Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross

Two years to Rio Olympics: More sports storylines

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The U.S.’ ability to win the medal count at the 2012 Olympics, surpassing rival China by 16 medals and eight golds, was in part due to success in sports outside of the traditionally bountiful swimming, track and field and gymnastics.

In London, the U.S. bettered its medal totals from Beijing in sports such as diving, tennis and wrestling. New champions also emerged in judo (Kayla Harrison) and boxing (Claressa Shields).

Overall, the London Games provided a showcase for track cycling, because of host Great Britain’s rich team, and archery, due to the “Hunger Games” boost.

What can we expect at Rio 2016?

Volleyball, both indoors and on the beach, will be a hot ticket. Brazil’s men’s indoor team has won at least silver at each of the last three Olympics, and the women are two-time reigning Olympic champions.

Brazil has won more beach volleyball medals than any nation since the sport’s Olympic inception in 1996. On Copacabana Beach, Brazilian pairs will look to regain the dominance the nation once had in the late 1990s, when Brazil was sweeping World Championships.

In their way is the greatest women’s beach volleyball player ever, three-time U.S. Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings. Walsh Jennings, a mother of three, has found early success with new partner April Ross following the retirement of Misty-May Treanor.

Two years out: Rio’s readiness | Storylines: Swimming | Track and Field | Gymnastics | More Sports

The U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams will likely be overwhelming favorites to win gold again, though the future of NBA stars in the Olympics faces questions with Paul George‘s gruesome injury Friday. London coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Geno Auriemma decided to stick around for another four-year cycle.

American divers bagged four medals in London, after not winning any at the two previous Olympics combined. Platform gold medalist David Boudia will try to add springboard to his plate, while China will take another run at sweeping all eight gold medals. No man or woman has won medals on both the platform and springboard since 2000.

The face of U.S. wrestling, Jordan Burroughs, got married and welcomed a son since London. He also captured the 2013 World Championship four weeks after breaking an ankle and, in February, lost for the first time in his international career, ending a 69-match win streak. No U.S. wrestler has won back-to-back Olympic golds since John Smith in 1988 and 1992.

In shooting, Kim Rhode is back after giving birth to son Carter in May 2013. In London, she became the first American to win medals in five straight Olympics in an individual event. If she makes the podium in Rio, she could become the first Summer Olympian from any nation to win individual medals at six different Olympics.

World No. 1 Gwen Jorgensen could become the second-ever U.S. triathlete to win an Olympic medal, and the first to win gold.

Rio will also see the return of golf and rugby to the Olympics.

Golf was last in the Games in 1904, and it has made plenty of headlines recently with Rory McIlroy‘s decision to represent Ireland over Great Britain, the course’s delayed construction and how the 60-player fields will be determined.

No more than four players from any country can make the field, making qualification difficult for American stars such as Tiger WoodsPhil Mickelson and Michelle Wie.

Rugby was last in the Olympics in the 15-player, men’s-only format in 1924, when the U.S. won its second straight gold medal.

In 2016, rugby sevens debuts at the Games in both men’s and women’s competitions. Sochi Olympic silver medalist bobsledder Elana Meyers played for the American team internationally this year and has not shut the door for a potential run to Rio.

The U.S. men and women are no lock to qualify for the Olympics, though. The Olympic rugby tournaments will include 12 men’s and 12 women’s teams, with Brazil taking one spot in each.

The U.S. men were ranked No. 13 in this past season’s World Series standings, though England, Scotland and Wales — three nations ranked higher — will be part of one nation at the Olympics.

The U.S. women appear to be in better shape, ranked No. 7 in the World Series standings and placing third at the 2013 World Cup.

Ashley Wagner eyes history at Grand Prix Final after ‘disaster’ in Japan

Ashley Wagner
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Ashley Wagner can next week become the first U.S. singles skater to make four straight Grand Prix Final podiums, but not if she performs like she did last weekend at NHK Trophy in Japan.

“NHK was a disaster,” the three-time U.S. champion said Tuesday, “but that was kind of a one-time deal.”

Wagner backed into the Grand Prix Final as the sixth and final women’s qualifier by finishing fourth at NHK Trophy on Saturday, snapping her streak of 10 straight podium finishes in Grand Prix events. She had won Skate Canada four weeks earlier.

The Grand Prix Final is the most prestigious annual figure skating competition outside of the World Championships and an event that Wagner calls a preview for Worlds (in Boston in late March/early April).

In Japan, Wagner had trouble cleanly landing and fully rotating jumps in both programs, and though she didn’t fall, her mental state was clearly shaken even before the free skate Saturday.

Japanese legend Mao Asada (one of three women to make four straight Grand Prix Final podiums, along with Irina Slutskaya and Michelle Kwan) skated immediately before Wagner.

The home crowd was at its loudest after Asada rebounded from her own poor short to move into the lead (temporarily, Asada finished third).

“I didn’t know how Mao had skated,” said Wagner, who was in third after the short program. “I figured I needed to at least get on the podium [to definitely make the Grand Prix Final], and I knew that I could probably afford a fourth place [to still make the Final]. I think that is where I went wrong. I should have just put my head down, started fresh and gone into that long program not focusing on, OK, well, I can get as low as this and I’ll make it to the [Grand Prix] Final. I think that didn’t really get me into the fighting spirit that I’m so used to competing with. When I focus on the results and not how I’m going to get there, it usually doesn’t go so well for me. It was a rookie mistake.

