Shelby Houlihan

Joe Kovacs roars with world shot put title by one centimeter

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Before his final throw, U.S. shot putter Joe Kovacs found his coach in the crowd at the world championships Doha. That coach also happened to be his wife, Ashley, who in the last year helped convince Kovacs not to retire.

She reminded him of the goal going into the competition — set a personal best and get onto the podium. Kovacs went back to the circle, lifted the 16-pound ball and prepared to heave.

“I took a big breath,” he said. “But when I put that ball in the neck, I felt everything line up.”

Kovacs recorded that personal best. He moved from fourth place to first. He had launched the joint-fourth-best throw in history — 22.91 meters, or 75 feet, 2 inches — and the farthest in 29 years.

Kovacs, the 2015 World champion who earned silver at the Rio Olympics and 2017 World Championships, beat the reigning Olympic champion Ryan Crouser and reigning world champion Tom Walsh of New Zealand each by one centimeter. All threw farther than the previous world championships record in what was the greatest shot put competition in history.

TRACK WORLDS: Results | TV Schedule

Kovacs, taught the shot put by his mom in a Pennsylvania school parking lot, re-emerged as the world’s best after a rough couple of years. In 2018, he was fifth at the USATF Outdoor Championships. He lost his Nike sponsorship. He wasn’t getting invited to Diamond League meets.

“I was hearing everybody kept trying to tell me that I should be done,” the 30-year-old said. “And I honestly thought maybe I should kind of hang it up.”

He spoke to his wife, a former thrower at Kentucky who has two master’s degrees and now coaches Kovacs and others at Ohio State. They wed last November.

“We said, you know, our goal is through Tokyo,” he said. “Let’s put it all together and let’s go full speed ahead.”

This season, Kovacs was sixth, third, fourth and fifth in Diamond Leagues before placing second at nationals. He was relieved simply to make the world championships team. Crouser, who on April 20 launched the world’s best throw since 1990, and Walsh were still a class above. It was still that way going into the final round on Saturday night. Then Kovacs launched the throw of his life and let out roar after roar before the distance was recorded.

“I’m just proud that I was able to stay in my own head and not watch Ryan and Tom throw so far and get tight,” he said.

In other events Saturday, the U.S. men ended a 12-year gold-medal drought in the 4x100m with an American record. The U.S. women earned bronze. More on the relays here.

Sifan Hassan, who fled from Ethiopia for the Netherlands at age 16 as a refugee, became the first runner to sweep the 10,000m and 1500m at a world championships.

Hassan led after each lap and ran away to win in 3:51.95, the sixth-fastest 1500m ever. She did it days after her coach, Alberto Salazar, was banned four years in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency case.

An emotional Hassan was vehement that she’s a clean athlete and believes in Salazar. Hassan noted that she was atop the world rankings in the 1500m as far back as 2014, two years before she joined Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project. She also said she knew Salazar was under investigation when she joined the group, but she never saw proof of wrongdoing.

“It was a very hard week for me. I was just so angry. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I just ran all out,” she said on the BBC. “I’ve been so good athlete since 2014. Now people just start talking all (expletive).”

Hassan relegated reigning Olympic and world champion and new mom Faith Kipyegon to silver in a Kenyan record and Gudaf Tsegay to bronze in a time that made her the second-fastest Ethiopian in history.

American Shelby Houlihan took a bittersweet fourth in 3:54.99, smashing Shannon Rowbury‘s American record by 1.3 seconds.

“I wanted a medal. I wanted to win,” Houlihan told Lewis Johnson on Olympic Channel. “But, if I can get an American record, you can kind of walk away happy with that.”

Jenny Simpson, the 2011 World champion and Olympic bronze medalist, was eighth in 3:58.42, her fastest time in three years.

Hellen Obiri repeated as world champion in the 5000m, where Hassan would have been the favorite had she entered. Obiri clocked 14:26.72, leading a Kenyan one-two with Margaret Kipkemboi.

Three Olympic champions were eliminated in qualifying for Sunday finals — Americans Brianna McNeal (100m hurdles) and Brittney Reese (by one centimeter in the long jump) and German Thomas Röhler (javelin).

