Karsten Warholm wins world 400m hurdles title; Rai Benjamin nearly scratches

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It was going to take a superhuman effort to break the oldest world record in men’s track. Karsten Warholm was ready to go the distance, so much so that he felt his heart stopping during the marquee event at the world championships in Doha on Monday night.

Warholm, a fiery Norwegian, repeated as world champion in the 400m hurdles, an event that just a few years ago was an also-ran on the program. He clocked 47.42 seconds, the fastest time at worlds in 14 years, but disappointingly slow for a race where the second-, third- and fourth-fastest men in history chased a 27-year-old world record of 46.78.

“Actually, I felt my heart was going to stop,” Warholm said on the BBC after celebrating by wearing a viking helmet, as he did in 2017. “I had pain in my chest, like, I’m going to die, but it’s going to be worth it. Here I am, world champion, and I’m not dead, either.”

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The 400m hurdles final was given the same showcase treatment awarded the men’s and women’s 100m finals the previous two nights. Partly, perhaps mostly, because of the presence of host-nation star Abderrahman Samba, splashed on newspaper front pages.

But it was deserved beyond that. In the last 16 months, Warholm, Samba and American Rai Benjamin combined to clock five of the nine fastest times in history, pushing Edwin Moses from the second-fastest man ever to No. 5. Only Kevin Young ran faster, at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

When all three men reached Monday’s final, the showdown was on. Young, after years largely away from the sport’s headlines, conducted several interviews this season on the prospect of ceding the world record. But what few knew was that two of the three stars, Benjamin and Samba, didn’t even know if they’d be able to race this week.

Both revealed as much in interviews, Benjamin after taking silver in 47.66 and Samba after rallying for bronze in 48.03. Before worlds, Samba had not cleared hurdles in competition since May 18 due to an unspecified injury.

“Two days ago I wasn’t sure whether to compete or not,” he said, according to the IAAF, “so to make the podium is amazing.”

Benjamin’s problem: he fell while clearing hurdles in training a few days before flying to Doha, he told Lewis Johnson on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA immediately after the final. He underwent an X-Ray and an MRI and was found to have a heel bone bruise. He spent a few days on crutches. Two nights before the first round, his coach, 1992 Olympic 400m champion Quincy Watts, told him that he looked terrible and was considering pulling him from the meet.

“I just broke down,” said Benjamin, who represented Antigua and Barbuda before being cleared to sprint for the U.S., his birth nation, a year ago. “I took it round by round, sucked it up. I’m just so grateful I came out with a silver medal. … Wish it was gold, but the circumstances weren’t in my favor.”

The 400m hurdles was once an also-ran in the sport. It always led off Diamond League programs, more than an hour before the premier sprints. The winning time in Rio was the slowest for an Olympic final since 1984. Warholm’s winning time two years ago (in the rain) was the slowest in world championships history.

Now its momentum should carry into 2020, assuming Benjamin and Samba get back to full strength. Samba is the oldest of Monday’s medalists, having turned 24 years old on Sept. 5. Warholm, as much emotion as he emits before and after races, said he wasn’t too sure about his prospects going into the final. Then there’s Benjamin, who started the 400m hurdles renaissance by clocking 47.02 at the 2018 NCAA Championships. He believes it’s not finished yet.

“If I stay healthy,” he said, “It’s going to be scary.”

Worlds continue Tuesday, headlined by Noah Lyles chasing legends in the 200m final.

The U.S. picked up five total silver or bronze medals on Monday, including Vashti Cunningham‘s first Olympic or world outdoor medal in the high jump. The daughter of retired NFL All-Pro quarterback Randall Cunningham took bronze, equaling her personal-best clearance of 2.00 meters. Russian Mariya Lasitskene three-peated as world champion by clearing 2.04.

World-record holder Beatrice Chepkoech denied American Emma Coburn a repeat world title in the 3000m steeplechase, running away from the field in 8:57.84. Coburn earned her third straight global championship medal, this time silver in a personal-best 9:02.35.

Muktar Edris was the surprise 5000m champion, even though he was the defending champ. Edris, fifth with a lap to go, passed a gassed Norwegian 19-year-old Jakob Ingebrigtsen and led an Ethiopian one-two with Selemon Barega in 12:58.85. Edris, who upset Mo Farah in for the 2017 World title, had finished 11th and 18th in his two Diamond League races this season.

