Allyson Felix, admittedly far from her best, advances in first race as a mom

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Allyson Felix, at a professed far from her best, finished fourth in her 400m first-round heat at the USATF Outdoor Championships, her first race in more than one year and since having daughter Camryn via emergency C-section at 32 weeks on Nov. 28.

Felix, the most decorated female Olympic track and field athlete with nine medals and six golds, clocked 52.20 seconds. She reached Friday’s semifinals with the 11th-fastest time of 16 qualifiers. Her personal best is 49.26 from 2015.

“It felt rusty. Kind of to be expected,” Felix, who ran unsponsored but in Nike shoes, told media in Des Moines. “It’s not quite up to my standards.

“Even though it wasn’t a great result for me, it’s a starting point. My biggest goal is next year. I know that I’m capable. Now I have time on my side. I can get where I need to go.”

USATF OUTDOORS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Before the race, Felix posted on Instagram that making it to the start line was “a huge victory.”

“Almost 8 months ago this was my entire world. staying in the NICU all day & night watching my baby girl fight,” she wrote. “I can still hear the beeping and alarms of the machines. the uncertainty. The fear. There were a lot of days i wasn’t sure this was going to be possible. I worked harder than i even knew i could. there were tears, frustration and doubt. At times it felt like everything was against me.”

Felix must likely finish in the top six in Saturday’s 400m final, should she advance from Friday’s semifinals, to make her ninth straight world championships team. That should get her on the 4x400m relay. A top-three finish is required to make the individual 400m at worlds in Doha in two months.

Later Thursday, Molly Huddle captured her fifth straight 10,000m national title by holding off training partner Emily Sisson. In the men’s 10,000m, 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony flag bearer Lopez Lomong won by more than 17 seconds.

Others winners included Sam Mattis (discus), Ariana Ince (javelin) — edging American record-holder Kara Winger — and Keturah Orji, who captured her fourth straight triple jump crown.

Earlier Thursday, the favorites advanced in the men’s and women’s 100m, which have semifinals and finals Friday. That includes Christian Coleman, the world’s fastest man this Olympic cycle, Justin Gatlin, who has a bye into worlds as defending champion and defending U.S. champion Aleia Hobbs.

Same went for the women’s 800m (Ajee WilsonRaevyn Rogers) and 1500m (Jenny SimpsonShelby Houlihan) and men’s 400m hurdles (Rai BenjaminKerron Clement) and 800m (Donovan BrazierClayton Murphy).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: Olympic champions, world-record holder to miss USATF Outdoors

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today i’ll step on the starting line for the first time in over a year. it might sound cliche, but making it there for me is a huge victory • almost 8 months ago this was my entire world. staying in the NICU all day & night watching my baby girl fight. i can still hear the beeping and alarms of the machines. the uncertainty. the fear • there were a lot of days i wasn’t sure this was going to be possible. i worked harder than i even knew i could. there were tears, frustration and doubt. at times it felt like everything was against me • so today i’m far from my best, but i’m grateful for this opportunity and to experience the joy of competing again • more than anything i thank God we are healthy.

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Major League Baseball sponsors U.S. Olympic softball team

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NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is using its financial muscle to support the U.S. women’s softball team, which already is assured a spot in the Tokyo Olympics while the American men’s baseball team struggles to qualify.

MLB announced an agreement Thursday to become presenting sponsor of the women’s “Stand Beside Her” tour, a slate of exhibition games leading up to the Olympic tournament from July 22-28.

“We’re both bat and ball sports. Even though we’re not the same sport, there are so many similarities that you just can’t ignore,” said Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations. “It was important for us to make sure that they have this acknowledgment and recognition of their ability and their talent.”

Softball began as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 with players that included Dot Richardson, Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza, then lost to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game.

Baseball and softball were dropped for the next two Olympics, then restored for this year, when the U.S. and Japan will be joined by Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico for games in Fukushima and Yokohama but not Tokyo. The sports are likely to be dropped for 2024 in Paris but could return four years later in Los Angeles.

The U.S. men’s baseball team stumbled in its first attempt to qualify, wasting a ninth-inning lead against Mexico in the final game of the Premier12 tournament in November and losing in the 10th. The U.S. has two more chances to join Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea in the Olympic field: an Americas tournament in Arizona from March 22-26 and a final tournament in Taiwan from April 1-5.

MLB is not allowing players on 40-man big league rosters to compete in qualifying, and few top pitching prospects were at the November tournament.

Softball has no such issues. The Olympics are the sport’s highest-profile event.

“The platform for us is 10 times bigger,” American outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “For us, it’s a great opportunity for people that have never watched softball before, people that have only followed it at the collegiate level, to really see how fun our game is to watch, how pure it is. If people are baseball fans, I guarantee they’re going to love softball because it’s pretty much just a faster game – it’s shorter, it’s quicker, it’s more entertaining to watch, in my opinion.”

The 2008 gold-medal softball game took 1 hours, 45 minutes — less than half the 3:45 average for this year’s World Series.

As part of the deal with MLB, the softball team’s official training facility will be at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, the old Dodgertown spring training camp.

MLB Network will include programming from the tour, which currently starts Feb. 4 in Tampa and has about three dozen stops.

The U.S. women’s soccer team has attracted huge television audiences. MLB sees softball as an opportunity for the sport’s growth.

“These are world-class athletes,” Ng said. “Because we have not been in the Olympics for the last 12 years, they just haven’t had that stage. So it’s really important at this point that we show as much support as we can for them.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Rafael Nadal advances at Australian Open; American back on Slam stage

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal joined Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open third round, sweeping Argentine Federico Delbonis 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Thursday.

Nadal, whose lone Australian Open title came in 2009, gets countryman Pablo Carreno Busta in Saturday’s third round. He could face No. 23 Nick Kyrgios of Australia in round four, but neither Federer nor Djokovic until the final.

No. 4 Daniil Medvedeva and No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep were also winners Thursday. Friday’s third-round action is headlined by defending champion Naomi Osaka facing 15-year-old U.S. phenom Coco Gauff.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

The only top-20 seed to lose Thursday was No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic. American CiCi Bellis bounced her 6-4, 6-4.

This was a big deal for Bellis: Two full years and four right arm operations have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament.

Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.

She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors.

Then came the series of health problems, including for torn tendons in her wrist, to shorten a bone in her arm and for bone spurs in her elbow. All the time away from the tour has her at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.

In other action, U.S. Open runner-up Medvedev  found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.

That’s because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.

Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.

“Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn’t usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes — three, four minutes. … But it’s nothing,” Medvedev said.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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