Molly Huddle, Emily Sison
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Molly Huddle, Emily Sisson seek spots in golden age for U.S. marathoners

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The U.S. Olympic marathon trials aren’t for 10 months, but the field is already crowded. The current era has produced four of the six American women in history who have broken 2 hours, 24 minutes, for 26.2 miles.

Two more could join that club at Sunday’s London Marathon (Olympic Channel and NBC Sports Gold, 4 a.m. ET).

Molly Huddle and Emily Sisson, training partners and the two fastest U.S. half-marathoners ever, give the nation its strongest contingent in the British capital in a decade. The last American woman to place in the top five in London was Deena Kastor, who won in 2006 in an American record 2:19:36.

When Kastor clocked that time, she and Joan Benoit Samuelson were the only Americans to ever break 2:26:26. Since the start of 2018, five different U.S. women have done it. Again, that does not include Huddle or Sisson, both expected to better that time Sunday.

Huddle told LetsRun.com on Thursday that she would be happy in the 2:21-2:23 range.

“It sounds like they’re going to come through the half in 71 minutes or so and then see what they have,” said NBC Sports analyst Josh Cox, who is also an agent for 2018 Boston Marathon winner Des Linden and other U.S. distance runners, but none in the London field. “That’s 2:22 territory if they ran even [pace]. That’s some rarefied air when you’re talking about American women.”

Neither Huddle nor Sisson, expected to stick together for most of the race, is favored to win Sunday. The title is likely to come down to defending champion Vivian Cheruiyot and three-time London winner Mary Keitany, both of Kenya.

But the Americans’ times will be key in the early sorting of what should be the greatest field in U.S. women’s marathon history at trials in Atlanta on Feb. 29. London marks the last major marathon until the fall season. Many Olympic hopefuls will skip those September, October and November marathons to rest up for trials, where the top three are in line to make the Tokyo team.

The leader of the pack after last week’s Boston Marathon has to be Jordan Hasay.

The 27-year-old former high school track phenom returned from a marathon-less 2018 due to injuries to cross third on Boylston Street on Patriots’ Day. Hasay has finished third in all three of her marathon starts (all majors), has never been beaten by an American at 26.2 miles and is the second-fastest American in history behind Kastor. Hasay plans to run the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13, chasing Kastor’s American record.

The most accomplished active elite U.S. marathoners are Shalane Flanagan and Des Linden.

Flanagan, 37 and the 2017 New York City Marathon winner, is set to undergo knee surgery and may be finished with elite racing. Linden, 35 and the 2018 Boston Marathon champ, has not announced her plans after placing fifth in her Boston defense. Either would be the oldest U.S. woman to make an Olympic marathon team in 16 years.

Amy Cragg followed her 2016 Olympic Trials win with a 2017 World bronze medal and the label of fastest U.S. marathoner of 2018. Cragg, 35, is now 14 months removed from her last 26.2-miler after passing on a spring marathon.

Huddle and Sisson take their tests Sunday.

It’s a familiar one for Huddle, a two-time Olympic 10,000m runner who has held national records from 5km to the half marathon. The 34-year-old nail polish enthusiast and avid reader has three marathons to her name, with third- and fourth-place finishes in New York.

“She hasn’t ran on a flat, fast course yet,” Cox said. “Running 71 flat in London [for the first half], she’ll have no problem doing that. The question is, what can they [Huddle and Sisson] do after 20 miles?”

Sisson has never raced a marathon. In fact, she didn’t consider running professionally until her fifth year of college while on track for an MBA at Providence (she’s still two classes away).

Her breakthrough came in 2017. Sisson shattered personal bests on the track at 5000m and 10,000m, finished two seconds behind the winner Huddle in her half-marathon debut and made the world championships team at 10,000m. Sisson followed Huddle from Providence to Scottsdale, Ariz., last fall and got even faster. She ran the second-fastest half marathon in U.S. history in January (on a record-eligible course) and became the third-fastest U.S. woman all-time at 10,000m in March.

Sisson’s passion remains on the track, but she was intrigued enough by the Olympic marathon trials to test her legs over 26.2 miles this spring. Like her more experienced countrywomen, Sisson does not see a fall marathon in her future.

“I’m not putting all this pressure on me that I need to go out there in this first one and knock it out of the park,” Sisson said recently on Carrie Tollefson‘s podcast, adding that she couldn’t predict her time Sunday because she has no reference points. “I’m not scared. I feel like I’m curious more.”

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MORE: 2019 Boston Marathon Results

40 years ago today: Jimmy Carter lays plan for Olympic boycott

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On Jan. 20, 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he would not support sending a U.S. team to the Moscow Olympics later that summer if the Soviet Union did not withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Carter detailed his stance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” airing that Sunday. A transcript:

Bill Monroe: Assuming the Soviets do not pull out of Afghanistan any time soon, do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics, and if not, what are the alternatives?

Carter: No. Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to alternate site or multiple sites or postponed or canceled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan — within a month — I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics. It’s very important for the world to realize how serious a threat the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan is. I do not want to inject politics into the Olympics, and I would personally favor the establishment of a permanent Olympic site for both the Summer and the Winter Games. In my opinion, the most appropriate permanent site for the Summer Games would be Greece. This will be my own position, and I have asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to take this position to the International Olympic Committee, and I would hope that as many nations as possible would support this basic position. One hundred and four nations voted against the Soviet invasion and called for their immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan in the United Nations, and I would hope as many of those as possible would support the position I’ve just outlined to you.

Monroe: Mr. President, if a substantial number of nations does not support the U.S. position, would not that just put the U.S. in an isolated position without doing much damage to the Soviet Union?

Carter: Regardless of what other nations might do, I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow while the Soviet invasion troops are in Afghanistan.

Three days later, Carter said in his State of the Union address, “I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

The Soviets did not withdraw troops.

Though Carter did not have the authority to order a boycott, the U.S. Olympic Committee did decide on April 12 not to send a team.

The U.S. was among more than 60 nations that were invited to the Moscow Games and did not participate (for various reasons). Other notable absences included Canada, West Germany, Japan and China.

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MORE: Japanese athlete’s bid to become oldest Olympian in history still alive

With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 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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