Mother’s Day: Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Allyson Felix win historic golds at world champs

Leave a comment

Two years ago, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce went into labor while watching the women’s 100m final at the world championships. On Sunday, at the next edition of the biennial worlds, she became the first mom to win an Olympic or world 100m title in 24 years and the oldest woman (mother or not) to do it at age 32.

Fraser-Pryce and Allyson Felix made it an unforgettable night for athlete moms, each earning record-breaking gold medals in Doha.

Fraser-Pryce, a 32-year-old Jamaican with Superman ice cream-colored hair, became the oldest woman to win an Olympic or world 100m title, two years after having her first child, Zyon.

“The females keep showing up,” Fraser-Pryce said on the BBC while holding Zyon across her chest. “Hoping that I can give inspiration to all the women who are thinking about starting a family or currently starting a family and wondering if they can come back.”

Fraser-Pryce, up to six combined Olympic and world 100m titles, became the first mom to win the sport’s marquee sprint at an Olympics or worlds since Gwen Torrence in 1995. She clocked 10.71 seconds, fastest time in the world this year, beating Brit Dina Asher-Smith by .12. Ivorian Marie-Josee Ta Lou took bronze.

Rio gold medalist Elaine Thompson was fourth, losing a 100m final to her countrywoman for the first time.

TRACK WORLDS: Results | TV Schedule

It was in Rio that Fraser-Pryce took bronze in the 100m with an injured toe, after golds in 2008 and 2012. There was reason to doubt if she could remain a podium finisher going into her 30s. And that was before pregnancy meant she would take 20 months before her next meet in 2018.

“When I found out I was pregnant, I was sitting on my bed for like two hours, and I didn’t go to practice in the morning because I didn’t know what to do,” Fraser-Pryce said. “I made a vow that I was coming back.”

On Aug. 6, 2017, Fraser-Pryce watched the world women’s 100m final on TV. “I remember sitting there, and I went into labor because I was watching the race,” she said. “So I had my son the next day, like in the evening during the medal [ceremony]. So that was my gold medal.”

Zyon came via C-section on Aug. 7, 2017. Fraser-Pryce went three or four months before lifting a weight. Once she returned to the track, she skipped practices here or there due to pain.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything else,” she said. “Because it has definitely made me tougher, and stronger and more committed.”

In her first meet back in 2018, Fraser-Pryce clocked 11.52 seconds, eight tenths off her best. She raced eight times before breaking 11 again, all while breastfeeding for the first 15 months.

This year, she’s run in the 10.7s a total of four times, becoming the fastest mom in history. Her coach told her earlier that she’s still not all the way back.

“Zyon has been my strength, my family, my husband, they have been my strength,” she said. “When everybody else doubted, they never did.”

The U.S. failed to put a woman in the top four at a worlds for the first time in history. National champion Teahna Daniels was seventh.

Defending champion Tori Bowie withdrew before the semifinals after struggling coming back from injury and dealing with a coaching change. Fellow Rio Olympian English Gardner pulled up with a leg injury in her semifinal, her latest poor luck with health. It’s very possible the U.S. could also miss the medals in the 200m and 400m, too, unprecedented for the world’s greatest track nation.

At least there is Felix.

At 33, she broke her tie with Usain Bolt for the most world titles, grabbing her 12th overall and first as a mom as part of the first mixed-gender 4x400m relay. More on that here.

Felix said she has spoken a lot with Fraser-Pryce.

“I got goosebumps watching her run,” she said. “She’s had a hard road, too, and really keeps encouraging me. Her first year wasn’t the best, but the second year, I mean, she’s better than ever. … She’s leading the way.”

In other events, American Christian Taylor earned his fourth world title in the triple jump, adding to his two Olympic golds.

Taylor fouled his first two jumps, registered a clean one on his third to stay alive and then posted the two best marks of 17.86 and 17.92 meters. Taylor relegated countryman Will Claye to silver and a lower podium spot for a sixth time. Claye owns seven total Olympic or world silver or bronze medals, but no golds.

