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U.S. athletes fend off early world championship challenges in Doha

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Reigning champions Justin Gatlin, Emma Coburn and Christian Taylor advanced with ease through the early rounds of their title defenses Friday on the first day of track and field’s world championships in Doha, Qatar.

Gatlin comfortably won his heat to advance in 10.06 seconds. The fastest time in the heats belonged to Christian Coleman, who tore through the track to finish in 9.98 seconds despite shutting things down in the last 10 meters. U.S. veteran Mike Rodgers also advanced.

PREVIEW: Coleman, Gatlin and Blake set for 100m showdown

Coburn also advanced with ease, cruising along with a three-runner lead pack in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and wasting little effort down the stretch. Courtney Frerichs, a stunning second to Coburn in 2017, qualified by finishing second in her heat to top-ranked Beatrice Chepkoech of Kenya.

Taylor didn’t hit the automatic qualifying mark in the triple jump but was secure enough in his first-round effort of 16.99 meters to pass on his final jump. Will Claye, who has dueled with friendly rival Taylor many times in recent years, struggled with his first two jumps and qualified with a third effort of 16.97m despite taking off well behind the board. Donald Scott matched Taylor at 16.99m to qualify, also pulling through with a clutch performance in the final round, but fourth American Omar Craddock barely missed out on a tiebreaker.

The most unusual qualification effort belonged to Olympic silver medalist and 2017 bronze medalist Paul Chelimo who showed off a devastating finishing kick in the final few steps of his heat in the men’s 5,000 meters — even with one shoe missing. Hassan Mead also advanced.

Rai Benjamin stayed on track for a likely showdown with Norway’s Karsten Warholm in the men’s 400m hurdles. TJ Holmes also qualified for the next round.

The biggest surprises for U.S. athletes in Friday’s session were the early exits of hammer thrower Brooke Andersen and 800m runner Hanna Green. Andersen only managed a throw of 68.46m, far off her season best of 76.75m that ranks second in the world this year. Green, who is fifth on the season’s best list with a time of 1:58.19, faded to last place in a tightly packed slow heat.

Also in the women’s 800m, Ajee Wilson and Raevyn Rogers cruised to win their heats, and U.S. teammate Ce’Aira Brown advanced from a fast heat. Green and British hopeful Lynsey Sharp were among the surprise non-qualifiers. Reigning champion Caster Semenya is not in Doha because she has refused treatment to lower her testosterone level.

READ: Semenya will not go to Doha to collect belated 2011 medal

In the hammer throw, DeAnna Price needed only one throw to meet the automatic qualifying mark, and Gwen Berry also advanced.

Olympic long jump champion Jeff Henderson needed a strong third jump to qualify and sailed to an 8.12m mark, second only to Cuban star Juan Michael Echevarria. U.S. jumper Steffin McCarter sailed 8.04m to qualify as well.

Other U.S. field event favorites all advanced.

The pole vault trio of Sandi Morris, Katie Nageotte and Jenn Suhr all cleared the automatic qualifying height of 4.60m, though Suhr required a second attempt. They’ll have plenty of company, with 17 athletes clearing the bar.

Vashti Cunningham cleared the automatic qualifying height of 1.94m in the high jump, while teammate Tynita Butts advanced with a personal-best 1.92m. Inika McPherson did not advance.

TRACK AND FIELD WORLDS: TV Schedule | U.S. Roster

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Bernard Lagat reminded of Atlanta Games at U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

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ATLANTA — As 45-year-old Bernard Lagat sat inside a hotel overlooking Centennial Olympic Park, he spoke one sentence that prefaced the start of his Olympic journey more than two decades ago.

“We are doing this in a special place,” he said of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which finish at the park on Saturday (12 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Lagat is an underdog, but has a chance to make a sixth Olympic team by placing in the top three. He can break his own record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history.

Lagat was reminded this week of the Atlanta Olympics that got away.

In 1996, the Kenyan-born runner was coming off his freshman year at Jomo Kenyatta University Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi. He studied mathematics and computer science.

Lagat debuted at the Kenyan Olympic Trials. He remembered finishing seventh in the 1500m, having exhausted himself by clocking a 3:37 semifinal.

“They had fancy shoes, nice clothing,” he said of the pros. “Me, I was like hand-me-down spikes.”

Lagat’s coach at the time, Nganga Ngata, arranged for him to transfer to Washington State later that summer. But first, Lagat watched on TV the Olympic 1500m final — famous for then-world-record holder Noureddine Morceli and current world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj making contact at the bell; El Guerrouj fell, Morceli won.

Days later, Lagat headed to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. He was to fly to the United States for the first time, embarking on a journey that would lead to U.S. Olympic teams in 2008, 2012 and 2016 after he represented Kenya in 2000 and 2004.

Before a 21-year-old Lagat boarded his flight, he encountered a reception. The Kenyan Olympic team was arriving back from Atlanta after collecting eight medals, including in every men’s distance-running event.

“They had all these celebrations, traditional milk and the gourds,” Lagat said. “Oh, it was amazing. … That fire, seeing them coming home with medals, and I thought, I want to be like those guys.”

Lagat went on to earn eight combined Olympic and world championships medals between the 1500m and 5000m. Lagat qualified for one last Olympics on the track in 2016, going from sixth place at the bell to win the trials 5000m. He was fifth in Rio.

Then he turned to the marathon. Lagat has raced two of them. He clocked 2:17:20 in New York City in 2018, saying he was “running blind” with inexperience. He ran 2:12:10 at the 2019 Gold Coast Marathon in Australia, ranking him outside the 20 fastest Americans in this Olympic cycle.

Lagat went back to Kenya last month to train for the trials with the likes of world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge. Lagat soaked up so much that he likened it to a six-week school term.

At one point, Lagat was part of a 30km training run with Kipchoge. By the end he rounded a bend and saw the Olympic favorite just 60 seconds ahead.

“You think about Eliud being 60 seconds ahead of you in a 30K?” an incredulous Lagat said. “I thought, I’m done. Now I can buy my flight and go back to USA. I’m ready.”

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MORE: Galen Rupp, after tumult, finds familiarity before Olympic marathon trials

Chris Lillis, after missing Olympics, back atop aerials podium

Andrey Kulagin
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U.S. men’s aerials skiers had gone four years between World Cup victories. Now, they’ve won back-to-back events.

Chris Lillis prevailed in Kazakhstan on Friday, six days after Justin Schoenefeld ended the U.S.’ longest men’s victory drought since aerials became an Olympic medal sport in 1994.

Lillis, the 21-year-old brother of 2017 World champion Jon Lillis, landed a double full-full-full in the super final to score 121.27 points. Full results are here. He beat a field that included Schoenefeld (sixth place) and his older brother (14th) but lacked the world’s best from China and Russia.

“That was definitely one of the best jumps of my career,” Chris Lillis said. “Moving forward I’m feeling deadly.”

Chris has earned back-to-back World Cup podiums, his first top-three finishes since missing the PyeongChang Olympics with a torn ACL.

Also Friday, American Megan Nick finished second in the women’s event for her second runner-up this season. The last U.S. woman to win a World Cup was Kiley McKinnon on Jan. 6, 2018.

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MORE: Olympic aerials champion retires to coach