Nick Zaccardi

OlympicTalk Editor

How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
Getty
0 Comments

If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record was the product of pain, rain

Eliud Kipchoge
Getty
0 Comments

When Eliud Kipchoge broke the marathon world record in Berlin on Sunday, he began his celebration near the finish line by doing the same thing he did upon breaking the record in Berlin four years earlier.

He hugged longtime coach Patrick Sang.

The embrace was brief. Not much was said. They shook hands, Kipchoge appeared to stop his watch and Sang wiped his pupil’s sweaty face off with a towel. Kipchoge continued on his congratulatory tour.

“It felt good,” Sang said by phone from his native Kenya on Thursday. “I told him, ‘I’m proud of you and what you have achieved today.'”

Later, they met again and reflected together on the 2:01:09 performance, chopping 30 seconds off his world record in 2018 in the German capital.

“I mentioned to him that probably it was slightly a little bit too fast in the beginning, in the first half,” Sang said of Kipchoge going out in 59 minutes, 51 seconds for the first 13.1 miles (a sub-two-hour pace he did not maintain in the final miles). “But he said he felt good.

“Besides that, I think it was just to appreciate the effort that he put in in training. Sometimes, if you don’t acknowledge that, then it looks like you’re only looking at the performance. We looked at the sacrifice.”

Sang thought about the abnormally wet season in southwestern Kenya, where Kipchoge logs his daily miles more than a mile above sea level.

“Sometimes he had to run in the rain,” said Sang, the 1992 Olympic 3000m steeplechase silver medalist. “Those are small things you reflect and say, it’s worth sacrificing sometimes. Taking the pain training, and it pays off.”

When Sang analyzes his athletes, he looks beyond times. He studies their faces.

The way Kipchoge carried himself in the months leading into Berlin — running at 6 a.m. “rain or shine,” Sang said — reminded the coach of the runner’s sunny disposition in the summer of 2019. On Oct. 12 of that year, Kipchoge clocked 1:59:40 in the Austrian capital in a non-record-eligible event (rather than a traditional race) to become the first person to cover 26.2 miles on foot in less than two hours.

Sang said he does not discuss time goals with his students — “Putting specific targets puts pressure on the athlete, and you can easily go the wrong direction,” he said.

In looking back on the race, there is some wonder whether Kipchoge’s plan was to see how long he could keep a pace of sub-two hours. Sang refused to speculate, but he was not surprised to see Kipchoge hit the halfway point 61 seconds faster than the pacers’ prescribed 60:50 at 13.1 miles.

“Having gone two hours in Monza [2:00:25 in a sub-two-hour attempt in 2017], having run the unofficial 1:59 and so many times 2:01, 2:02, 2:03, the potential was written all over,” Sang said. “So I mean, to think any differently would be really under underrating the potential. Of course, then adding on top of that the aspect of the mental strength. He has a unique one.”

Kipchoge slowed in the second half, but not significantly. He started out averaging about 2 minutes, 50 seconds per kilometer (equivalent to 13.2 miles per hour). He came down to 2:57 per kilometer near the end.

Regret is not in Kipchoge’s nature. We may never know the extent of his sub-two thoughts on Sunday. Sang noted that Kipchoge, whose marathon career began a decade ago after he failed to make the London Olympic team on the track, does not dwell on the past.

“If you talk to him now, he probably is telling you about tomorrow,” Sang joked.

The future is what is intriguing about Kipchoge. Approaching 38 years old, he continues to improve beyond peak age for almost every elite marathoner. Can Kipchoge go even faster? It would likely require a return next year to Berlin, whose pancake-flat roads produced the last eight men’s marathon world records. But Kipchoge also wants to run, and win, another prestigious fall marathon in New York City.

Sang can see the appeal of both options in 2023 and leaves the decision to Kipchoge and his management team.

‘If we can find the motivation for him, or he finds it within himself, that he believes he can still run for some time, for a cause, for a reason … I think the guy can still even do better than what he did in Berlin,” Sang said. “We are learning a lot about the possibilities of good performance at an advanced age. It’s an inspiration and should be an inspiration for anybody at any level.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Noah, Josephus Lyles have unfinished business after record-breaking sprint season

Noah Lyles, Josephus Lyles
Getty
0 Comments

CHARLOTTE — Brothers Noah and Josephus Lyles each hit a milestone in the 200m this past summer. Each has a clear next step in mind.

Noah, the elder at age 25, is (in a change) now talking openly about wanting to break Usain Bolt‘s world record of 19.19 seconds. He will do it if he improves his personal best by a similar amount of time as he did in 2022.

At the world championships in July, Noah prevailed in 19.31 seconds, a personal best by 19 hundredths and an American record. He is now the third-fastest man in history. Bolt’s world record is 12 hundredths of a second away. Eye blinks can be quicker, but it is still a significant gap. Since worlds, Noah repeated a desire to break Bolt’s record.