Another shock came in the women’s 800m. American Ajee Wilson was the clear favorite in the absence of all three Rio Olympic medalists, including Caster Semenya, who are impacted by the IAAF’s new testosterone rule. Wilson led for the first 700 meters but dropped to third in the final stretch. Ugandan Halimah Nakaayi broke through for the win in a national record 1:58.04, holding off charging American Raevyn Rogers by .14. Nakaayi, who failed to get out of the semifinals at the 2016 Olympics and 2017 Worlds, came to Doha ranked 22nd in the world this year.

In non-final action Monday, U.S. 110m hurdles champion Daniel Roberts was disqualified for clipping a hurdle in an adjacent lane in his first-round win. The semifinals, featuring Olympic champion Omar McLeod of Jamaica and Americans Grant Holloway and Devon Allen, and final are Wednesday.

Brit Dina Asher-Smith led the qualifiers into Tuesday’s 200m semifinals, one day after earning 100m silver. She is one of the few stars left in the event. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Dafne Schippers, who combined for the last three world titles, withdrew before the heats. The world’s fastest woman this year, Bahamian Shaunae Miller-Uibo, did not enter the 200m because it conflicts with her primary event, the 400m.

Miller-Uibo won her 400m first-round heat on Monday in 51.30 seconds. She is a massive favorite, having not lost an individual race at any distance in two years. All four Americans also advanced to Tuesday’s semifinals, including defending world champion Phyllis Francis.

MORE: Top 400m runner forced to 200m at worlds due to testosterone rule

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Chloé Dygert wanted to be Steve Prefontaine. Then Larry Bird. Now, her coach.

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Chloé Dygert is the U.S.’ top cyclist, an Olympic medalist and world champion in line to race on the track and the road at the Tokyo Games.

To get to this point — leading the American contingent at the world track cycling championships this week — Dygert was kicked off a soccer team, bribed by her father and, when she thought her career was over, enrolled in 5 a.m. classes to get back on the bike.

“I had no interest in being a cyclist. I did not want to be a cyclist,” she said. “The funny thing is, my dad kept getting me bikes.”

It began in Brownsburg, Ind., a 25,000-person town 15 miles northwest of Indianapolis. Dygert had an older brother, younger brother and a BMX dirt bike track on a 4.5-acre property.

She played soccer, but was moved from the girls’ team to the boys. Dygert developed physically earlier than the other girls. And, “I was a little too mean and aggressive,” she said.

She played basketball but broke too many bones — her own and those of other girls. “Not on purpose,” she said, “but I was just so much bigger and naturally so much stronger.”

Dygert ran cross-country, too, but none of those sports worked out.

“I was going to be Steve Prefontaine,” she said of the fabled 1972 Olympian. “I had some injuries, and I started playing basketball. I was going to be Larry Bird. I had some more injuries, and cycling was just kind of my go-to.”

Dygert, at first reluctant, picked up cycling at the urging of her father, David, a mountain biker. She received bikes for Christmas and her New Year’s birthday, but it wasn’t until later, when she was 15, that her father’s words changed her life.

That summer, when Dygert needed a shoulder surgery from a basketball injury, she went for a ride at a local park with her father. David marveled.

“He said, ‘Chloe, I don’t think a girl your age should be able to put out the power that you’re putting out,'” Dygert remembered. “That kind of stuck with me and got me into wanting to ride a little bit more and seeing where I could go with it.”

David lured her: a pair of Oakleys if Dygert won at her first major competition. She entered junior nationals and grabbed a victory.

“That’s kind of what gave me the motivation to keep going,” she said. “It took me a while to actually love the sport. It definitely was not an interest that I had. But I thrive on winning. I love to win.”

Dygert pursued cycling, but she didn’t stop basketball. Everything changed when she tore an ACL on the court at age 17, a nine-month injury. She never returned to competitive basketball, but she also lost motivation to get back on the bike. Again, David urged her. One last time.

She joined the cycling team at Marian University, a private Catholic school in Indianapolis. David signed her up for 5 a.m. classes.

“I’m still not happy about it,” she said. “I got really disciplined.”

And reinvigorated. The freshman Dygert noticed in a power booster class that her wattage was impressive.

“If it wasn’t for that and the structure and the discipline that I had gotten from that and my dad, I would not be here,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by, I’m just so thankful for that and for him.”

