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.

Olympic pairs’ champs crush world record for world title; U.S. struggles

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Germans Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot added a world title to their Olympic gold with a world-record score, while U.S. pairs’ struggles continued with the Americans’ lowest-ever results at a world championships.

Savchenko and Massot broke the longest-standing record total in figure skating, extending their lead from Wednesday’s short program to win by 20.31 points over Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov.

“It was exactly the season that we wanted,” Massot said. “We reached our goal today.”

Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres took bronze, France’s second Olympic or world pairs medal in 86 years.

Full results are here.

Savchenko and Massot’s free skate — the first to eclipse 160 points under the current judging system — included a side-by-side triple Salchow-double toe loop-double toe loop combination and a throw triple flip and throw triple Salchow.

Their total score — 245.84 points — shattered 2014 Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov‘s record of 237.71 set at 2013 Skate America. Their winning margin also broke Volosozhar and Trankov’s record for an Olympics or world championships under the 14-year-old points system.

Savchenko earned her 11th world medal — tying the female record held by Norwegian singles legend Sonja Henie — and sixth world title — tying Soviet Alexander Zaitsev for second on the all-time pairs’ list, four behind Irina Rodnina.

This was the French-born Massot’s first world title. Savchenko’s previous five world titles came with now-retired Robin Szolkowy.

Savchenko is 34, a five-time Olympian and the oldest pairs’ gold medalist in Winter Olympic history. The logical question — will she continue competing next season?

“Think about tomorrow,” she said, with Massot adding, “Ask again next week.”

The two U.S. pairs finished 15th and 17th, which means the U.S. drops to one pairs’ spot for the 2019 Worlds, its fewest since 1957.

U.S. champions Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim dropped from 11th after the short program to 15th of 16 pairs after the free skate. Scimeca fell on their death spiral and a throw triple flip, looked distraught skating off the ice and tweeted 10 minutes later, “I’m sorry for losing us a spot” and “Bad day to have a bad day.”

The Knierims made the top 10 in their four previous world championships appearances with a best finish of seventh.

The other U.S. pair, 2000 World junior singles silver medalist Deanna Stellato and 2014 Olympian Nathan Bartholomay, were 17th in Wednesday’s short program, missing the cutoff for the free skate by one spot.

It’s the first time all U.S. pairs finished outside the top 11 at a worlds, granted worlds didn’t regularly have a field greater than 15 pairs before 1990.

It came on the heels of the U.S. having its smallest pairs’ contingent — one pair — at an Olympics since the first Winter Games in 1924. The Knierims were 15th in PyeongChang, marking the first time the U.S. sent a pair to an Olympics and put none in the top 10.

The last U.S. pairs’ medal at worlds came in 2002, making this the nation’s longest drought in any figure skating discipline. The last Olympic medal was in 1988.

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Nathan Chen hits short program, leads world championships

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That’s more like it, Nathan Chen.

After two disastrous Olympic short programs, Chen nailed his jumps at the world championships, taking the lead by 1.86 points over Russian Mikhail Kolyada in Milan on Thursday. American Vincent Zhou is third.

Full results are here.

“I learned a lot from the Olympics, and I used what I learned there heading into the short program in terms of where to place my mind, what to think about throughout the program,” Chen said. “It was great to have an opportunity to come back before the end of the season to try the short program again, sort of hope to redeem myself.”

Later Thursday, Germans Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot backed up their Olympic gold with a world title, shattering the longest-standing world record in figure skating with a record margin of victory. Full recap here.

In Saturday’s men’s free skate, Chen can become the youngest men’s world champion since Yevgeny Plushenko in 2001. Zhou can become the first man to make a senior world podium the year after winning a world junior title since Plushenko in 1998. The U.S. last put two men on a world podium in 1996 (Todd EldredgeRudy Galindo).

This week’s field lacks Yuzuru HanyuJavier Fernandez and Patrick Chan, who combined to win every Olympic and world title since 2011 but ended their seasons at the Olympics.

On Thursday, Chen hit a quadruple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, a quadruple flip and a triple Axel for 101.94 points (2.18 shy of his personal best). It was a reversal from PyeongChang, where Chen’s short programs began unraveling with that opening combination, and he scored 80.61 and 82.27 points.

Chen placed 17th in the Olympic short program and redeemed himself with the top free skate, moving up to fifth. He went into the Olympics as the only undefeated male skater for the season.

“That I was able to bounce back and have the long program that I did, because of that the whole Olympic experience wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be after the short program,” Chen said Thursday. “Being able to have that, I didn’t have any ghosts of the Olympics following me [to worlds].”

Zhou, the youngest of 37 men in the field at 17, landed a quad Lutz-triple toe loop combination and a quad flip, fist pumping at the end of his skate. He shattered his personal-best short program by 12.25 points. Zhou was sixth at the Olympics.

“I came here to skate a clean program, I did that, and being in the top three is icing on the cake,” Zhou said.

Two other medal favorites — Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan and two-time world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China — struggled with jumps. Jin is fourth and Uno fifth.

Uno, competing with a reported ankle injury, performed a triple-double combination rather than the quad-triple he did in PyeongChang. Jin had a quad toe called under-rotated.

The third American, 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron, is in 15th place. Aaron put his hand down on his opening quad Salchow and turned out of his triple Axel landing.

Key Free Skate Start Times (Saturday ET)
Max Aaron (USA) — 6:05 a.m.
Shoma Uno (JPN) — 8:21 a.m.
Jin Boyang (CHN) — 8:29 a.m.
Mikhail Kolyada (RUS) — 8:38 a.m.
Vincent Zhou (USA) — 8:47 a.m.
Nathan Chen (USA) — 8:55 a.m.

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