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An Olympic great passes away; Semenya returns to form

A giant of the track and field world passed away last week, when Hal Connolly died at age 79. Connolly won the gold medal in the hammer throw at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, then continued a lengthy career of distinction, competing in three more Olympics and missing out on a fourth at the 1972 Olympic trials. Over his career he broke the world record in the event six times over a period that lasted more than nine years. His final record-breaking throw in 1965 sailed 233 feet, nine inches. Years later, Connolly admitted to using steroids during his career, when they were not yet illegal and their consequences were not widely known.

Connolly continued to support his event and sport even in retirement, creating the website hammerthrow.com, serving as a junior hammer coach and chairman and serving as executive director of the Special Olympics for more than a decade. Connolly always had a soft spot for the challenged athlete because he was one himself. As a child, he suffered from severe nerve damage in the left arm he fractured on 13 different occasions. His right arm grew to be 4 1/2 inches longer than his left and he had trouble lifting the left arm above his head. The indignity with which the public treated people with disabilities drove him to excel in sports.

Yet Connolly was still better remembered for his forbidden storybook romance with Olga Fikotova, a Czech discus thrower from behind the Iron Curtain. The couple married in Prague in 1957, at a wedding that was approved by the Czech president and attended by 40,000 well-wishers. The Connollys divorced in 1974, two years after Olga carried the U.S. flag at the opening ceremonies of the Munich Olympics. The couple had four children, including Jim Connolly, who won the NCAA decathlon title while attending UCLA. Hal Connolly then married Pat Daniels, an Olympic runner who later coached several world-class athletes, including sprinting legend Evelyn Ashford.

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Six different women scored goals as the U.S. team downed Australia, 6-3, on Sunday in Christchurch, New Zealand to win the water polo World Cup for the first time since 1979. The U.S. squad built a 6-0 lead by halftime on goals by Elsie Windes, Kelly Rulon, Lolo Silver, Courtney Mathewson, Annika Dries and Maggie Steffens. Since winning silver at the Beijing Olympics, the U.S. women have now won the world championship, a World Cup and two world league super finals.

Gao Ao led all tournament scorers with 16 goals for a Chinese team that placed third in the tournament, followed by teams from Russia, Canada and Hungary. The bronze was China's first medal in senior competition and marked yet another sport in which the Chinese are advancing rapidly.

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South Africa's Caster Semenya returned to the scene of her greatest victory and the start of the unwelcome controversy that followed, winning an 800-meter race in Berlin in 1:59.90, well ahead of runner-up Cherono Koech of Kenya in 2:00.40. Christin Worth-Thomas, the top American, placed fifth in 2:00.61.

This was Semenya's third race since returning from an 11-month absence brought on by officials who called her gender into question. But this was the first time since the return that she broke the two-minute barrier after running in two smaller races in Finland. Close to full strength again, Semenya was only four seconds off her winning time at Worlds last year.

One of the older world records on the track fell on Saturday, as Kenya's David Rudisha broke the tape for 800 meters in 1:41.09. Rudisha broke the mark set by Kenyan-turned-Dane Wilson Kipketer of 1:41.11 in 1997. Though just a semifinalist on the same track at the world championships last year, Rudisha ran a clever race, saving his strong kick for the back straight and blowing past his countrymen Boaz Lalang, second in 1:44.34, and Abraham Kiplagat, third in 1:44.49. Leonel Manzano of the U.S. followed in fourth in 1:44.56.

Rudisha has said he was born for running. His father, Daniel, was a member of Kenya's 4x400-meter relay team that won silver at the 1968 Mexico City Games. The former quarter-mile specialist also said he could drop the 800 mark much lower since this was the first time he had run the race with a record in mind. Rudisha said that before the race, Kipketer told him he should go after the record in Berlin, because it was Rudisha's time to break it.

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Will NHL players be available to the top Olympic squads at the Sochi Olympics in 2014? Steve Yzerman says he'd like to see it, though the former Red Wings star, Team Canada boss and newly-named GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning said he understood the hesitation of owners to break up the season and expose their star players to injuries. "The owners have legitimate questions," Yzerman said from the world hockey summit in Toronto on Monday. But showcasing the game at its highest level of skill to a global audience "is something we shouldn't pass up."

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For the second time in a matter of weeks, Ryan Lochte outswam Michael Phelps at a top competition. The U.S. team totaled 51 medals, including 27 golds, during the Pan Pacific championships in Irvine, Calif., where Lochte led all swimmers with five gold medals, followed by Phelps with four. Phelps won the 100- and 200-meter butterfly events, but pulled out of the 200 IM so he'd be fresher for the butterfly leg of the medley relay. Lochte, who missed the world record in that event by .3 seconds, expressed great disappointment at not having Phelps in the race to push him. But without the old Phelps dominating the IMs, Tyler Clary was able to step in as an Olympic medal contender. Clary, 21, finished second to Lochte in both medleys and the 200 backstroke. And remember those textile rocket-propelled NASA-like spacesuits that took five hours to get into and helped swimmers set 43 world records at the world championships last year? Well, with more standard suits in the water, swimmers set not a single world record at the Pan Pac meet this year.

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