Christian Coleman, no longer writing out his goals, wins first U.S. 100m title

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DES MOINES — When Christian Coleman was in high school, he kept a goal sheet on his wall and scratched out every time he met a mark. As the world’s fastest man every year of this Olympic cycle, one could wonder what drives Coleman, aside from the obvious — his first world 100m title in two months and a gold medal in the Olympics’ marquee event next summer.

“I got it all up here,” Coleman pointed to his head on Friday after comfortably winning the U.S. 100m title in 9.99 seconds into a 1.0 meter/second headwind, flashing a pair of peace signs (or Vs for victory) as he crossed the finish line. “Right now what I’m just looking in on is getting a gold medal [at worlds] in Doha. And it’s hard not to think about the Olympics.”

Coleman, 23, has no shortage of motivation in his career thus far. He wasn’t recruited to major college football programs, despite being an all-state defensive back in Georgia, reportedly due to his size. Coleman is listed at 5 feet, 9 inches. He went to Tennessee to run track and broke the NCAA 100m record.

Coleman received the least fanfare of the U.S.’ three new phenoms in their teenage years. Noah Lyles, 22, and Michael Norman, 21, are the world’s fastest men in the 200m and 400m this year. Lyles and Norman garnered more headlines than Coleman at the 2016 Olympic Trials for just missing the 200m team coming out of high school. Coleman made that Olympic team (as the last man in the 4x100m relay pool).

“Maybe you could have seen it with Lyles and Norman,” NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon said last week. “Coleman, not so much. I think Coleman has maybe progressed the most since [trials].”

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In an 11-month span in 2016 and 2017, Coleman broke 10 seconds for the first time and lowered his personal best to 9.82 seconds as a collegian. No other man has run that fast in this Olympic cycle.

The world’s fastest man title was there for the taking, given Rio gold medalist Usain Bolt‘s retirement, silver medalist Justin Gatlin‘s age (now 37) and bronze medalist Andre De Grasse‘s season-ending leg injuries the last two years. Coleman seized it. Nobody in modern timing history, not even Bolt, ranked No. 1 in the 100m in all four years of an Olympic cycle.

“The media puts out stories like this guy is the guy to beat. This guy is the fastest in the world,” Coleman said. “I don’t really pay attention to it. … I try to officially be the fastest man in the world come the end of September in Doha.”

At the 2017 World Championships, Coleman faced Bolt for the first time and beat him in the semifinals. Ninety minutes later, Coleman got a jump on the field off the gun in the final (this has become his trademark). Bolt, towering one lane to Coleman’s left, and Gatlin, three lanes to his right, closed in the final meters. Coleman held off Bolt by .01, but Gatlin edged him by .02.

“I’m sitting up here on a podium with Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin, guys I’ve looked up to my whole life,” Coleman said in that post-race press conference with all three medalists, where he was asked one question in 22 minutes.

Coleman opened his 2018 outdoor season with consecutive losses, slowed by a hamstring injury. He entered his last meet of the year on Aug. 31 ranked 10th in the world. But at that Diamond League final in Brussels, Coleman clocked the world’s fastest time in three years, a 9.79 that, adjusting for wind and altitude, may have been the most impressive time outside of the Bolt era.

“Mine,” Coleman repeated in a head-shaking, chest-thumping, finger-pointing celebration in Brussels.

This season, Coleman again lost his opener, this time to Lyles in matching 9.86s, that sparked a rivalry. Lyles said they simply aren’t friends; Coleman said he doesn’t single out any of his competitors.

Coleman insisted that what really counts is what happens at the end of the season in Doha. Lyles is focused on his best event, the 200m, where he and Coleman will hopefully go head-to-head here in Sunday’s final.

“Hopefully I can get many more in the future, but this is a big one,” Coleman said of his first national outdoor title. “I’ll be a little more comfortable on that big stage.”

Gatlin, the favorite for second place here and at Doha, scratched out of the final because he already has a bye into worlds as defending champion. They’re joined on the Doha team by veteran Mike Rodgers and Christopher Belcher, who each clocked 10.12.

