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Noah Lyles, Justin Gatlin meet in Diamond League Final; live TV, stream schedule

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Many major international track and field titles will be awarded in the next year. The first go out Thursday at the first of two Diamond League Finals in Zurich, Switzerland.

A 100m duel between Americans Noah Lyles and Justin Gatlin headlines the meet, airing live on NBCSN from 2-4 p.m. ET. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage starting at 12:15.

The Diamond League Finals — the other is in Brussels on Sept. 6 — invite the top performers from the first 12 Diamond League meets this spring and summer for winner-take-all trophies and $50,000.

Any American who earns a Diamond League title also clinches a spot in next month’s world championships, unless the U.S. has the reigning world champion in that event. If that American already qualified for worlds through last month’s USATF Outdoor Championships, the next-in-line American from USATF Outdoors gains entry into worlds.

That doesn’t apply in the 100m, since Gatlin is the reigning world champion.

At the start of the season, the 37-year-old Gatlin looked at best an outside medal contender, given he dropped to No. 31 in the world in 2018 and his advanced age. But Gatlin clocked 9.87, 9.92 and 9.91 in June and July, winning two Diamond League meets and placing second in another.

Christian Coleman is the only other man to break 9.95 three times this year, but Coleman is out of Zurich and in doubt for worlds as he contests a charge of missing three drug tests that could lead to a suspension.

Lyles will definitely not race the 100m at worlds, choosing to focus on the 200m given he’s never competed at a global championship. Lyles, who beat Coleman in May and is second-fastest in the world this year, plans to go for a 100m-200m double next summer.

A first career win over Gatlin in Zurich would mark a nice start to that year-long journey.

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

12:15 p.m. — Women’s Triple Jump
12:45 — Men’s High Jump
12:50 — Men’s Pole Vault
1:05 — Women’s Javelin
1:40 — Women’s Shot Put
2:04 — Women’s 400m
2:13 — Men’s 800m
2:23 — Women’s 3000m Steeplechase
2:41 — Women’s 200m
2:45 — Men’s Long Jump
2:48 — Women’s 1500m
2:55 — Women’s Javelin
3:02 — Women’s 400m Hurdles
3:13 — Men’s 100m
3:21 — Men’s 5000m
3:44 — Men’s 400m Hurdles

Here are five events to watch:

Men’s Pole Vault — 12:50 p.m. ET
The top eight men in the world this season, including the Olympic champion (Thiago Braz of Brazil), world champion (American Sam Kendricks), European champion (Louisiana-raised Swede Mondo Duplantis) and the world-record holder (Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie). Kendricks has been the strongest over the season, winning four of seven Diamond League meets and breaking the American record at the USATF Outdoor Championships. Kendricks finished second, first and second in the Diamond League the last three seasons.

Women’s 3000m Steeplechase — 2:23 p.m. ET
World champion Emma Coburn takes another crack at the Big Four of Kenyan steeplechasing — world-record holder Beatrice Chepkoech and three other women ranked in the top six in history (Celliphine Chespol, Norah Jeruto and Hyvin Kiyeng). The only time Coburn has won a steeple that included any of that quartet was at those 2017 Worlds. But Coburn ranks third in the world this year and could eye Courtney Frerichs‘ American record of 9:00.85.

Women’s 200m — 2:41 p.m. ET
This field includes the Olympic champion (Elaine Thompson of Jamaica), the world champion (Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands), the fastest woman of 2019 (Thompson), the fastest of 2018 (Dina Asher-Smith of Great Britain) and a woman who hasn’t lost anywhere in any distance in more than two years (Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas). The winner here likely becomes the world championships favorite, save Miller-Uibo, who is not expected to race the 200m at worlds since it overlaps with the 400m, where she is Olympic champion.

Women’s 400m Hurdles — 3:02 p.m. ET
The world’s five fastest this year headlined by Olympic champion and new world-record holder Dalilah Muhammad. Muhammad, who broke a 15-year-old world record at USATF Outdoors last month, eyes her third straight Diamond League Final victory. The competition includes Sydney McLaughlin, the only other woman to break 53 seconds in the last two seasons. Muhammad is the clear world championships favorite until proven otherwise.

Men’s 100m — 3:13 p.m. ET
The absence of Coleman, the world’s fastest man for three straight years, opens up this final. It figures to be close between Lyles and Gatlin. Either could supplant Coleman’s fastest time in the world this year of 9.81 seconds. It could well be Lyles’ last 100m until next spring.

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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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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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