Two years to Rio Olympics: More sports storylines

Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross
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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.

Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

Ilia Malinin
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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

FIGURE SKATING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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Lara Gut-Behrami wins Killington giant slalom, and the overall title race may be on

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Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami rallied from third place after the first run for her 35th career World Cup victory, taking a giant slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Saturday.

Gut-Behrami, 31, earned her fifth World Cup giant slalom win and first in six years. She prevailed by .07 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino combining times from two windy runs. Sweden’s Sara Hector, the Olympic champion and first-run leader, ended up third.

“Last two years I’ve been getting better in GS again,” said Gut-Behrami, who won the GS at the last world championships in 2021. “Last year I was struggling with my health. I was all the time sick.”

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Gut-Behrami’s best events are downhill and super-G, so a strong start to the season in GS could put her on a path to winning the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. She previously lifted that crystal globe in 2016.

Reigning World Cup overall champ Mikaela Shiffrin, who previously placed second, third, fourth and fifth in Killington giant slaloms, finished 13th after winning the season’s first two races, slaloms in Finland last week. It marked her lowest World Cup GS finish since December 2019.

“[Finland] was a spectacular weekend,” Shiffrin, who has not had much recent GS training, said after her 10th-place opening run Saturday. “Every race is a different story.”

Shiffrin won all five World Cup slaloms in Killington dating to 2016 and will go for her 50th career World Cup slalom victory across all venues on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

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