had fainting spells and blood pressure issues and struggled with balance, so essential in a speed-based sport spent on ice. Though she reached the World Cup podium in December 2016, Bowe decided to end her season early, which she later called “one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my life.”

Bowe returned home to Florida in early 2017, but found she felt worse without training. She then relocated to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, hoping a daily structure would put her back on track.

Teammates admired her strength and positivity in the face of the injury. Joey Mantia, one of Bowe’s Olympic teammates, called her “mentally stronger than anyone I’ve ever met in my life…I’ve never once heard her be negative about the situation.”

But concussions, as Bowe knows all too well, can be particularly cruel. She said in April 2017, “At times I feel really opposite of optimistic. I feel like sometimes…my willpower has been taken from me, my patience has been taken from me.”

A doctor in Colorado Springs suggested Bowe print out images of herself – ones that summoned her strength and power – as reminders of all she’d accomplished already. Bowe chose a few race pictures and podium shots and hung them up in her living room as she trained for the Olympics.

The injury also came at a particularly challenging time, just before a crucial pre-Olympic season. Bowe knew first-hand that even perfect training does not always yield Olympic success: she’d been pegged as a medal favorite in the 1000m and 1500m prior to the Sochi Games, but came up short of the podium in each of her races, calling those Olympics “one of the biggest disappointments of my career.”

The concussion meant Bowe had limited training ability in the summer and fall before the Olympics, and said she felt at 75 to 80 percent of her normal capacity by the time she stepped on the ice in South Korea. But instead of worrying about a less-than-perfect lead-up to the Games, Bowe said she was simply “grateful to have the opportunity to skate again.”

Bowe finished in the top five in each of her individual races in PyeongChang, calling those performances “some of the best races of my life considering the training I was able to do leading into that competition.” The U.S. had not originally qualified in the women’s team pursuit, but was given a place after quotas were re-allocated (once it was determined that Olympic Athletes from Russia would not compete in the event). Bowe and her teammate Heather Bergsma, also a multi-world champion, were so focused on their individual events that they debated whether to skate the team pursuit. Ultimately, they agreed to go for it. After the qualification round, Bowe said, “we were like, ‘we have a real shot to do something special here.’”

Bowe, Bergsma, Mia Manganello and Carlijn Schoutens (who skated in the semi-final) won bronze in team pursuit, claiming the first medal for U.S. women in speed skating since 2002. For Bowe, winning her first Olympic medal in a team event – after all the support she’d received to get back on the ice – seemed fitting. “When I sit back and think of it, it’s kind of how it should’ve been. It took a team to get me there,” she said.

Following the Olympics, Bowe won a silver medal at the World Sprint Championships in March before taking a few months off. She got back into the yoga studio, and went on a retreat in Costa Rica, spending her days meditating, surfing and hiking.

After a strong start to the 2018-19 season, Bowe has high expectations for herself at this year’s World Single Distance Championships, which begin Thursday. She’s currently leading the World Cup standings in both the 1000m and 1500m, with three wins this season in the 1000m and two in the 1500m.

She plans to keep skating through the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, an Olympic gold medal still atop her list of career goals.

“I’m forever grateful for my team and support for bringing me that medal in the team pursuit,” she said. “But I’m still out for more.”

Bowe no longer has podium pictures of herself in the living room – she’s since moved back to Salt Lake City. But she hasn’t ruled out using them as an inspirational tool again. Or, she said, “hopefully I am my strongest and most confident going into my next winter Olympics, where I can just have that image of what I want to see in my mind.”

She could leave Worlds with another image of herself on the podium. One more to hang up on her wall, should she ever need it.

Noah Lyles runs personal best and is coming for Usain Bolt’s world record

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Noah Lyles ran a personal-best time in the 60m on Saturday, then reaffirmed record-breaking intentions for the 100m and, especially, the 200m, where Usain Bolt holds the fastest times in history.

Lyles, the world 200m champion, won the 60m sprint in 6.51 seconds at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston, clipping Trayvon Bromell by two thousandths in his first top-level meet of the year. Bromell, the world 100m bronze medalist, is a past world indoor 60m champion and has a better start than Lyles, which is crucial in a six-second race.

But on Saturday, Lyles ran down Bromell and shaved four hundredths off his personal best. It bodes well for Lyles’ prospects come the spring and summer outdoor season in his better distances — the 100m and 200m.