Both U.S. 4x400m teams won heats to advance to Sunday finals.

NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report from Doha.

MORE: Brianna McNeal DQed from 100m hurdles in first round

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World track and field championships: 5 women’s events to watch

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Five women’s events to watch at the world track and field championships that begin Friday in Doha, airing live daily on NBC Sports (TV/stream schedule here) …

100m (Final: Sunday)
2016 Olympics: Elaine Thompson
(10.71), Tori Bowie (10.83), Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (10.86)
2017 Worlds: Tori Bowie (10.85), Marie-Josee Ta Lou (10.86), Dafne Schippers (10.96)
2019 Rankings: Elaine Thompson (10.73), Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (10.73), Sha’Carri Richardson (10.75)

Appears to be a Jamaican battle between Thompson and Fraser-Pryce, who combined to win the last three Olympic titles. With Richardson failing to make the U.S. team, no other woman in the field has broken 10.88 this year.

Thompson was shockingly fifth at the last worlds but hasn’t missed a podium in any other 100m in the last three years. She’s on a five-meet win streak. Fraser-Pryce, a 32-year-old mom, would be the oldest Olympic or world champion in the history of this event. The U.S. is in danger of failing to earn a world medal in this event for the first time since 2001, when Marion Jones was DQed for doping.

Pole Vault (Final: Sunday)
2016 Olympics: Katerina Stefanidi
(4.85), Sandi Morris (4.85), Eliza McCartney (4.80)
2017 Worlds: Katerina Stefanidi (4.91), Sandi Morris (4.75), Robeilys Peinado/Yarisley Silva (4.65)
2019 Rankings: Jenn Suhr (4.91), Anzhelika Sidorova (4.86), Eliza McCartney/Sandi Morris (4.85)

Suhr, 37, could become the oldest world champion in the event, seven years after becoming the oldest Olympic champion. But her world-leading clearance for the year was back in March, and she was seventh at the Diamond League Final three weeks ago.

The Greek Stefanidi and Russian Sidorova have the momentum, trading wins in four of the last five Diamond Leagues this summer. Morris must bounce back from a rough August and September, capped by placing eighth in the Diamond League Final.

3000m Steeplechase (Final: Monday)
2016 Olympics: Ruth Jebet
(8:59.75), Hyvin Kiyeng (9:07.12), Emma Coburn (9:07.63)
2017 Worlds: Emma Coburn
(9:02.58), Courtney Frerichs (9:03.77), Hyvin Kiyeng (9:04.03)
2019 Rankings: Beatrice Chepkoech (8:55.58), Norah Jeruto (9:03.71), Hyvin Kiyeng (9:03.83)

Coburn and Frerichs pulled off a shocking U.S. one-two back in 2017, taking a combined 20 seconds off their personal bests to defeat the stongest field in the event’s history. They’re still underdogs this year.

Since that night in London, neither Coburn nor Frerichs has won a steeplechase outside of nationals. Kenya’s four entries include three of the six fastest women in history, led by Chepkoech, whose world record (8:44.32) is 16.53 seconds faster than Frerichs’ American record. Two years ago, Chepkoech momentarily forgot the first water jump and had to retrace her steps and ultimately placed fourth.

400m Hurdles (Final: Friday, Oct. 4)
2016 Olympics: Dalilah Muhammad
(53.13), Sara Petersen (53.55), Ashley Spencer (53.72)
2017 Worlds: Kori Carter (53.07), Dalilah Muhammad (53.50), Ristananna Tracey (53.74)
2019 Rankings: Dalilah Muhammad (52.20), Sydney McLaughlin (52.85), Ashley Spencer (53.11)

The only female track event where an American tops the world rankings: Olympic champion Muhammad, who broke a 15-year-old world record at the USATF Outdoor Championships.

The U.S. actually boasts the four fastest in the world this year, including 20-year-old phenom McLaughlin, who has beaten Muhammad twice in their three head-to-heads this season. McLaughlin, who in Rio became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to compete at an Olympics in 44 years, is looking to make her first Olympic or world final.

