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Noah Lyles, as he returns to 200m, embraces Christian Coleman rivalry

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Noah Lyles races his first 200m of the season on Thursday, but he actually clocked the slowest 200 meters of his career on Easter.

“Definitely the slowest,” Lyles confirmed, “and it was hot that day.”

Lyles and younger brother/fellow sprinter Josephus were passengers when their mom, Keisha Caine Bishop, pulled the car over suddenly on April 21. She stopped because a woman was pushing her blue Volkswagen along the road near Lyles’ home in Clermont, Fla.

“Without question, my guys, along with another guy, jumped out and pushed her car to the gas station,” she tweeted. “Yes, I’m a proud mom!”

Lyles estimated the nearest gas station was about 200 meters away. He is somewhat familiar with the distance.

“Luckily we were on a hill, so we were able to give it a push, and the hill was able to do most of the work,” he said. Lyles’ new dress shoes were damaged, but it was worth it. 

Lyles covers 200m on a competition track for the first time this season at a Diamond League meet in Rome on Thursday (preview/TV schedule here). He will race fellow 21-year-old Michael Norman, a longtime friendly rival who has never beaten Lyles.

“Roomed together on world junior team,” Lyles said. “Mike’s one of the kindest people you’ll meet out there.”

Lyles’ rival in the more traditional sense is Christian Coleman. Lyles, whose focus is the 200m, won a head-to-head (barely) in Coleman’s best event, the 100m, in Shanghai on May 18: 9.852 seconds to 9.858.

Lyles, who set a personal best in that international season opener, then said on Instagram that it was the start of his legacy as a 100m and 200m sprinter. Coleman followed that with tweets that stoked the new rivalry.

“Some of y’all got the game messed up,” tweeted Coleman, the world’s fastest 100m sprinter since the Rio Olympics at 9.79. “The name of the game is World medals. But PRin in May is cool for social media doe.

“Seems as if some people are confused,” Coleman tweeted the next day. “It’s nothing wrong with a PR. But if your goal is to run fast in May to taunt and flex online then your priorities aren’t straight imo. The season is just getting started.”

Lyles was asked to describe his relationship with the 23-year-old Coleman, whom he has faced since junior competition in 2015.

“It’s not good,” he said, followed by a short laugh. “I don’t know man. He just never liked me. I don’t know. You can’t like everybody. It’s not the same as me and Mike.”

Neither sprinter previously commented publicly on the post-Shanghai tweets from Coleman and his girlfriend: “Someone gets an inch, or a win by .006 & they take a mile,” University of Georgia sprinter Micaiah Ransby posted before Coleman’s tweets.

“I like it,” Lyles said of the whole situation. “We talk about it a lot in the track world: there needs to be more rivalries. There needs to be more talk. It gets more exciting when people start talking. ‘Oh man, Noah won’t get away with it next time,’ or such and such. It makes me excited. It makes me think that people are actually paying attention to the sport.”

As for Coleman’s specific opinions?

“He’s right,” Lyles said. “It doesn’t matter until worlds [in Doha in September]. But I’ll definitely be ready for worlds to get that gold in the 200m.”

Lyles added that hearing Coleman wants to challenge him in the 200m this season was “the best news I’ve heard all year, to be honest.”

As for the 100m, Lyles repeated Wednesday that he will not race the shorter sprint at July’s USATF Outdoor Championships nor at worlds.

“Until I see something in the 100m that is very definitive of, I can walk away with a [world championships 100m] medal and still be able to get away with a gold in the 200m, it’s going to be the 200m in Doha right now,” Lyles told a press conference in Rome.

Lyles, speaking by phone after that presser, was told that only one man has run faster than his 9.86 since the Rio Olympics (Coleman), and that Lyles just beat him two weeks ago. Is that not definitive enough?

“No,” he said. “I need to know that I can run three rounds of the 100m at 9.8 or faster [the format at nationals and worlds, but not at Diamond League meets] and then still be able to come back the next day and run three rounds of the 200m. Until I can see that, I don’t think there’s too much of a reason this year to do it. Sacrificing a gold medal to maybe get two silvers or a silver and a gold, I feel that it’s very risky. It’s a lot easier just to get the gold and be known going into the 200m as the ultimate world champ.

“The biggest idea with only doing the 200m is we [Lyles and coach Lance Brauman] want to go in [to the Olympics] being known already as having a gold.”

Lyles said he hopes to race the 100m at least two more times this season — a Diamond League stop in Monaco on July 12 and another to-be-announced meet. It’s not known if Coleman will be there. Coleman’s reps haven’t replied to an interview request to respond to Lyles’ first public comments on the rivalry.

Lyles is approaching two years since perhaps the toughest moment of his young career. Three years ago, he finished fourth at the Olympic trials 200m, which normally upsets an athlete, as the top three make the team. But at age 18, Lyles beamed for he broke the national high school record. He turned pro two weeks later.

Then came 2017. Lyles announced his professional arrival with a 19.90-second 200m, also in Shanghai, that May 13. He became the fourth teen to break 20 seconds in the half-lap, and the first American. But he also felt his hamstring cramp 15 or 20 meters into that victory. He flew to Germany, where a doctor told him it was a two-centimeter tear.

Lyles remembers crying and the psychological pain of nationals the next month, when he withdrew before the 200m semifinals because of the hamstring. That meant no worlds that summer. He would have to wait another two years for the next global championship.

“I knew if I ran, something would have popped, torn. I wasn’t ready to have my career end as soon as it started,” he said. “It was definitely a hard decision … I just knew that I was going to win. It’s so hard to see your goal right in front of your face and then have to turn around and say, I’ll come back for it another time. It’s like seeing your dream car and you know you have the money to buy it and then you get a call saying your mom needs surgery, and you’re the only person who can help. You know what the right thing to do is.”

He watched the August 2017 World Championships from his Florida home, then beat Turkey’s surprise world champion Ramil Guliyev at the Diamond League final three weeks later. Guliyev is in Thursday’s field, too, looking for his first win over Lyles in their sixth meeting.

Lyles is undefeated in outdoor 200m races since the 2016 Olympic trials. Last year, he joined Usain Bolt as the only men to break 19.7 in the 200m on four occasions in one season. Nobody else has broken 19.8 more than once in this Olympic cycle.

It’s clear that Lyles has an interest in speed, in addition to his drawing, rapping and sock designing. He recently bought that dream car, a white 2019 BMW i8 roadster.

“I think I hit 100 [miles per hour] once in the back roads,” he said. 

His goal time in the 200m this season? “Just to get as close as I can to the world record,” Lyles said. His personal best is 19.65. Bolt’s world record is 19.19.

“The 100m in Shanghai was kind of like a shock on time for me,” Lyles said of that personal best. “Now I’ve got a ton of confidence going into the 200m. You know, I might be trying to shock the world again.”

MORE: Wayde van Niekerk sets first international race since 2017

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Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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