Clayton Murphy, Jenny Simpson
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U.S. Olympic medalists eye responses in Rabat; stream schedule, preview

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Olympic 800m bronze medalist Clayton Murphy just watched a countryman notch his first Diamond League win. Olympic 1500m bronze medalist Jenny Simpson just saw her longtime rival clock her fastest time since 2015.

Murphy and Simpson get chances to answer at a Diamond League stop in Rabat, Morocco, on Sunday (live at 1 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold).

In Rio, Murphy became the first U.S. Olympic 800m medalist in 24 years. At 21, he looked like the American face of the event for years to come. But Donavan Brazier, who is two years younger, won the 2017 U.S. title in Murphy’s absence, then broke the U.S. indoor record on Feb. 9.

Last week in Rome, Brazier did something Murphy has yet to accomplish, winning a Diamond League race. Murphy was fourth, falling to 0-3 in his career against Brazier, according to Tilastopaja.org.

Rabat provides a chance for Murphy ahead of next month’s USATF Outdoor Championships, where the top three per event are in line to make the team for the fall world championships. Brazier is not in the Rabat field, but the only two men to run faster than Murphy in 2018 are — Kenyan Emmanuel Korir and Botswana’s Nijel Amos.

The women’s 1500m is another marquee event in Rabat with Simpson facing world-record holder Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia.

Only once has Simpson won a race that involved Dibaba, and that was five years ago. The 32-year-old American was fourth in Rome last week, 4.9 seconds behind Dibaba, who clocked her fastest time since her world-record run four years ago.

Like Murphy, Simpson recently relinquished her domestic hold of the 1500m to a younger runner, Shelby Houlihan, who was second-fastest in the world last year to Dibaba but is not in Rabat. Houlihan hasn’t raced anywhere since Feb. 24 but is entered in the Pre Classic in two weeks.

For Simpson, getting the better of Dibaba would be a heck of a message to send before nationals. Houlihan snapped Simpson’s four-year national title streak in 2018.

Here are the Rabat entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:01 p.m. — Women’s Pole Vault
1:03 — Women’s Discus
1:38 — Men’s High Jump
2:04 — Women’s 400m
2:11 — Men’s 1500m
2:25 — Women’s 100m
2:31 — Men’s Long Jump
2:33 — Men’s 800m
2:41 — Men’s Discus
2:41 — Women’s 1500m
2:54 — Men’s 200m
3:02 — Men’s 5000m
3:28 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
3:37 — Women’s 800m
3:47 — Men’s 300m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch:

Women’s Discus — 1:03 p.m.
Croatia’s Sandra Perkovic is the headliner, but the Olympic and world champion ranks just 13th in the world this year after missing a discus podium for the first time in eight years at her season debut two weeks ago, according to Tilastopaja.org. The world’s top four women are in Rabat to challenge her, including American Valarie Allman, who in April launched the best throw by a U.S. woman since 2014.

Women’s 400m — 2:04 p.m.
Two of the four Americans to break 50 seconds since August 2017 are here, but the favorite has to be world silver medalist Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain, who hasn’t lost to anybody other than Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo since the 2017 World Championships. But the 2017 World champion is in this field, American Phyllis Francis. As is Kendall Ellis, who is in her first pro season. Miller-Uibo, not in this field, is the lone woman to break 50 this year.

Men’s Long Jump — 2:31 p.m.
Olympic champ Jeff Henderson, world champ Luvo Manyonga and 2018 world leader Juan Miguel Echevarria gather for the second time this season. Last time out, they were all beaten. Still, Henderson and Manyonga rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the world this year, and nobody has approached the Cuban Echevarria’s monster 8.68-meter leap from last year.

Men’s 800m — 2:33 p.m.
Murphy has never won a race that involved Amos and has never finished ahead of Korir in six meetings, according to Tilastopaja. While Murphy remains likely to make the three-man world team, Brazier has to be the favorite for nationals unless Murphy can win here or beat Brazier’s time from Rome — 1:43.63.

Women’s 1500m — 2:41 p.m.
Dibaba is the overwhelming favorite after her 3:56.28 in Rome last week. The only woman to go faster since the start of 2017, Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan is also here with Simpson. Missing is Olympic champion Faith Kipyegon of Kenya, who is working her way back from childbirth.

MORE: Caster Semenya says she’s blocked from Rabat

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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.

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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MORE: Athletes warily embrace progress as USA Gymnastics evolves

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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