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Sunisa Lee, thinking of her dad back home, earns gold in gymnastics worlds debut

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STUTTGART, Germany — As Sunisa Lee stood on the podium, wearing a gold medal in her world championships debut, she replayed her three routines from Tuesday’s team final. Then she thought about her dad, who is always on her mind these days.

“He FaceTimed me last night,” Lee said. “I know that he’s watching.”

Her father, John, streamed the team final from the spinal cord injury center at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. He is rehabbing after being paralyzed from the chest down falling off a ladder on Aug. 4. He was helping a friend trim branches from a tree to set up a tent for a wedding.

“Wish I could have been there to see it, but it is what it is,” John, who served in the Navy on board the USS Trenton during the Persian Gulf War, said by phone Tuesday afternoon. “To see her and her teammates do so well, it’s amazing.”

Lee, 16 and one of six kids, broke out at her first senior U.S. Championships in August, finishing second to Simone Biles, one week after John’s accident. She considered not traveling from Minnesota to Kansas City for that meet. She spent the whole day before her departure date with her dad in the hospital, then went ahead to compete in part because of his urging.

Practice before the first day of competition was particularly difficult, given John was undergoing eight hours of surgery. They FaceTimed before each day of the two days of competition.

Lee surprised herself in doing so well, winning the uneven bars title, while overcoming a hairline fracture in her tibia that was 75 to 80 percent healed. She was third in the all-around at junior nationals the previous year.

“I was thinking of my dad the whole time,” she said, “and to do it for him because I knew that he would be so proud.”

Then, at the world team selection camp in September, she finished second to Biles again. This time it was a margin of just .35 of a point, closer than any of Biles’ last five U.S. titles. Lee established herself as a medal contender at worlds in the all-around (Thursday) and on uneven bars (Saturday).

With me being injured, with all this pressure on her, I cannot believe she’s doing so well,” John said. “I’m very proud of her.”

As is Biles, who after breaking the women’s record for most world championships medals on Tuesday chose to spotlight Lee, the youngest member of the world team and the lone rookie.

“What’s impressed me the most, I think, has been Suni,” Biles said of Lee, who before podium training last week voiced her nervousness to her veteran teammates. “She’s only 16 years old. She’s been through a long year, and to come out and put up the three events and the scores she did is pretty crazy.”

John watched as Lee was the busiest U.S. gymnast aside from Biles on Tuesday. She opened by posting the U.S.’ top score on bars. After falling off the balance beam, Lee recovered with a slightly better floor exercise routine than she performed in qualifying. She was then asked where she planned to place the gold medal.

“Probably on my front door,” she said, “so I can stare at it.”

Lee’s goal is to leave Stuttgart with three medals: make Thursday’s all-around podium and place top two in the uneven bars final, which also includes Biles. “I think I’m a little bit far off from Simone, just because she’s so good,” Lee said before the meet.

“Our goal is always to use Simone as the measuring stick and try to get as close as you can,” said her coach, Jess Graba. “If you’re shooting for the top, you should land somewhere close.”

Lee used some of a teenager’s most valuable real estate — her Instagram bio — to add a link to a gofundme page for her dad. So far, more than 350 donors have given a combined $24,000, halfway to the goal. The funds will go to medical expenses, lost wages and housing and transportation accommodations.

“It surprises me that a lot of friends and family and co-workers, but also so many of Sunisa’s teammates, coaches, fans, everybody got in there and supported that page,” John said. “I appreciate it so much. You cannot believe how many people.”

It is possible that John can walk again, but not guaranteed. He expects to be discharged at 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

“So I will be able to watch the rest of her competition from the comfort of my home, which is awesome,” he said.

John said he will talk to his daughter again before Thursday’s all-around final, reminding her how well she’s doing and how proud he is of her.

“Tough little girl,” he said. “My goal is to walk. Hopefully I can walk before Tokyo. One way or another, if she makes it to Tokyo, I will be there.”

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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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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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