1500m (Final: Saturday, Oct. 5)
2016 Olympics: Faith Kipyegon
(4:08.92), Genzebe Dibaba (4:10.27), Jenny Simpson (4:10.53)
2017 Worlds: Faith Kipyegon (4:02.59), Jenny Simpson (4:02.76), Caster Semenya (4:02.90)
2019 Rankings: Sifan Hassan (3:55.30), Genzebe Dibaba (3:55.47), Laura Muir (3:56.73)

A testament to this event’s depth that it’s still one of the headliners despite lacking Dibaba (right foot injury), Semenya (IAAF’s testosterone cap) and, possibly, Hassan (could focus on the 10,000m and/or 5000m).

All that could open the door for an American — either Simpson, eight years on from her breakout world title, or Shelby Houlihan, the Olympic 5000m runner who last year was second-fastest in the world at 1500m. But Kipyegon returned from childbirth to beat Houlihan and Muir at the Pre Classic on June 30.

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TRACK AND FIELD WORLDS: TV Schedule | U.S. Roster

Dalilah Muhammad breaks 400m hurdles world record after ‘freak’ concussion

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DES MOINES — Dalilah Muhammad came back from a mild concussion to break the 16-year-old world record in the 400m hurdles at the USATF Outdoor Championships on Sunday night. She has a knack for overcoming obstacles — beyond just the 10 barriers on the track — and surprising herself.

“I’m still in shock,” Muhammad said after clocking 52.20 seconds on a wet track, similar to the conditions for her Rio Olympic title.

Muhammad, who took .14 off Yuliya Pechonkina‘s mark from 2003, said she was “kind of shut down” after falling in training two weeks ago. She lost focus while running — without hurdles — and took a “freak” fall, scraping skin.

“Nothing major,” the Queens, N.Y., native said. “Yesterday was like, OK, I’m ready to run again.”

Muhammad moved after hurdle six in Sunday’s final, surging past 2015 World silver medalist Shamier Little to her outside coming around the last curve. (This field was one of the deepest of the four-day meet with four Olympic or world medalists, plus Sydney McLaughlin, the fastest woman in the world in 2018 and, until Sunday, 2019.)

As Muhammad strained for home, she heard the voice of coach Lawrence Johnson in her head, saying, you’ve got to execute that last 40 meters. Drop your arms.

“I was just trying to hold on,” she said.

The celebration didn’t match the enormity of the moment. Muhammad saw her time, clapped her hands and leaned over momentarily before accepting a hug from McLaughlin, who finished second in 52.88 to make her first world team.

“I’ve been kind of hitting that time in practice consistently,” said Muhammad, whose previous personal best was 52.64 from 2017. “I was hoping for it this whole weekend.”

In 2012, Muhammad finished fifth at her last NCAA Championships for USC. Twenty days later, she was sixth in her first-round heat at the Olympic trials, a full six seconds slower than what she ran at Drake Stadium on Sunday.

She stayed in the sport, unsponsored, and in Los Angeles, financially supported by her parents. Her mom, Nadirah, worked as a child protection specialist in New York City. Father Askia served as a Muslim Chaplain for the New York City Department of Correction and an adjunct professor of Islamic Studies at the New York Theological Seminary.

Something clicked under those circumstances in 2013. Muhammad lowered her best time from 56.04 to 53.83 to win the U.S. title. Then she earned world silver, picking up a Nike sponsorship along with it.

But 2014, 2015 and even early 2016 brought more hurdles — a quad injury, “personal problems,” and, four months before the Olympic trials, reportedly changing coaches from Yolanda Demus (mother of now-former American record holder Lashinda Demus) to Johnson, who also coached Olympic 100m hurdles champion Brianna McNeal.

It worked. Muhammad clocked a personal-best 52.88 to win trials. She went to the Olympics owning the fastest time in the world for the year by 1.08 seconds over her next-closest competitor in Rio. She lived up to overwhelming favorite status, taking gold by a comfortable .42.

“The gold was so far from my mind; that definitely wasn’t the goal going into 2016,” she said. “I just wanted to make it as a 400m hurdler.”

Muhammad went even faster to win the 2017 U.S. title — 52.64 — but then hurt her hamstring and finished second to countrywoman Kori Carter at worlds in 53.50.

In 2018, McLaughlin ran 52.75 and turned professional after one season at Kentucky. At 18, McLaughlin said she had designs on the world record, and many believed it was coming.