Russian pole vaulter Anzehlika Sidorova cleared 4.95 meters on her third attempt to relegate American Sandi Morris to her third straight silver medal at a global outdoor championship. Sidorova will hear the IAAF anthem at her medal ceremony since Russia is still banned from sending teams to international track and field meets for its doping problems.

In semifinals, American contenders Donavan Brazier and Clayton Murphy advanced to Tuesday’s final. That final will lack two-time Olympic champion and world-record holder David Rudisha (out the last two years, partly due to injury), the defending world champion Pierre-Ambroise Bosse of France and the fastest man this year, Botswana’s Nijel Amos (Achilles).

Brazier, third-fastest in the world this year, won his semifinal in 1:44.87. Murphy, the Rio Olympic bronze medalist, advanced as a time qualifier after placing third in his semifinal in 1:44.48.

The 200m favorite Noah Lyles cruised in his world championships debut, easing up to take second in his first-round heat in 20.26 seconds and advancing to Monday’s semifinals. He ran in silver hair as an homage to Dragon Ball Z character Goku, whose hair turns silver at his final stage, Ultra Instinct.

Lyles owns the world’s fastest time this year — 19.50 seconds — which is .23 faster than anybody else in the field has clocked in 2019.

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report from Doha.

MORE: No Christian Coleman-Noah Lyles showdown at track worlds

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Coco Gauff stuns Naomi Osaka at Australian Open; Serena upset, Federer escapes

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Coco Gauff plays nothing like what her age — still just 15 — or her ranking — 67th and rapidly rising — would suggest.

Everyone keeps finding out that no matter an opponent’s experience or accolades, no matter the stakes or the stage, Gauff plays with determination and delivers the goods.

Gauff became the youngest player in the professional era to eliminate the reigning women’s champion at the Australian Open, beating former No. 1 Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-4 in the third round at Melbourne Park on Friday.

After her match, during her on-court interview, Gauff turned into a rather typical teen, joking about wanting to take “a selfie for Instagram” with Rod Laver, the 11-time major champion after whom the stadium is named.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

“Honestly, like, what is my life? Like, oh, my gosh!” Gauff told the crowd. “Two years ago, I lost first round in juniors and now I’m here. This is crazy.”

She is also the youngest player to beat a top-five opponent in a women’s tour-level match since Jennifer Capriati did it at 15 in 1991.

“You don’t want to lose to a 15-year-old, you know?” Osaka said.

It was the second significant result of Day 5 in Melbourne: In the same quarter of the bracket, 23-time major champion Serena Williams lost to 27th-seeded Wang Qiang 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 earlier. On the men’s side, the 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer won the last six points of a fifth-set super tiebreak to beat Australian John Millman 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (8).

Gauff pulled this off with some big serving, consistent groundstrokes and by letting Osaka largely be her own undoing.

Osaka made 30 unforced errors, Gauff merely 17. This was a rematch from the third round at the U.S. Open last September; Osaka won that one in straight sets, then consoled a crying Gauff afterward and encouraged her to speak to the fans.

“Her serve is way better,” Osaka said. “I feel like I wasn’t really swinging freely, and she was.”

So, Naomi, could you have done something differently?

“Put the ball in the court,” came the reply.

Gauff’s game is growing so quickly.

Osaka, for her part, made her own rapid ascent to the top of tennis, claiming the trophies at the U.S. Open in 2018 and Australian Open in 2019 to rise to No. 1 in the WTA rankings. She is only 22 herself.

Seems old by comparison, of course.

There were the occasional signs that Gauff is not a fully formed player — or person — just yet. For example, leading by a set and a break, serving at 1-0, 40-15, Gauff double-faulted twice in one game to get broken for the first time. It was a rare lapse, though — and one to be expected at this stage of her life and career.

One reminder of just how young Gauff is: Most of the entrants in this year’s junior Australian Open are older than she is.

Another: She is taking online classes and said she’s been given permission to turn in homework late, “considering the circumstances.”

Yet another: She doesn’t have an official driver’s license quite yet, stuck practicing behind the wheel with a learner’s permit.