Teahna Daniels was the surprise women’s 100m champion in 11.20 seconds, a month after placing fourth at the NCAA Championships. Daniels goes to Doha with Rio Olympian English Gardner, who was second (11.25) coming back from meniscus, ACL and hamstring tears in this Olympic cycle. Rio Olympic 4x100m member Morolake Akinosun grabbed the third individual worlds spot.

Pre-meet favorites Aleia Hobbs (2018 U.S. champion) and Sha’Carri Richardson (2019 NCAA champion in 10.75) were sixth and eighth, respectively.

In other events, Allyson Felix is in strong position to make her ninth straight world championships team after qualifying fifth into Saturday’s eight-woman 400m final. USA Track and Field can take at least six 400m runners to worlds for women’s and mixed-gender 4x400m relays.

Felix, at her first meet in more than a year and since Nov. 28 childbirth by emergency C-section, clocked 51.45 seconds in her semifinal, surging in the last 50 meters to ensure she was one of the four qualifiers for the final.

Felix said before the meet that she was “far from” her best. After she ran 52.20 as 11th-fastest in the first round, she said she was rusty and not quite up to her standard. The nine-time Olympic medalist is building momentum for trying to make her fifth Games next year yet still said her expectation coming into the meet was to win, “because I’m a competitor.”

“Just because I haven’t raced in so long, I’m just trying to use the rounds to kind of feel myself, like where I’m at, work out some kinks,” she said. “Just trying to put myself in a position to give myself a shot.”

Paralympic medalist and double amputee Blake Leeper won a 400m semifinal in a personal-best 44.38 seconds, but even if he does well in Saturday’s final, he may not make the world team. Leeper said his team is working on getting him eligible for the major international competition but would not get into specifics. Presumably, it is regarding the eligibility of his prosthetic legs.

“Blake has filed an application with the IAAF,” a USATF spokesperson said. “We allowed him to run conditionally at this event. We await the result of his legal case with the IAAF.”

Leeper’s time would have placed second at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. It would rank fifth in the world this year. Leeper said that he would have been eligible for the able-bodied world championships two years ago when he ran at nationals, but he didn’t make the final in 2017.

In 2018, the International Paralympic Committee said Leeper was running on invalid blades for its record purposes because he had yet to be classified under a new maximum allowable standing height (MASH) formula. An IPC spokesman said Saturday that he does not believe Leeper’s status has changed. The IAAF did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on his eligibility on Friday night.

“Hopefully with my times and my story, everybody else will accept me,” Leeper said, adding that he’s been running at the same height for the last nine years. “They keep changing the rules.

“For somebody to try to dictate and tell me how tall I should be or whatever I should be running on I think is just really unfair.”

Leeper was born without lower legs and has used prosthetics since he was a toddler. He earned 200m bronze and 400m silver (behind Oscar Pistorius) in his class at the 2012 London Paralympics and has long harbored a goal of racing at the Olympics.

Two-time Olympic triple jump champion Christian Taylor merely needed to show up to secure his bye into worlds as the defending champion. He did little more than that, running through the pit on his first attempt and then calling it a day. Taylor is joined on the Doha roster by two-time Olympic silver medalist Will Claye, who is ranked No. 1 in the world this year.

Olympic champion Ryan Crouser threw 22.62 meters to win the shot put and will again be joined on the world team by Joe Kovacs (22.31) and Darrell Hill (22.11). They ranks Nos. 1, 3 and 5 in the world this year.

Devon Williams won the decathlon to clinch a world championships spot on a team that will include neither the retired Ashton Eaton nor Trey Hardee for the first time since 2007. Rio Olympian Zach Ziemek suffered a knee injury in Thursday’s high jump and withdrew. He can file for a medical exemption onto the world team, NBC Sports’ Paul Swangard said.

In the 800m, the favorites made Sunday’s finals — Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy, U.S. indoor record holder Donavan Brazier and U.S. record holder Ajeé Wilson, who is joined in the women’s final by 17-year-old Athing Mu.

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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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