Christian Coleman, Noah Lyles, Michael Norman
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Christian Coleman, Noah Lyles, Michael Norman take sprint stage at USATF Outdoors

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A lot of people don’t know this, Michael Norman pointed out, but Norman, Christian Coleman and Noah Lyles were once all in the same race. It was the 200m final at the 2015 USATF Junior Outdoor Championships.

Coleman rocketed from the starting blocks, from lane eight mind you. Norman established the lead off the curve. Lyles surged in the straightaway for the title. Four years later, those three teens are the world’s fastest active men and the 100m, 200m and 400m and favorites for the Tokyo Olympics.

“To see where we are now is, you know, crazy,” Norman said in recounting that junior race.

They are collective headliners at this week’s USATF Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, seeking national titles, world championships spots and a further cementation that America has reclaimed the global sprint mantle. A TV schedule is here.

“I don’t think anybody could have predicted three years ago that the United States would be dominating the sprint scene this much,” NBC Sports analyst and four-time Olympic sprint medalist Ato Boldon said. “It’s exciting times for U.S. sprinting because they’ve been sort of overshadowed by the whole Bolt thing for a long while.”

Boldon predicts the U.S. men could win every event with starting blocks at worlds in Doha in two months.

In the flat sprints, Coleman is No. 1 in the world in the 100m (9.81 seconds). Lyles is No. 1 at 200m (19.50). Norman is No. 1 at 400m (43.45). All each has to do this week is finish in the top three in his respective event to clinch a world team spot. Piece of cake.

The U.S. used to dominate these distances, sweeping them at the Olympics as recently as 2004 and the world championships in 2007. Usain Bolt put a stop to that starting in 2008. Then Kirani James of Grenada and Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa emerged in the 400m.

But Bolt is retired. James and van Niekerk have been out with injury and illness for much of the last two years. Only the Americans have been consistently strong throughout this Olympic cycle.

Coleman, Lyles and Norman are bonded by that one junior race, rivalry and by what happened the weekend of July 9, 2016, at the Olympic trials. Lyles and Norman finished fourth and fifth in the 200m, just missing the three-man Olympic team out of high school. Soon after, Coleman learned he officially made the Olympic team, chosen as the sixth and last member of the 4x100m relay pool, one week after placing sixth in the individual 100m at those trials.

“Maybe you could have seen it [coming] with Lyles and Norman,” Boldon said. “Coleman, not so much. I think Coleman has maybe progressed the most.”

Coleman didn’t get the same attention at trials as Lyles and Norman, for he was no longer a teen, having graduated high school two years earlier. Still, he was listed in the 2014 Our Lady of Mercy yearbook, 20 miles south of Atlanta, as most likely to receive a Nike endorsement.

By 2017, Coleman signed with the Swoosh after going viral by clocking a 40-yard dash in 4.12 seconds, one tenth faster than the NFL Combine record. Later that summer, he finished between Justin Gatlin and Bolt in Bolt’s last individual race at the world championships. Though Coleman struggled through a hamstring injury last summer, he still owns the world’s fastest 100m time each year of this Olympic cycle.

Coleman and Lyles began intersecting this season. Coleman lost his 100m season opener to Lyles on May 18, a surprise given Lyles’ primary event is the 200m. Social media comments sparked a rivalry, with Lyles embracing the fact that they simply aren’t friends.

They are slated to go head-to-head for the second time this season in the 200m at trials, with Coleman trying to pull off the 100m-200m sprint double.

“I don’t necessarily look at us as rivals,” Coleman said last month. “If the media wants to create whatever storylines, whatever, so be it. I just treat everybody the same way, all of my competition.”

Lyles considered entering the 100m at trials but kept his focus on the 200m given he has never made an Olympic or world championships team, pulling out of nationals in 2017 with an injury. The man has “ICON” tattooed on his side, a white 2019 BMW i8 roadster in his Central Florida driveway and triple gold ambitions in Tokyo.

Lyles’ greatest feat to date on the track came July 5, when he clocked 19.50 seconds in a 200m in Switzerland, becoming the fourth-fastest man in history behind Bolt, Yohan Blake and Michael Johnson. Nobody has run that fast at such a young age.(though Bolt was just 12 days older when he won the Beijing Olympics in 19.30).

But Lyles tasted defeat at 200m for the first time in this Olympic cycle on June 6, when Norman stepped down from his preferred 400m and got a jump on Lyles from the start in Rome.

Lyles said before that meet that his competitive relationship with Norman is pretty friendly, but at the time he was 3-0 against Norman head-to-head. Norman, who roomed with Lyles at the 2016 World Junior Championships, never forgot that stat.

“Noah Lyles is, like, the first real competitor that I’ve had in track and field that has really, like, pushed me over each edge and has beat me non-stop,” Norman said. “When I finally beat Noah in a 200m in Rome, I was like, ‘Finally. Oh my gosh. Like, four years and counting.’ It took me four years to beat this guy just one time. And it was just a sigh of relief.

“People keep hyping up the rivalry between us, which is great, but I just felt like I needed to put a number on the board for it to be, like, a legitimate rivalry.”

It also meant that Norman could go to his home in Southern California, where he was raised by former college runners (American dad, Japanese mom), and rip a piece of paper off the wall.

As a high school senior, Norman wrote four goals in gold Sharpie on computer paper. As he achieved each one, he tore off that portion of the paper. But the one unmet goal was to beat Lyles, then a prep runner on the other side of the country at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia (of “Remember the Titans” fame).

“I still have the headband that I lost to him in pinned on the wall,” Norman, who hasn’t been in that room since the Rome race to redecorate, told NBC Sports in a sitdown interview. “Now I get to go home and take that paper down and write some new goals.”

Norman is sticking to the just the 400m this week. The 200m and 400m overlap with races in both events on the same day at nationals and at worlds.

It doesn’t get much easier at the Olympics, where the 200m semifinals and final are on the two days between the 400m semifinals and final, but he wants to try.

“It’s going to take a very, very, very special person to do something like that,” Norman said. “Is it feasible? Of course, it’s feasible. But maybe not feasible to perform very well. Shoot, is it enticing to do it? Yes. Am I gonna be ready for it? I won’t know until the end of this year if I’ll be ready to do it. But I think I’ve just got to keep progressing as an athlete, and then I think, if I can keep progressing the way that I am, I think eventually I will be ready.”

Norman could also petition for the Olympic schedule to be changed, as was done for Johnson in 1996 and Allyson Felix in 2016.

But since he has no global championship medals, he has little clout in approaching the sport’s governing body. That can all change if Norman gets to worlds and does what Boldon predicts — breaks van Niekerk’s world record this year.

If that happens, Boldon said, “Now you can go to the IAAF and say, look, you haven’t had somebody pull off that double since 1996. That’s been long enough. How about changing that schedule in Tokyo so I can do a 200m-400m double? … Now you’re back to really being able to capture headlines, somebody trying to capture something that’s only been done once [for the men, Johnson in Atlanta]. Michael Norman’s the guy that I could bet can do it.”

And he could do it in Tokyo against Lyles and Coleman, five years after their first 200m together.

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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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