“I think I was playing it safe and trying to avoid making a mistake, and of course that’s exactly what I ended up doing.”

Wagner placed fifth in the free skate and fourth overall. She actually could have finished sixth overall and still made the Barcelona Grand Prix Final.

So she goes into next weekend’s competition as an underdog to Russians Yevgenia Medvedeva and Yelena Radionova, the last two World Junior champions. Plus countrywoman Gracie Gold and Asada.

Wagner’s confidence that the NHK hiccup won’t repeat could be bolstered by last season, when she was also the last qualifier into the Grand Prix Final (before Gold withdrew), was in last place after the Final short program but starred in the free skate to grab bronze.

“I like it when I have something not go so well,” she said. “When things are too perfect for too long, in a way it kind of freaks me out a little bit.”

Wagner called the women’s field in Barcelona “wide open.” It may be, given six different women won the six qualifying events, the first time nobody doubled up since 2006.

However, Wagner tapped Asada when asked to name her biggest competition. Wagner, 24, and Asada, 25, are the only women’s Grand Prix Final qualifiers older than 20.

“When she’s on, [Asada] has the whole package,” Wagner said of the three-time World champion who took last season off from competition. “She knows how to put on a performance. The audience loves her. Technically, she’s very strong. I think that If I had to pinpoint someone, Mao Asada on one of her good days, is definitely going to be one of the top girls.”

MORE: Figure skaters recall odd gifts from fans

Travis Ganong on the rise, leads U.S. men into Beaver Creek

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) — Before checking into his Colorado hotel, Travis Ganong made a quick pit stop with his doctor to get the stitches removed from his surgically repaired right thumb.

The digit remains extremely swollen even two weeks after a training crash. So much so that he can barely push out of the starting gate.

Not that anyone could tell in Lake Louise, Alberta, last weekend, when Ganong finished third in a downhill race and came within a wisp of another podium spot in the super-G.

Stitches removed and confidence soaring, Ganong’s eager to take on the demanding course in Beaver Creek over the weekend. This is a place where last February he earned a breakthrough silver medal in the downhill at World Championships (video here).

”It’s really nice to have these solid results so early in the season. It takes the edge off,” Ganong said. ”Before you have the first result, you’re always questioning yourself. Now I can relax and that’s when the really good skiing comes.”

The 27-year-old from Squaw Valley, California, has been a rising force on the U.S. speed team since a fifth-place finish at the 2014 Sochi Games.

In such a fast sport, though, he’s taken a gradual approach to his development – never racing outside his comfort zone until he was good and ready. That was all part of his calculated plan, which came to fruition last season as he won his first World Cup downhill race in Italy and earned his first medal at Worlds.

”I was always building, building, building, getting better and better incrementally,” Ganong said. ”Last year I was like, ‘OK, my time is now. I need to try something new.’

”Bam, I won a race. But then I would have a horrible race. … Now this year it’s all about bringing that consistency back to the top, top level.”

Growing up in Squaw Valley, Ganong could always be found somewhere on the mountain, whether it was skiing powder in the back-country with his father, cross-country skiing (he was good, too), snowboarding (yep, he tried that), going over moguls or training with his team.

”We had this two- or three-inch rule where if it snowed that much, we didn’t worry about setting up gates. We’d go freeskiing and chase each other around the mountain,” Ganong said. ”That’s the No. 1 reason why so many good skiers come out of there.”

Like longtime U.S. skiing great Daron Rahlves, one of Ganong’s idols as a kid. The two talk all the time about ways Ganong can uncover more speed.

”I really excel on the steeper, more gnarly courses,” Ganong said. ”I need to try to figure out a way to bring that same intensity to the easier hills that are a little flatter and not my strong suit. Daron and I, that’s all we talk about when we talk about ski racing.”

Ganong broke through last weekend in Lake Louise, which is more of a glider’s course.

Not bad considering his recent wipeout. He tumbled during an early morning training session in Vail when he didn’t pick up a roll in the terrain. He needed surgery to fix a torn tendon and ligaments. He also bruised his left knee.

So he didn’t have all that high of expectations going into Lake Louise.

”For me to have that kind of speed on that kind of hill, yeah, that was a little surprising,” Ganong said. ”I skied really relaxed and just kind of within myself.”

No one could catch Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, though, who came away with wins on both days as he returns to the World Cup circuit after tearing his Achilles tendon last season while juggling a soccer ball.

”Aksel just knows how to let the skis go,” Ganong said. ”But Beaver Creek? It’s a different hill.”

Ganong’s kind of hill.

”Beaver Creek is way more my style of skiing and my style of hill,” said Ganong, who was fifth last December in a World Cup downhill at Birds of Prey. ”I’m trying to not think too much about it, just keep working hard, and keep thinking I’m an underdog and have something to prove.

”Hopefully, that’s a good mentality to keep me fired up.”

MORE: Men’s Alpine season preview