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Sydney McLaughlin takes juggling act to USATF Outdoor Champs

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Sydney McLaughlin can juggle. She can also ride a unicycle. And she has been known to juggle and ride a unicycle at the same time.

“But I haven’t done both of them at the same time in a long time,” the 400m hurdler added. “I’m getting older now.”

About to turn 20 next month, she is juggling quite a few things these days — a new coach, living on the West Coast, making the transition from college to the pro circuit and the weight of lofty expectations. Her name constantly pops up among the ones to watch heading into the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

That’s hardly a surprise: In 2016 and at just 16, McLaughlin became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to qualify for the Olympics in more than four decades.

Pressure doesn’t bother her. She just keeps her eye on the prize like she did as a kid when her dad would coax her to run with the reward of a chocolate candy bar.

Winning is her incentive now — and it’s just as sweet.

“For me it’s kind of just focusing on myself and making sure I’m doing everything possible to be successful,” McLaughlin said ahead of the U.S. track and field championships, which start Thursday at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa.

A year ago, McLaughlin turned pro after spending a season at Kentucky and winning the NCAA 400 hurdles crown.

Since then, the New Jersey native has been adjusting to life in Los Angeles and working with 2004 Olympic 100m hurdles gold medalist Joanna Hayes. McLaughlin won her Diamond League 400m hurdles debut in Oslo, Norway, last month over U.S. teammate and Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad.

That despite knocking down the first hurdle.

“It’s good to know the strength was there,” said McLaughlin, who also won in Monaco on July 12. “But definitely have to work on the hurdles form and everything.”

McLaughlin will be one of the favorites when the 400m hurdles start Friday. It’s a loaded field that also includes Muhammad, 2015 world champion silver medalist Shamier Little and bronze medalist Cassandra Tate, ’16 Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Spencer. Since reigning world champion Kori Carter has an automatic spot to worlds in Doha this fall, there are three more spots up for grabs in the event.

“There’s so much depth,” McLaughlin said. “It’s particularly hard to make that team.”

McLaughlin teamed up in early November with Hayes, who ran the 400m hurdles before switching over to the 100m hurdles. Any chance McLaughlin makes a similar move?

“We always joke about it,” McLaughlin said. “We’ll have to see about that one.”

One hurdle at a time. Her focus remains on steadily learning the nuances of the taxing 400 hurdles event.

“She’s talented and there’s no need to put everything on the line or everything into it in one year,” Hayes explained. “Give her room to grow and make strides.”

Hayes gets asked this often: Can McLaughlin one day break the world record? The mark sits at 52.34 seconds set by Yuliya Pechonkina of Russia in 2003. McLaughlin’s top time is 52.75 seconds, which she ran in May 2018.

“We don’t talk about, ‘OK, we’re going to try to break the world record,’” Hayes said. “We go in there and try to execute a great race. If you do that, eventually records will come.”

Growing up, McLaughlin wasn’t all that jazzed about running. Her father, Willie, would provide plenty of motivation in the form of candy.

“He said, ‘If you run I’ll give you a chocolate bar.’ I ran the 100m and actually won,” recalled McLaughlin, who started a juggling club while in high school and recently got back into the hobby. “I think I was more excited about the chocolate bar than the fact I won. I guess he lured me into the sport.”

She is still motivated by reward — a good performance earns her either a nap or a cheeseburger.

It’s the simple things in life.

McLaughlin comes from an athletic family. Her dad was a 400m semifinalist at the 1984 Olympic Trials and her mother, Mary, ran in high school. Her two brothers and sister also have competitive running backgrounds.

And when the siblings get together, it becomes rivalry time. Sydney pairs with her brother Taylor and they’re pitted against her sister Morgan and brother Ryan. The competitions range from bowling to board games to push-ups.

“We usually win,” cracked McLaughlin, the Gatorade national high school track athlete of the year in ’16 and ’17. “Anything that involves winning you can best believe that we’re competing with each other.”

In her spare time, she’s active on social media and offers tips to kids not that much younger than her.

“I definitely think having people look up to you and ask you for advice drives you to want to do better and continue to have success,” McLaughlin said. “I have fun with being that role model that does things the right way.”

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Weightlifting investigation finds doping cover-ups

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DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — An investigation into the International Weightlifting Federation has found doping cover-ups and millions of dollars in missing money, lead investigator Richard McLaren said Thursday.

McLaren said 40 positive doping tests were “hidden” in IWF records and that athletes whose cases were delayed or covered up went on to win medals at the world championships and other events. The cases will be referred to the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“We found systematic governance failures and corruption at the highest level of the IWF,” McLaren said.

The International Olympic Committee said it was studying the report “very carefully,” adding that “the content is deeply concerning.”

McLaren said former IWF president Tamas Ajan was “an autocratic leader” who kept the board in the dark about finances and left officials fearing reprisals if they spoke out. Ajan received cash payments on behalf of the IWF as doping fines from national federations or sponsors, the report said, but what happened to some of the money is unclear.

McLaren said $10.4 million was unaccounted for, based on his team’s analysis of cash going in and out of the IWF over several years. Ajan denies any wrongdoing.

The largest fine recorded in the report was $500,000 paid by Azerbaijan. It’s unclear how that payment was made. On one trip to Thailand for a competition and conference, Ajan collected more than $440,000 across 18 cash payments, according to the report.

“Everyone was kept in financial ignorance through the use of hidden bank accounts (and transfers),” McLaren said. “Some cash was accounted for, some was not.”

