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Ibtihaj Muhammad, content with fencing career, steps away from competition

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NEW YORK — Ibtihaj Muhammad‘s clairvoyant moment came last August, when the Olympic sabre fencer made the hajj pilgrimage for her first visit to Mecca.

“When you take your reprieve from sport, or from any profession, and you take time for yourself, having an opportunity to visit the holiest place for Muslims, being Mecca, Saudi Arabia, it was really transformational for me,” Muhammad said Monday. “It was one of those things people can tell you about, but you really have to experience for yourself.”

It became fairly clear to Muhammad, who in Rio became the first Muslim-American woman to compete at the Olympics with a hijab (and earned a team bronze medal), that she would not compete again.

“I have unofficially hung up my sabre,” she said. “I feel really content with my career and where I am right now in my life. You know, fencing is not a big part of it anymore, but it’s always been my intention to transcend sport in a way that reaches people not just in the fencing world but outside of it. I think I’ve been able to best do that, not only representing my sport but representing myself.”

Muhammad became a trailblazing face of the Rio Games after she qualified six months before the Opening Ceremony, voicing advocacy for equality and showing minorities and Muslim youth that anything is possible.

She would be named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and was told by President Barack Obama, who invited Muhammad as one of 10 special guests to a speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, to “bring home the gold.”

Muhammad fenced on “Ellen” and with First Lady Michelle Obama. She finished second to Michael Phelps in voting to be the U.S. flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony.

Other Olympic champions helped Muhammad decide to step away from the strip. She last competed at the 2017 World Championships.

“It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever made,” said Muhammad, who reached the round of 16 in the individual sabre in Rio and was ranked seventh in the world that year. “I really was leaning on my friends who are in professional sport. Lindsey Vonn was giving me advice. I talked to Abby Wambach, Julie Foudy.

“What really was consistent throughout everyone that I talked to who is also a professional athlete is you’ll know when it’s time. I think that Julie and Abby had similar stories to mine, that you feel a disconnect from the sport. I don’t watch fencing anymore. I’m not really part of it in any capacity. But I think that my story is more than fencing.”

Muhammad cited two of the coolest post-Olympic experiences — her own Barbie coming out in 2017 and publishing her memoir, “Proud,” in 2018. In the book, Muhammad detailed unfriendly interactions with future Olympic teammates when she was rising in U.S. fencing.

“I have always believed that it’s important to be authentic and to tell your truth, no matter how difficult it is,” she said. “Having to unpack everything and relive these moments in telling my story, it was really difficult. And I never struggled with whether or not to tell it. It was really more so using it as this therapeutic moment to get everything off my chest that I feel is important to say.”

Muhammad continues to be visible. A Nike ad showing her screaming in her fencing uniform was put up in Times Square this spring.

“Be the hero you didn’t have,” it reads.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Amy Cragg to withdraw from U.S. Olympic marathon trials

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Defending champion Amy Cragg will miss the Feb. 29 U.S. Olympic marathon trials with an illness, according to her social media.

“The Trials are the reason I have shown up every day for the last four years, so this has been an extremely difficult decision,” was posted on her social media. Cragg later said she had Epstein-Barr virus, according to multiple reports.

Cragg, 36, was among the favorites to grab three Olympic spots at trials in Atlanta, despite not having competed over 26.2 miles since the February 2018 Tokyo Marathon.

She withdrew from the 2018 Chicago Marathon with a hamstring injury and also scratched a month before the 2019 Chicago Marathon, citing signs pointing to needing more time after the previous year’s injury.

Cragg, fourth at the 2012 Olympic trials, relegated Des Linden and Shalane Flanagan to second and third at the 2016 trials. Linden and Flanagan went on to win the Boston and New York City Marathons, respectively, ending long U.S. women’s victory droughts.

Cragg went on to finish ninth in Rio and earn a 2017 World bronze medal, the first world championships marathon podium finish for an American woman since the first worlds in 1983.

Cragg could still make the Tokyo Olympic team in the 10,000m if she races at track trials in June. She won the 2012 Olympic trials 10,000m but hasn’t raced the distance on the track since May 2017.

“Right now my only goal is to get healthy so that I can train at the level needed to be competitive,” Cragg said in an emailed message from her agent. “That being said, the reason I am still in this sport is because of the Olympic Trials and Olympics. It is what excites me more than anything, so it is something I would still love to do.”

With Cragg absent and Flanagan retired, Linden is the only woman in next week’s field with Olympic marathon experience.

Other favorites include Olympic 10,000m runner Molly Huddle, world championships 10,000m runner Emily Sisson and Jordan Hasay, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner in history.

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Galen Rupp, after tumult, finds familiarity before Olympic marathon trials

Galen Rupp
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As Galen Rupp bids for a fourth Olympics, and perhaps become the first man or woman to win the Olympic marathon trials twice outright, he found some rare familiarity these days on the roads Feb. 8.