“Maybe the biggest prodigy in the history of the sport,” NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon said on Sunday’s broadcast of McLaughlin, who made the Rio team at 16 and was eliminated in the Olympic semifinals as the youngest U.S. track and field competitor since 1972.

McLaughlin has 386,000 Instagram followers. Muhammad eclipsed 26,000 on Sunday night.

“I felt like the underdog in the race,” said Muhammad, who was beaten by McLaughlin in Oslo last month, their first head-to-head in two years. “I think people always kind of root for the underdog.”

USATF OUTDOORS: Full Results

In other events Sunday, Noah Lyles made his first world championships team by winning the 200m in 19.78 seconds. He topped U.S. 100m champion Christian Coleman, who was second in 20.02 to set up a 100m-200m double in Doha. More on Lyles-Coleman here.

Olympic 1500m champion Matthew Centrowitz was upset by mulletted Craig Engels, but Centrowitz still finished second to make his seventh straight Olympic or world team.

Favorites Daniel Roberts, Grant Holloway and Devon Allen went one-two-three in the 110m hurdles to make up that world team. Holloway beat Roberts at the NCAA Championships in 12.98 seconds, fastest in the world this year, then dived across the finish line Sunday to secure his first world spot. Roberts won in 13.23.

Dezerea Bryant won the women’s 200m in 22.47 seconds, while U.S. 100m champion Teahna Daniels missed the world team in this event .02, taking fourth.

Emma Coburn earned her eighth steeplechase title in nine years, even though she did not need to race here because she as a bye into Doha as defending world champion. Coburn is joined on the world team by Courtney Frerichs, who took second, just as she did at 2017 Worlds.

Coburn ranks third in the world this year behind Kenyans Beatrice Chepkoech (world-record holder) and Norah Jeruto.

Olympic 800m bronze medalist Clayton Murphy fought traffic in the last 200 meters to go from fourth to second behind Donavan Brazier and qualify for worlds. Brazier, 22, ranks fifth in the world this year after being eliminated in the semifinals in his world champs debut in 2017.

Ajeé Wilson earned her third straight U.S. 800m title, clocking 1:57.72. She’s a medal favorite at worlds given the absence of Olympic silver and bronze medalists Francine Niyonasaba and Margaret Wambui due to the IAAF’s new testosterone-capping rule. However, two-time Olympic champion Caster Semenya is for the moment eligible while appealing.

Athing Mu, 17, finished fifth in a personal-best 2:01.17.

Lopez Lomong, who won the 10,000m on Thursday, doubled up in the 5000m, but he can’t compete at worlds in the latter because he doesn’t have a fast enough qualifying time. Olympic silver medalist Paul Chelimo, who lost a final sprint to the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony flag bearer Lomong by .27, leads the team.

Shelby Houlihan completed her second straight 1500m-5000m double at nationals by kicking to win the longer distance. Houlihan, 11th in Rio in the 5000m, is not expected to race that event at worlds as she focuses on the 1500m, where has become one of the world’s best in the last two years.

In the pole vault, Jenn Suhr, the 2012 Olympic champ ranked No. 1 in the world this year, and Sandi Morris, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist ranked No. 2 in the world this year, both qualified for worlds.

Olympic long jump champion Jeff Henderson appears to have made the world team despite placing fifth because national champion Ja’Mari Ward and fourth-place Jarvis Gotch don’t have a far enough qualifying jump for worlds.

Olympic shot put champion Michelle Carter was beaten by Chase Ealey, who ranks second in the world this year, but both are going to worlds.

Erica Bougard overcame Kendell Williams‘ 66-point lead in the heptathlon in the last event, the 800m, to repeat as national champion.

Bougard’s total, 6,663, ranks third in the world this year behind Olympic champion Nafi Thiam of Belgium and Brit Katarina Johnson-Thompson. The last American to earn a world heptathlon medal was Shelia Burrell in 2001 (bronze).

Jeron Robinson repeated as high jump champion, clearing 2.30 meters to move to joint seventh in the world this year.

The track and field season continues with a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain, on Aug. 18.

MORE: Olympic 1500m medalist retires

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