Her play is far beyond her years. Her composure, on and off the court, is remarkable.

That all helped Gauff become the first American in 30 years to reach at least the third round in each of her first three major appearances.

Her next opponent will be either No. 14 seed Sofia Kenin, who swept Chinese Zhang Shuai.

So late, in fact, that Gauff said she would have to pass on scouting their match because she would “probably be asleep.”

MORE: Top U.S. tennis player unlikely to play Olympics

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Athletes warily embrace progress as USA Gymnastics evolves

AP
Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The dread was familiar. The fear too. They gripped MyKayla Skinner shortly after she decided to return to elite gymnastics last summer.

Skinner wasn’t worried about recapturing the skills that made her an alternate on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. A standout college career at Utah not only rekindled her love of the sport but served as a form of self care, the hyper intense pressure of performing for former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi replaced by the sense of joyousness she felt competing for the Utes.

That feeling of safety vanished as Skinner prepared for her first national team camp since deciding she would make a run at the 2020 Olympics.

She’d watched her friends and former teammates come forward to admit in open court they’d been abused by former national team doctor Larry Nassar, now serving what amounts to a life sentence for sexually assaulting gymnasts with his hands and possessing child pornography.

She kept an eye on USA Gymnastics as it stepped on one land mine after another in the aftermath as the lawsuits piled up and its role as the sport’s national governing body became tenuous at best. And while the organization believes it has taken positive steps to emerge from the rubble, Skinner wondered what was real and what wasn’t. She texted friend and reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles in hopes of finding clarity, worried about a bait and switch.

“I was like, ’I’m so scared to come to camp. Like, how is it with all the changes, new coaches and everything?″ Skinner said.

Biles, a Nassar survivor who has embraced her role as the the sport’s most influential voice since rocketing to stardom following her golden run at the 2016 Games, assured Skinner the vibe had shifted.

Sitting in a small conference room this week while preparing for the first national team camp of 2020, the Olympics just seven months away, the 23-year-old recently married Skinner admitted she’s still adjusting to the “new” USA Gymnastics.

“It’s just so weird coming into the gym and not feeling like, you know, ‘I’m going to die,’” she said. “Before it was like, ‘I’ve got to hit that routine or I’m going to get yelled at.’ So it’s just been really nice to kind of relax a little bit and be able to really focus on gymnastics and get to enjoy it more.”

There is a sense of lightness during practices that was hard to come by during Karolyi’s hugely successful but strident tenure.

The athletes no longer end each workout by lining up in order of height and offering a robotic, monotone “thank you” to the staff.

Upbeat music plays as they stretch. They talk openly and animatedly while waiting for their turn at each event, a decided departure from the near silence that was commonplace — and perhaps symbolic — of Karolyi’s authoritarian leadership style.

It’s one of the reasons Biles is “optimistic” about USA Gymnastics’ future. When asked why, her words sounded conciliatory even as her tone suggested she has no plans to stop calling out the powers that be when the moment requires.

“I feel like they’re working towards the right direction,” Biles said. “But there are still a lot of unanswered questions that a lot of us as survivors and as the community around us need. But for the most part, in the gym and what we do as a team, that’s going good.”

That wasn’t always the case under Karolyi. At turns brilliant and brutal, Karolyi’s near total control over the women’s elite program turned it into a powerhouse even as it left its athletes at times feeling powerless, the most decorated gymnast in the history of the sport included.

“With Martha you really feared (her) because she held your whole career in her hand,” Biles said. “And now I feel like you’re a little bit more forgiven because it’s such a hard sport and mistakes will be made but it’s how you rise from them and to learn to not do it again.”

A lesson USA Gymnastics itself is attempting to learn itself as it tries to recover from the largest sexual abuse scandal in sports history. The changes it has instituted since the summer of 2017 are both obvious and subtle.

It moved training centers twice, from the Karolyi Ranch in Texas — a decision reached only after Biles expressed outrage about possibly returning to a place she associated with Nassar’s behavior — to Evo Athletics in Bradenton, Florida, to The Gymnastics Company in suburban Indianapolis.