Noah, speaking before an event for the brothers’ foundation last week, was asked if he had any hesitation about voicing that ambition given there will be doubters. He ruminated.

“There’s like 150 different ways I can go about [answering] this. I’m trying to figure out which one I want to do,” he said. “It kind of really all boils down to: I don’t care what other people think.”

Recall a back-and-forth between Noah and the retired Bolt in 2019. That summer, Noah ran 19.65 at a Diamond League meet in Paris — breaking Bolt’s meet record. In Noah’s Instagram story that day, an image showed him making a shushing motion with the caption, “Bolt who?” That drew a reaction from Bolt. Noah was asked often that summer about Bolt’s world record. Rather than take aim at 19.19, Noah said coyly that he had special things planned.

Noah did not run 19.65 or faster for another two years, until after taking bronze at the Tokyo Olympics. But his 2022 was arguably the deepest 200m season in history. Noah went faster than 19.65 on six occasions. Bolt is the only other man to break 19.65 more than three times over a career, and he never did it more than three times in one year (In his prime, Bolt did not race the 200m as often as Noah did this year).

In summary: Noah is back and better than ever, boosted by a more efficient start out of the blocks and improved mental health, having worked with therapist Diana McNab. Bolt was 23 when he ran 19.19. Michael Johnson was 28 when he ran his personal best of 19.32. Noah turns 26 on July 18, one month before next summer’s world championships in Budapest.

“When you enter a sport, why shouldn’t your dream be to achieve the best that is ever possible?” Noah said. “To anybody who says to themselves, ‘A record is not going to be broken,’ look at all the previous world records. All broken. And even when I get this record, it’s going to be broken. And that’s OK.”

In addition to chasing Bolt in the 200m, Noah plans to reintroduce the 100m into his major event program. He has a bye into the world championships in the 200m, so expect him to run the 100m at next summer’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, where three world spots are at stake.

Noah previously planned to double in the 100m and 200m for the Tokyo Olympics but did not find his rhythm before the Olympic Trials, where he placed seventh in the 100m, one week before making his first Olympic team in the 200m. Only one man has won both the 100m and the 200m at a global championship in the last 15 years: Bolt in 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016.

“We were planning on going after [the double] this year, but just a few complications,” Noah said. “Mostly, [needing to work on] my start was making that very difficult. We decided to focus mainly on the 200m, and I’m glad we did because we were able to accomplish two things — winning the world championship in the 200m again, and then actually getting a better start. So now that I’ve secured both of those things, I now feel I have the freedom to go and try and bring the same success to the 100m.”

Josephus, the younger brother by 369 days, had a breakout 2022 of his own. He went under 20 seconds in the 200m for the first time and, had he not been running into a headwind, would have broken 10 seconds in the 100m for the first time.

Josephus also made his first world championships team, albeit in unusual circumstances. He was fifth in the 200m final at nationals, where the top four earned spots at worlds. Josephus, who had a two-day bout with COVID a week before nationals, left the Hayward Field track believing that he missed the team by six hundredths of a second.

Then he got a call from Noah, who saw Josephus’ name on a board at team processing and told his younger brother to hurry over to get fitted for national team clothes. Turns out, Josephus was named to the 4x100m relay pool, unexpectedly given he didn’t run the 100m at nationals. Micah Williams, who was fourth in the 100m at nationals, was not named to the team (no reason was given).

At worlds, the U.S. ran the same four men in 4x100m qualifying and the final, meaning that Josephus and Kyree King, another relay pool-only runner, didn’t get to race. Josephus left bittersweet.

“All I know is I’m not going to be in the relay pool again [without qualifying in an individual event],” he said. “I’m going to make the team [individually] so I don’t have to worry about that.”

Josephus and Noah traded stories about their seasons after taking an eight-hour road trip from Central Florida to Charlotte, where they lived for five years growing up. They sat for an interview on bleachers inside the Sugaw Creek Recreation Center, where they planned to show off their medals, give away signed spikes and meet and greet more than 200 people, including a question-and-answer session with kids.

The foundation, launched in late 2020, supports children who want to be involved in track and field.

“We’re still in the early stages,” Noah said.

Next: the brothers go back to their native D.C. area, where they will be inducted into their high school district’s athletics hall of fame next week. Later in October is what Noah calls an “End of Season Bash” in Bermuda. There is plenty to celebrate, and plenty to look forward to.

Before rising from the bleachers, the brothers were asked what will make 2023 a success on the track.

“If I go out there and I have fun, everything else will fall into place,” Josephus said.

Noah joked that Josephus stole his answer.

“I got a lot of success this year, but I can’t let that overrun everything,” Noah said. “I want to make sure that I use that energy to fuel doing even more into this [next] year. I know if I do that. the world is mine.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!