Konnor McClain rallies to win U.S. all-around gymnastics title, fulfill promise

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TAMPA — For years, Konnor McClain seemed destined to become the best gymnast in the country: medals and acclaim starting in elementary school, and that TV segment with Steve Harvey at age 11 where she set her sights on the 2024 Olympic all-around title.

McClain fulfilled promise on Sunday, winning the U.S. all-around title at age 17 after first-day leader Shilese Jones fell on her very last skill, her uneven bars dismount. McClain became the sixth woman since 2000 to prevail in her senior nationals debut. The other five all became the best gymnast in the world, most recently Simone Biles.

McClain’s first senior nationals was supposed to be last year, but after a cross-country move and coaching change she was not ready to compete. She watched last year’s competition inside the arena, feeling down. She had no belief that a year later, she would be on top of the podium.

“It’s so unreal,” McClain, who came back this summer from a stress fracture in each shin, a concussion and the flu two weeks ago, said Sunday night. “I’m still in shock a little bit.”

U.S. GYMNASTICS CHAMPIONSHIPS: Results

In a two-day competition, McClain trailed Jones by eight tenths going into Sunday’s final day.

Jones fell on her opening balance beam and trailed a consistent McClain by five tenths going into the last rotation. But if Jones repeated her bars score from Friday’s opening night (which was best in the field by six tenths), she would comfortably join Biles as the only non-teens to win the U.S. all-around title in the last 50 years. She appeared on her way until landing off balance, falling back and sitting down, a one-point deduction.

Soon after, Anna Liukin, the mother of 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin who coaches McClain with husband Valeri, whispered in McClain’s ear.

Guess what, you won, Liukin told her.

“She was a little surprised, but she smiled,” Liukin said.

McClain, the 2019 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist, was originally too young for the Tokyo Olympics but became age-eligible when the Games were postponed one year to 2021. Before last year’s meets to determine the Olympic team, the Liukins got a call from team McClain, which ultimately led to McClain moving from West Virginia to their Texas gym. She skipped nationals (and a shot at Olympic Trials) to focus on 2024.

”She wasn’t in a shape to compete,” said Liukin, adding that a mutual decision was made in McClain’s best interest to sit out.

Then last winter, McClain’s father, Marc, died from COVID-19. Her grandmother died in the same week. She competed on Friday and Sunday wearing a leotard patch with his initials.

Asked the thoughts going through her head after she won, McClain replied, “I wish I could talk to my dad right now.”

Jones was 10th at the Olympic Trials, the top finisher who didn’t go to Tokyo (either on the team or as an alternate) and initially planned to quit elite gymnastics. She was motivated to continue after talks with loved ones, including her father. Sylvester Jones Jr. died in December after a long kidney disease battle.

Jones called Friday’s all-around the best performance of her career. On Sunday, she fell on her first and last routines. On the latter, she rushed her bars dismount, piked too soon and opened up a little too early.

“Two falls and second place is just really only the beginning for me,” she said.

Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey finished third and fifth, respectively. The Tokyo medalists became the first U.S. Olympic female gymnasts to return to elite competition following an NCAA season.

“There wasn’t really any stress level,” said Chiles, who during a break between routines Sunday tried to get on the jumbotron by having Jones lift her up during the Lion King Cam bit. “But the ramp up for this was definitely I think the hardest thing I could have ever done because I did have an injury [micro tears in a shoulder labrum and bicep], and that injury kind of held me back.”

Like McClain and Jones, Chiles and Carey eye the 2024 Paris Games. As does Tokyo all-around gold medalist Suni Lee, who plans to return to elite competition next year. And perhaps Biles, who hasn’t competed since Tokyo but also hasn’t ruled out a return for another Olympic run.

First up is the world championships this fall. That five-woman team will be named after an October selection camp and will be favored for gold given the absence of Olympic champion Russia, whose athletes are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine.

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Kenenisa Bekele still eyes Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, but a duel must wait

Kenenisa Bekele
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LONDON — Kenenisa Bekele made headlines last week by declaring “of course I am the best” long distance runner ever. But the Ethiopian was fifth-best at Sunday’s London Marathon, finishing 74 seconds behind Kenya’s Amos Kipruto.

Bekele, 40, clocked 2:05:53, the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. He was with the lead pack until being dropped in the 21st mile.

