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U.S. women’s rugby moving into role of Olympic favorites

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The U.S. women picked up where they left off in the World Rugby Sevens Series on Sunday, winning the first event of the 2019-20 series at home in Glendale, Colo.

While the score in the final (26-7 over Australia) looked convincing, the path to victory was bumpy. The U.S. dropped a group-stage game 24-14 to France, then capped a quarterfinal rally over Canada in spectacular fashion when Cheta Emba raced more than half the length of the field for a last-second try and a 29-26 win.

The semifinal with New Zealand went back and forth, with Lauren Doyle making a clutch defensive play and a late try to stake the U.S. to a 19-12 lead. New Zealand scored a last-second try to cut it to 19-17, but the U.S. defense forced New Zealand wide to try the game-tying conversion from an acute angle, and the kick went wide.

The final against Australia was tied until just before halftime, when Ilona Maher forced the ball over the line for a 12-7 U.S. lead. Nicole Heavirland accounted for all of the scoring in the second half with two tries and a conversion.

Last year, the U.S. took second place in the season-opening event in Glendale and took three third-place finishes before winning the season-ending tournament in Biarritz, France. The women finished second on the season, clinching a berth in the 2020 Olympics.

The U.S. also has a strong presence in men’s sevens. The men’s team matched the women by finishing second overall last season after holding the lead late in the series, ensuring their presence in Tokyo next summer. The men’s 2019-20 World Series starts later in the year.

Rugby union’s traditional 15-a-side game, like soccer and cricket, has a richer history in Europe and several Southern Hemisphere nations than it has in the United States. The U.S. men have only won three World Cup games in their history and are currently laboring through the Group of Death in this year’s Cup.

The women, like their soccer counterparts, gained a head start on countries that have less of a women’s sports tradition, winning the first World Cup in 1991 and taking second place in 1994 and 1998. But with other countries catching up, the women didn’t reach the semifinals again until 2017, when they lost to France 31-23 in the bronze medal game.

Sevens has been played since the late 19th century, but international play only ratcheted up 20 years ago with the introduction of the World Series. The women’s series launched in 2012.

The 2018-19 season was the best in U.S. women’s sevens history. Until then, the best U.S. finish was fourth in the inaugural, abbreviated World Series of 2012-13. The men also had bounced around fifth and sixth place overall for a few seasons before finishing second last year.

Both teams will be hoping to improve on their performances from 2016, when rugby sevens debuted in the Olympics. The men opened with a 26-0 rout over host Brazil but gave up a last-second lead against Argentina and wound up missing out on the quarterfinals by a single point. The women reached the quarterfinals but were shut out 5-0 by New Zealand.

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Bernard Lagat commits to Olympic marathon trials, eyes age record

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Bernard Lagat, a 44-year-old, five-time Olympian, reportedly said he will race the Olympic marathon trials on Feb. 29 in a bid to break his own record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner.

“I feel like I can still improve,” Lagat said, according to Runner’s World. “I’m going to give it my best.”

Lagat, a two-time Olympic 1500m medalist, moved to the marathon after becoming the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history at the Rio Games, placing fifth in the 5000m.

He clocked 2:17:20 in his 26.2-mile debut at the 2018 New York City Marathon. He lowered it to 2:12:10 at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia on July 7 but did not previously commit to entering the trials.

If Lagat finishes in the top three at the marathon trials, he is in line to become the third-oldest U.S. Olympic track and field athlete in history. The oldest are race walker John Deni (49 years old in 1952) and hammer thrower Matt McGrath (48 years old in 1924), according to the OlyMADMen.

Lagat ranks outside the top 20 among U.S. marathoners in this Olympic cycle. The fastest are Galen Rupp (2:06:07), Leonard Korir (2:07:56, from Sunday’s Amsterdam Marathon) and Scott Fauble (2:09:09).

No American has competed in six Olympics in track and field. Lagat’s first two Olympic appearances were for Kenya.

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MORE: Olympic marathon moved from Tokyo to another Olympic host city

Natalie Geisenberger, Olympic luge champion, will not race this season

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For the first time in eight years, there will be a new World Cup women’s luge champion.

Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger — the seven-time defending champion and two-time defending Olympic singles gold medalist — announced that she isn’t sliding this season because she and her husband are expecting their first child in April.

“Our happiness is on the way,” Geisenberger said on her Facebook page.

Geisenberger plans to return next season and still has hopes to compete at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, where she could match fellow German great Georg Hackl’s feat of winning three consecutive singles golds.

With Geisenberger not sliding this season, the top returning women from last year’s World Cup standings now are Julia Taubitz of Germany and Summer Britcher of the U.S. — second and third, respectively, in 2018-19.

Geisenberger has a luge record-tying four Olympic golds in all, being part of Germany’s victories in the team relays in Sochi in 2014 and Pyeongchang in 2018 as well.

Her 49 World Cup singles wins are another record, and she’s one of two sliders to win seven consecutive World Cup titles — Austria’s Markus Prock took the men’s championships each year from 1990-91 through 1996-97.

Geisenberger’s break from sliding only adds to how the World Cup standings — and the German roster — will look very different this season. Dajana Eitberger, who was fourth in last season’s World Cup standings, is also pregnant and expecting a baby in February. And Tatjana Huefner, who was sixth overall last season, has retired.

Huefner won five consecutive World Cup titles before Geisenberger took over and began her seven-year streak of championships. Geisenberger earned medals 11 times in 12 singles races last year — six golds, four silvers and one bronze.

“We are so happy for you even though we will miss you this season!” two-time Olympic singles gold medalist Felix Loch of Germany wrote in a message to Geisenberger on Instagram.

Geisenberger has been in the top three of the World Cup standings in 12 consecutive seasons. She was third in 2007-08, finished second in each of the next four seasons, and then began her title streak in 2012-13.

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MORE: U.S. luge star adds doubles after Olympic singles medal