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Japan sports legends to start Tokyo Olympic torch relay in Fukushima

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Members of Japan’s 2011 Women’s World Cup champion team will be the first torchbearers once the Tokyo Olympic torch relay hits Japan on March 26.

Members of the team, which beat the U.S. in a shootout in the final to become the first Asian team to win a World Cup, will pass the flame at J-Village National Training Centre in Fukushima.

“The fighting spirit the team displayed during the World Cup inspired many of the people struggling in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, which had struck the country earlier that year,” according to Tokyo 2020.

As previously announced, the 121-day relay starts in the tsunami-affected prefecture of Fukushima, after the Olympic flame arrives from its ceremonial lighting in Olympia, Greece, on March 12.

Japanese Olympic gold medalists Mizuki Noguchi (marathon), Tadahiro Nomura (judo) and Saori Yoshida (wrestling) will be among the torchbearers for the Tokyo 2020 torch relay’s first eight days in Greece.

The Olympic Flame will spend eight days in Greece before being flown to Japan leading to the July 24 Opening Ceremony.

The relay will visit all 47 prefectures of Japan with emphasis on the area affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Around 98 percent of Japan’s population live within one hour by car or train of the route.

With the motto “Hope Lights Our Way,” it will visit the three prefectures most affected by the tsunami and earthquake (Fukushima (March 26-28), Iwate (June 17-19) and Miyagi (June 20-22)) for three days each.

More than 18,000 people died or went missing after a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organizers have been eager to use the Games as a symbol of recovery from the 2011 disaster that hit Japan’s northeastern region including Fukushima, 150 miles north of Tokyo, where entire communities fled after meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant.

In March 2017, Tokyo 2020 confirmed that some baseball and softball games will be held in Fukushima. That includes the very first competition of the Games, a softball game two days before the Opening Ceremony.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

MORE: Tokyo Olympic torch relay schedule unveiled

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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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