But Bekele estimated he could have run 90 to 120 seconds faster had he not missed parts of six weeks of training with hip and joint injuries.

“I expect better even if the preparation is short,” he said. “I know my talent and I know my capacity, but really I couldn’t achieve what I expect.”

Bekele is the second-fastest marathoner in history behind Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own world record by clocking 2:01:09 at the Berlin Marathon last week.

“I am happy when I see Eliud Kipchoge run that time,” Bekele said. “It motivates all athletes who really expect to do the same thing.”

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Bekele’s best time was within two seconds of Kipchoge’s previous world record (2:01:39). He described breaking Kipchoge’s new mark as the “main goal” for the rest of his career.

“Yes, I hope, one day it will happen, of course,” Bekele said. “With good preparation, I don’t know when, but we will see one more time.”

Nobody has won more London Marathons than Kipchoge, a four-time champion who set the course record (2:02:37) in 2019. But the two-time Olympic marathon champion did not run this year in London, as elite marathoners typically choose to enter one race each spring and fall.

Bekele does not know which race he will enter in the spring. But it will not be against Kipchoge.

“I need to show something first,” Bekele said. “I need to run a fast time. I have to check myself. This is not enough.”

Kipchoge will try to become the first runner to win three Olympic marathon titles at the Paris Games. Bekele, who will be 42 in 2024, has not committed to trying to qualify for the Ethiopian team.

“There’s a long time to go before Paris,” Bekele said. “At this moment I am not decided. I have to show something.”

So who is the greatest long distance runner ever?

Bekele can make a strong case on the track:

Bekele
Four Olympic medals (three gold)
Six World Championship medals (five gold)
Former 5000m and 10,000m world-record holder

Kipchoge
Two Olympic medals
Two World Championship medals (one gold)

But Kipchoge can make a strong case on the pavement:

Bekele
Second-fastest marathoner in history
Two World Marathon Major victories

Kipchoge
Four of the five best marathon times in history
Two-time Olympic marathon champion
12 World Marathon Major victories

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Yalemzerf Yehualaw, Amos Kipruto win London Marathon

Yalemzerf Yehualaw
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Ethiopian Yalemzerf Yehualaw became the youngest female runner to win the London Marathon, while Kenyan Amos Kipruto earned the biggest victory of his career in the men’s race.

Yehualaw, 23, clocked 2:17:26, prevailing by 41 seconds over 2021 London champ Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya.

Yehualaw tripped and fell over a speed bump around the 20-mile mark. She quickly rejoined the lead pack, then pulled away from Jepkosgei by running the 24th mile in a reported 4:43, which converts to 2:03:30 marathon pace; the women’s world record is 2:14:04.

Yehualaw and Jepkosgei were pre-race favorites after world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya withdrew Monday with a right hamstring injury.

On April 24, Yehualaw ran the fastest women’s debut marathon in history, a 2:17:23 to win in Hamburg, Germany.

She has joined the elite tier of female marathoners, a group led by Kenyan Peres Jepchirchir, the reigning Olympic, New York City and Boston champion. Another Ethiopian staked a claim last week when Tigist Assefa won Berlin in 2:15:37, shattering Yehualaw’s national record.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first Olympic women’s marathon champion in 1984, finished Sunday’s race in 3:20:20 at age 65.

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Kipruto, 30, won the men’s race in 2:04:39. He broke free from the leading group in the 25th mile and crossed the finish line 33 seconds ahead of Ethiopian Leul Gebresilase, who said he had hamstring problems.

Kipruto, one of the pre-race favorites, had never won a major marathon but did finish second behind world record holder Eliud Kipchoge in Tokyo (2022) and Berlin (2018) and third at the world championships (2019) and Tokyo (2018).

Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest marathoner in history, was fifth after being dropped in the 21st mile. His 2:05:53 was the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. Bekele ran his personal best at the 2019 Berlin Marathon — 2:01:41 — and has not run within four minutes of that time since.

The major marathon season continues next Sunday with the Chicago Marathon, headlined by a women’s field that includes Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich and American Emily Sisson.

London returns next year to its traditional April place after being pushed to October the last three years due to the pandemic.

MORE: Bekele looks ahead to Kipchoge chase after London Marathon

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