The rustic cabins at the remote ranch tucked into the Sam Houston National Forest have been replaced by hotel rooms near an interstate, a Starbucks and fast food restaurants. Coaches and athletes are prohibited from being alone together during trips to and from national team camps, forcing some to ride share or carpool upon arrival.

Perhaps most telling, the training tables inside The Gymnastics Company are situated right in the middle of the massive steel-structure, not tucked away in a corner.

“We didn’t want to create a back room,” high performance team coordinator Tom Forster said.

Those days are over.

During practice on Monday evening, Annie Heffernan, vice president of the women’s program, sat at a table with Kim Kranz, the organization’s first-ever vice president of athlete health and wellness.

President Li Li Leung, a former collegiate gymnast who came over from the NBA last spring, quietly walked among them, making small talk as she went. Forster — as approachable as Karolyi was aloof — gave the coaches a brief talk and then offered more smiles in 15 minutes than Karolyi did in a given year.

While gymnasts are still rewarded during camps for their performance, national team staff members now have the ability to honor an athlete for things that have nothing to do with chasing perfection.

“It could be an attitude, it could be sportsmanship,” Forster said. “It could be that they came back after that fall and did great. It’s not based on ‘this one’s the best, we have to acknowledge her.’”

The organization has stressed the need for open communication. The members of the 2019 World Championship team were asked to fill out a survey after the competition and share their thoughts on what worked and what didn’t. The same is done after team camps.

“They can complain about anything and anyone that they want to,” Forster said. “They can make it anonymous if they choose or they can say, ‘Hey I want feedback, or ’This is me, and I want to hear from you.’ They can do whatever they wish.”

Measuring any progress is tricky. The organization that long served as the gold standard for the U.S. Olympic movement has lost the benefit of the doubt. Even as it tries to prove how it has evolved over the last three years, the reality is things remain complicated.

Two coaches currently under investigation by U.S. SafeSport attended the camp with their athletes this week. Mediators are still trying to work through the bankruptcy petition USA Gymnastics filed in 2018 as a last-ditch effort to avoid decertification by the USOPC. Nassar survivors continue to call for the organization’s dissolution. Money is tight as sponsors wait for the legal process to play out. When the organization started placing equipment inside The Gymnastics Company, it had staffers do most of the lifting rather than hire professional movers.

All of which leaves the young women vying for an Olympic spot in an awkward position.

Most of the gymnasts in the senior elite program have no connection to Karolyi or Nassar, who was dismissed in the summer of 2015. Yet they find themselves serving as a beta test of sorts on whether the culture shift the organization is trying to bring about is actually happening.

Each of the 15 gymnasts interviewed by The Associated Press this week said they feel they have the freedom to express themselves without fear of retribution. Each believe their mental and physical health and safety is considered important. All of them, however, talked with a coach or a member of the USA Gymnastics staff within earshot.

It’s a lot for group of teenagers and 20-somethings to carry around. Yet it doesn’t appear overwhelming. When Grace McCallum inadvertently sailed off the uneven bars during training on Tuesday morning, her group broke out into laughter — McCallum included — as the three-time world championship medalist picked herself up off the mat.

Yet it was just one moment during one practice that happened to be conducted in front of reporters, photographers and video crews. Whether any of this new approach actually sticks will depend on what happens when the cameras aren’t around.

Much like the sport itself, the process will take dedication, discipline and the ability to address mistakes honestly. Two-time Olympic medalist Laurie Hernandez, however, is hopeful it can be done. She went nearly 3 1/2 years between national team camps after winning gold and silver in Rio. The difference between then and now is jarring. In the best way.

“Now we can truly enjoy each other’s company while just relaxing and enjoying our gymnastics,” Hernandez said. “That says a lot about the environment that’s being created for us. … it’s going to take a second. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not like we’re going to forget what happened before. But it’s getting there.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Investigators at home of Olympic gymnastics coach tied to Larry Nassar