“This is the moment I’ve been working, like, seven years for,” he said. “We’re not just coming for the 200m world record. We’re coming for all the world records.”

Last July, Lyles broke Michael Johnson‘s 26-year-old American record in the 200m, winning the world title in 19.31 seconds. Only Bolt (19.19) and fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake (19.26) have run faster.

Lyles has since spoken openly about targeting Bolt’s world record from 2009.

How does an indoor 60m time play into that? Well, Lyles said that his success last year sprung from a strong indoor season, when he lowered his personal best in the 60m from 6.57 to 6.56 and then 6.55. He followed that by lowering his personal best in the 200m from 19.50 to 19.31.

He believes that slicing an even greater chunk off his 60m best on Saturday means special things are on the horizon come the major summer meets — the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in July (on the same Oregon track where he ran the American 200m record) and the world championships in Budapest in August.

After focusing on the 200m last year, Lyles plans to race both the 100m and the 200m this year. He has a bye into the 200m at world championships, so expect him to race the 100m at USATF Outdoors, where the top three are in line to join world champ Fred Kerley on the world team.

Lyles’ personal best in the 100m is 9.86, a tenth off the best times from Kerley, Bromell and 2019 World 100m champ Christian Coleman. Bolt is in his own tier at 9.58.

Also Saturday, Grant Holloway extended a near-nine-year, 50-plus-race win streak in the 60m hurdles, clocking 7.38 seconds, nine hundredths off his world record. Olympic teammate Daniel Roberts was second in 7.46. Trey Cunningham, who took silver behind Holloway in the 110m hurdles at last July’s world outdoor championships, was fifth in 7.67.

Aleia Hobbs won the women’s 60m in 7.02 seconds, one week after clocking a personal-best 6.98 to become the third-fastest American in history after Gail Devers and Marion Jones (both 6.95). Hobbs, 26, placed sixth in the 100m at last July’s world championships.

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, the Olympic and world 400m hurdles champion competing for the first time since August, and Jamaican Shericka Jackson, the world 200m champion, were ninth and 10th in the 60m heats, just missing the eight-woman final.

In the women’s pole vault, Bridget Williams, seventh at last year’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, upset the last two Olympic champions — American Katie Moon and Greek Katerina Stefanidi. Williams won with a 4.63-meter clearance (and then cleared 4.71 and a personal-best 4.77). Stefanidi missed three attempts at 4.63, while Moon went out at 4.55.

The indoor track and field season continues with the Millrose Games in New York City next Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.

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Birk Irving, last man on Olympic team, extends breakout season with Mammoth win

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One year ago, Birk Irving was the last man to make the four-man U.S. Olympic ski halfpipe team. Since, he continued to climb the ranks in arguably the nation’s strongest discipline across skiing and snowboarding.

Irving earned his second World Cup win this season, taking the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, California, on Friday.

Irving posted a 94-point final run, edging Canadian Brendan Mackay by one point. David Wise, the two-time Olympic champion who won his fifth X Games Aspen title last Sunday, was third.

A tribute was held to 2015 World champion Kyle Smaine, a U.S. halfpipe skier who died in an avalanche in Japan last Sunday.

“We’re all skiing the best we have because we’re all skiing with Kyle in our hearts,” Irving said, according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard. “We’re skiing for him, and we know he’s looking down on us. We miss you Kyle. We love you. Thank you for keeping us safe in the pipe today.”

Irving also won the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colorado, on Dec. 17. Plus, the 23-year-old from Colorado had his best career X Games Aspen finish last Sunday, taking second.

The next major event is the world championships in Georgia (the country, not the state) in early March. Irving was third at the last worlds in 2021, then fifth at the Olympics last February.

The U.S. has been the strongest nation in men’s ski halfpipe since it debuted at the Olympics in 2014. Wise won the first two gold medals. Alex Ferreira won silver and bronze at the last two Olympics. Aaron Blunck is a world champion and X Games champion.

Irving is younger than all of them and has beaten all of them at multiple competitions this season.

New Zealand’s Nico Porteous, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, hasn’t competed since the Games after undergoing offseason knee surgery.

In snowboarding events at Mammoth, Americans Julia Marino and Lyon Farrell earned slopestyle wins by posting the top qualification scores. The finals were canceled due to wind.

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