McLaren said that the investigation found information which law enforcement “might be interested in,” and that he would cooperate with any later investigations. That was echoed by Ajan’s successor at the IWF.

“The activities that have been revealed and the behavior that has occurred in the years past is absolutely unacceptable and possibly criminal,” IWF interim president Ursula Garza Papandrea said.

She added that the IWF will pass on information to law enforcement if it indicates there were “potential crimes.”

McLaren said Ajan “permitted the (federation) elections to be bought by vote brokers” as he kept the presidency and promoted favored officials. Large cash withdrawals were made ahead of federation congresses, McLaren said, adding that voters were bribed and had to take pictures of their ballots to show to brokers.

The 81-year-old Ajan stepped down in April, ending a 20-year reign as president and a total 44 years in federation posts. A month before that he also gave up his honorary membership of the International Olympic Committee.

In a statement to Hungarian state news agency MTI, Ajan said the IWF’s finances were managed in a “lawful” manner with oversight from the board.

“All my life, I’ve abided by the laws, the written and unwritten rules and customs of the sport,” he said.

Ajan accused McLaren’s team of not giving him enough information to respond to the allegations about his conduct.

Ajan was a full IOC member between 2000 and 2010, voting to select Olympic host cities. A previous complaint about IWF finances in 2010 was closed by the IOC.

McLaren’s investigation was sparked in January when German broadcaster ARD reported financial irregularities at the federation and apparent doping cover-ups.

The focus of the investigation was on the period from 2009 through 2019. McLaren said he heard allegations of misconduct dating back as far as the 1980s, but chose to prioritize more recent matters with stronger evidence.

The World Anti-Doping Agency said it welcomed McLaren’s findings.

“Once WADA has had the opportunity to review that evidence as well as the report in full, the Agency will consider the next appropriate steps to take,” it said in a statement.

Some allegations regarding doping misconduct around the 2019 world championships in Thailand and involving athletes from Moldova were passed to the International Testing Agency, which is still investigating.

McLaren, a Canadian law professor, was WADA’s lead investigator for Russian doping and has judged cases at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Weightlifting’s reputation under Ajan had already been hit by dozens of steroid doping cases revealed in retests of samples from the Olympics since 2008.

Since he left office in April, the IWF has begun moving its headquarters from Ajan’s home country of Hungary to the Swiss city of Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee is based.

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Gwendolyn Berry gets apology from USOPC CEO after reprimand for podium gesture

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Olympic hammer thrower Gwendolyn Berry said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland apologized to her Wednesday “for not understanding the severity of the impact her decisions had on me,” after Berry was put on probation last August for one year after raising her fist at the end of the national anthem at the 2019 Pan American Games.

“I am grateful to Gwen for her time and her honesty last night,” Hirshland said in a statement. “I heard her. I apologized for how my decisions made her feel and also did my best to explain why I made them. Gwen has a powerful voice in this national conversation, and I am sure that together we can use the platform of Olympic and Paralympic sport to address and fight against systematic inequality and racism in our country.”

Berry and fencer Race Imboden were sent August letters of reprimand by Hirshland, along with each receiving probation, after each made a podium gesture at Pan Ams in Peru.

This week, Berry tweeted that she wanted a public apology from Hirshland. That tweet came after Hirshland sent a letter to U.S. athletes on Monday night, condemning “systemic inequality that disproportionately impacts Black Americans in the United States.”

Then on Wednesday night, Berry said she had a “really productive” 40-minute phone call with Hirshland, USATF CEO Max Siegel and other USATF officials.

“I didn’t necessarily ask for [an apology] from [Hirshland],” Berry said Thursday. Berry said she lost two-thirds of her income after Pan Ams, that sponsors dropped her in connection to the raised fist fallout.

“We came to some good conclusions,” Berry said of the group call. “The most important thing were figuring out ways to move forward. [Hirshland] was aware of things that she did and how she made me feel about the situation, and I was happy that I was able to express to her my grievances and she was able to express to me how she felt as well about the situation.”

Berry said her probation, which is believed to still be in effect, wasn’t discussed. She made a point to say that USATF has always been on her side.

“The conversation was more for awareness purposes, and we’ll probably have more conversations this week,” said Berry.

Berry also plans to participate in a U.S. athlete town hall Friday.

“First and foremost, we should and we will discuss how people are just feeling and how people are holding up because athletes in general, because of the pandemic and because of everything that’s been going on, I know a lot of people are in distress, they’re sad, they’re confused,” she said. “I think that’ll be the main point of the discussion. Just to make sure everybody’s OK. Just to see how everybody’s holding on.”

On Aug. 10, Berry raised her fist at the end of the national anthem after winning the Pan American Games title.

The next morning, Berry said the gesture, which drew memories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Games, wasn’t meant to be a big message, but it quickly became a national story.

“Just a testament to everything I’ve been through in the past year, and everything the country has been through this past year,” she said then. “A lot of things need to be done and said and changed. I’m not trying to start a political war or act like I’m miss-know-it-all or anything like that. I just know America can do better.”

Berry said then that the motivation behind her gesture included the challenges overcome of changing coaches and moving from Oxford, Miss., where her family resides, to Houston.

“Every individual person has their own views of things that are going on,” she said. “It’s in the Constitution, freedom of speech. I have a right to feel what I want to feel. It’s no disrespect at all to the country. I want to make that very clear. If anything, I’m doing it out of love and respect for people in the country.”

Berry also said that weekend, according to USA Today, that she was standing for “extreme injustice.”

“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry said, according to that report. “It’s too important to not say something. Something has to be said. If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report.

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