Dygert dropped out after that first fall semester to focus on a cycling career. That winter, she won a world title with the U.S. team pursuit and was named to become the youngest female U.S. Olympic track cyclist in history.

“I see myself being a Kristin Armstrong, following in her footsteps, being a good all-around rider and a very good time trialist,” Dygert said before earning team pursuit silver at the Rio Olympics, according to The Associated Press.

Armstrong earned her third Olympic road time trial title in Rio, a day before turning 43. She retired and transitioned from Dygert’s mentor to her coach. Dygert recently moved to Armstrong’s native Idaho.

On the eve of September’s world road cycling championships time trial, Armstrong told Dygert to make sure she hurt more than any other rider on the 18-mile course. Dygert obeyed. She went out and won by 92 seconds, the largest margin in history, to become the youngest world champion ever in the event. She collapsed onto the pavement getting off her bike.

“I didn’t race with a power meter,” Dygert said that day, “and I think that really helped not restricting myself, just kind of going as fast as I could the entire time and not really have anything to gauge it off of.”

It qualified Dygert for the Tokyo Olympics on the road. The track team hasn’t been named, but Dygert will surely anchor a new team pursuit quartet. The U.S. has never won an Olympic women’s track title, but the pursuit has been its trademark event — world titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Olympic silver medals in 2012 and 2016.

The only woman on both of those Olympic teams retired (Sarah Hammer).

The cycling community was floored when Kelly Catlin, on all three world title teams with Dygert, committed suicide last March at age 23.

“It’s definitely hard not having her there, but we will carry her legacy on,” Dygert said. “She will be with us every step of the way when we win gold in Tokyo.”

The U.S. women’s team pursuit finished seventh at last year’s worlds without Catlin and without Dygert, who sat out nearly a year after a May 2018 concussion from a road crash. Dygert wondered if she might not be able to come back from the head injury. Expectations were tempered when Dygert and a new team entered a November World Cup in Belarus.

A coach predicted nothing faster than 4 minutes, 17 seconds. They clocked 4:13 and won in what Dygert believed was the U.S.’ second-fastest time since the Rio Games.

“We’ve never raced together before,” Dygert said. “We didn’t really know what we would be able to do.”

Dygert is bidding to race in three events in Tokyo — road race (July 26), road time trial (July 29) and team pursuit (Aug. 3-4). People compare combining the road and the track to training for both the sprints and the marathon. The plurality of the focus will be on the time trial and follow the path set by Armstrong.

“We’re going to be smart about which event that we choose to be full gas for so my fitness is still there for all the other events,” Dygert said. “Being fit for the time trial will also correlate for the track.”

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MORE: Full list of U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

U.S. women’s hockey roster named for world championship

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Hilary KnightKendall Coyne Schofield and Brianna Decker are among 14 PyeongChang Olympians on the 23-player U.S. roster for the world women’s hockey championship that begins March 31 in Nova Scotia.

Every major star from the Olympic champion team returns save captain Meghan Duggan (pregnant) and twins Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson (childbirths in December and January).

The U.S. won the last five world titles dating to 2013, though last year’s came with controversy in the final against host Finland.

Finland, after upsetting Canada in the semifinals, forced the U.S. into overtime. The Finns scored and celebrated before the goal was overturned due to non-incidental goaltender interference. The U.S. went on to win in a shootout, just as it did in the PyeongChang Olympic final with Canada.

The U.S. coach since PyeongChang has been Bob Corkum, a 12-season NHL defenseman who succeeded Olympic head coach Robb Stauber.

Wisconsin sophomore forward Britta Curl is in line to become the first player born in the 2000s to participate in an Olympics or worlds for the U.S.

The full U.S. roster for worlds (*=PyeongChang Olympian):

Goalies
Alex Cavallini*
Aerin Frankel
Maddie Rooney*

Defenders
Cayla Barnes*
Kacey Bellamy*
Megan Bozek
Savannah Harmon
Megan Keller*
Emily Matheson*
Lee Stecklein*

Forwards
Hannah Brandt*
Dani Cameranesi*
Alex Carpenter
Jesse Compher
Kendall Coyne Schofield*
Britta Curl
Brianna Decker*
Amanda Kessel*
Hilary Knight*
Kelly Pannek*
Abby Roque
Hayley Scamurra
Grace Zumwinkle

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MORE: U.S. Olympic hockey captain plans post-pregnancy return