“Feeling like my old self again,” Rupp said Wednesday of winning a low-key half marathon in Mesa, Ariz., his first completed race in 16 months and since parting from now-banned, career-long coach Alberto Salazar. “It’s obviously been a long year and a half.”

Rupp clocked 61 minutes, 19 seconds on a downhill course. It’s faster than any half marathon by an American recorded by World Athletics since the start of 2019. Granted the downhill, but Rupp also said he was instructed by new coach Mike Smith to make it a controlled effort.

“He didn’t want me to run all-out, didn’t want me to really push and put myself in a big hole,” Rupp said, noting he was still in heavy training. “You don’t want to break that [training] up and put yourself in a deficit by having a massive effort.”

Mesa answered questions about Rupp’s readiness for the Olympic trials in Atlanta on Feb. 29 (NBC, 12-3 p.m. ET). Even to the two-time Olympic medalist himself. Rupp said he started the half marathon with a little bit of doubt — given recent left ankle and calf injuries — but felt early on that everything would be fine.

“It really put my mind at ease,” he said. “I’m going to be good for the marathon.”

His last two marathons did not go well.

At the 2018 Chicago Marathon, Rupp dropped from the leaders around mile 19 and finished fifth in a title defense. An Achilles injury flared up near the end. He underwent surgery later that month for two tears. Doctors said the ankle had been “a ticking time bomb.”

“They said I was really lucky to have as good of health as I had and manage it as I did,” Rupp said.

He went a full year before racing again, at the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13, 12 days after Salazar’s ban was announced. Even that was a rushed comeback, Rupp said after dropping out around mile 23 with a calf injury.

“I’m not going to say it was a wake-up call,” Rupp said, “but I think I was a little bit stubborn before Chicago.”

Rupp said he ran through pain in training to get to the start line four months ago. He had trouble walking for several days after the abbreviated race and focused on physical therapy for about two months. He resumed normal, pain-free training in December.

By early January, Runner’s World reported that Oregon-based Rupp found a new Flagstaff-based coach in Smith, who leads a Northern Arizona University program that won the last three NCAA men’s cross-country titles.

“The biggest thing to me was Mike’s philosophy in coaching was very similar to the program that I was under for so many years,” said Rupp, who was for more than a decade part of the Nike Oregon Project, which was shut down last fall after Salazar’s ban for doping violations (which he appealed). Rupp wasn’t implicated by USADA and has a clean drug-testing record. “What I love most about it was Mike’s honesty and how forthright he was about everything. You could tell he wasn’t just saying what I wanted to hear or say, ‘We’re just going to do whatever you’ve been doing and try and replicate that.’ You’ve got to keep evolving and trying new things.”

Smith declined an interview request through NAU until after trials. He agreed to coach Rupp after about a month of communication and hard questions, according to Runner’s World.

“Because of its timing and the headlines I was reading like everyone else at the time, this was not a road I wanted to go down,” Smith said, according to the report. “To be honest, it was just easiest to turn it down. I’m actually — as crazy as this sounds — really proud I did not.

“What I found out by getting to know Galen was that there was much more going on than the picture portrayed of him, and I wish the world knew that. I have never seen someone more all-in in my life.”

Rupp, asked his toughest moment of the last two years, said he moves forward.

“Throughout any hardships and setbacks, I felt a lot of gratitude that I had as good of a run as I did with my health and everything going well for as long as I did,” he said. “It can be easy to get angry and get down, like why me, but I do believe that things always work out. There’s a reason behind all this stuff.”

Which brings Rupp to Atlanta next week for the first time in his life, aside from airport layovers. The race is unlike any other he has contested. The course is unusually hilly. The format — Americans only, top three make the Olympic team — makes for different tactics than the World Marathon Majors that Rupp is used to.

In 2016, Rupp entered as a favorite but without any marathon experience. He won convincingly, pulling away from now-retired Meb Keflezighi by 68 seconds.

The field is deeper this year. Seven Americans broke 2:11 in 2019. Only one did in 2015. But Rupp, at his best, is in his own class.

His personal best 2:06:07, from his last healthy marathon in 2018, is 1:49 faster than the second-fastest in the trials field in this Olympic cycle (Leonard Korir). The next-fastest, Scott Fauble, is more than three minutes behind by personal bests.

“I can confidently go in and say that I’ve put in the work for this, just like I know that I put in the work in 2016,” Rupp said. “Of course, you want to go in and have good races, feeling confident and being on a roll like I was several years ago. But I think that’s why that race in Mesa was so important to show, more to myself, that hey, you’re ready to go. You can still run well. You haven’t lost everything. Surgery didn’t wipe you out.”

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