Katie Ledecky

Olympic Year in Review: Summer Sports

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OlympicTalk takes a look back at the year in Olympic sports this week. Today, we review summer sports.

They called it the “fallow year” in track and field. Summer Olympic sports took a backseat in 2014 compared to the other three years in the Olympic cycle.

Track and field, aquatics and beach volleyball do not hold World Championships in even-numbered years. Two of the most stunning summer sports performances in 2014 — French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie breaking a 21-year-old world record and U.S. wrestler Jordan Burroughs‘ 69-match winning streak ending — occurred during the Winter Olympics in February and thus received far less attention.

Once the Sochi Olympics ended, the focus began turning to preparation for the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Track and Field

Usain Bolt underwent foot surgery in March and ran a total of 400 meters in competition this year — two relay legs at the Commonwealth Games, a Brazilian beach race and the rare indoor 100 meters, after entering a Warsaw stadium in a Humvee with Polish basketball player Marcin Gortat.

If Bolt lined up against top-level competition this season, in particular the undefeated American Justin Gatlin, even the great Jamaican admitted he probably would have lost.

Gatlin, four years removed from a four-year doping ban, set personal bests in the 100m and 200m at age 32, emerging as the biggest threat to Bolt since Yohan Blake swept the 100m and 200m at the 2012 Jamaican Olympic trials.

The Olympic women’s 100m and 200m champions also had injury-affected seasons. Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce struggled with a leg problem and fell off the map entirely after mid-July.

Allyson Felix needed nearly one year to fully recover from a torn hamstring at the 2013 World Championships. She allayed concern in the final Diamond League meet, Sept. 5, by running the fastest 200m in the world since the London Games.

David Rudisha wasn’t at his record-breaking best in return from a knee injury. Jenn Suhr took a backseat in the pole vault to Brazil’s best Rio medal hope in track and field, Fabiana Murer. Mo Farah debuted in the marathon. That didn’t go well, either.

source: Getty Images
Meb Keflezighi won USA Track and Field’s male Athlete of the Year award. (Getty Images)

Meb Keflezighi became the first American man to win the Boston Marathon in 31 years in April, a victory with greater meaning given the twin bombings of 2013. In September, Kenyan Dennis Kimetto shaved 26 seconds off the marathon world record in Berlin.

American Tatyana McFadden recorded her second straight wheelchair marathon Grand Slam at the New York City Marathon in November, after winning a Sochi Paralympic silver medal in cross-country skiing.

Ashton Eaton took a break from the decathlon and focused on the 400m hurdles. He clocked a time that would have made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team in the non-decathlon event. Expect him to return full-time to 10-event competition in 2015.

Eaton’s wife, Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton, won the Commonwealth Games heptathlon title. They’ll aim for matching gold medals at the 2015 World Championships.

Rio 2016 track and field schedule released

Swimming

Swimming turned into a story of the Big Four in 2014.

Michael Phelps returned from a 20-month competitive retirement in April and was nearing his London Olympic form four months later. In September, Phelps was pulled over driving 84 mph in a 45 mph zone and arrested on DUI charges. He was suspended for six months by USA Swimming, plus the 2015 World Championships, and spent 45 days seeking help in a program in Arizona.

Ryan Lochte returned too quickly from tearing an MCL in a November 2013 run-in with a fan. He retore his knee in April. Lochte won zero individual titles at the Pan Pacific Championships in August, his worst performance at a major international meet since he emerged as a threat to Phelps.

Missy Franklin completed her freshman year at California with an NCAA title in March. Out-of-nowhere back spasms derailed her at the Pan Pacific Championships.

Nobody impressed more than Katie Ledecky, who broke world records in the 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles before starting her senior year of high school. Ledecky was also the second-fastest woman in the 200m free in 2014, as she adds shorter distances to her repertoire, expanding medal possibilities at the 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics.

Internationally, Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, 20, emerged as the world’s best all-around swimmer, beating Phelps and Lochte in the 200m individual medley at Pan Pacs. Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu routinely won several events at two- and three-day meets, earning her “Iron Lady” nickname.

Katie Ledecky faces decisions in 2015, 2016

Gymnastics

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Simone Biles joined Shannon Miller as the only U.S. women’s gymnasts to win multiple Olympic and/or World all-around titles. (Getty Images)

Texan Simone Biles continued her march toward Rio with the most successful single Olympics or World Championships ever by an American woman. Biles, 17, won four gold medals and one silver medal at Worlds in Nanning, China, in October. She was also scared off the podium by a bee.

On the men’s side, Japan’s Kohei Uchimura boosted his argument as the greatest of all time with his fifth straight World all-around title.

One member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic women’s team competed in 2014 — Kyla Ross, who took all-around bronze at the World Championships.

Gabby Douglas moved from California back to Iowa, then left coach Liang Chow for a second time, moved to Ohio and opted not compete in 2014. She hopes to return in 2015.

McKayla Maroney underwent knee surgery in March, due to coming back too early in 2013 from September 2012 surgery to repair a fractured tibia. She said she needed to have this year’s operation if she wanted to go to the Rio Olympics.

Aly Raisman attended her first U.S. national team camp since the Olympics in October.

Jordyn Wieber, who also hasn’t competed since the Olympics, said in July she’s “still deciding” if she will return to competition.

Aly Raisman motivated by London tiebreak in comeback

Basketball: The U.S. men and women swept the FIBA World Cup/World Championships, going undefeated through the tournaments and qualifying both teams for the Rio Olympics. The men, coached by Mike Krzyzewski, won without LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who could rejoin the squad in Rio. The women, coached by Geno Auriemma, included superstars such as Brittney Griner, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi.

Beach Volleyball: Three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings and Olympic silver medalist April Ross won four FIVB World Tour events in their first full year together. Brazil’s Larissa and Talita partnered midway through the year and experienced greater success, setting up a potential two-team race for the 2015 World title. Americans Phil Dalhausser and Sean Rosenthal won three FIVB World Tour events and finished second in the year-end rankings.

BoxingClaressa Shields, the 19-year-old who won the first U.S. Olympic women’s boxing gold medal in London, steamrolled to her first World Championship. Marlen Esparza joined her in winning gold.

TriathlonGwen Jorgensen completed the greatest season in the six-year history of the World Triathlon Series, winning five straight events, including the season-ending Grand Final in August.

Volleyball: The U.S. women upset top-ranked Brazil and then defeated China in the World Championships final to capture the biggest title in program history in Milan in October.

Olympic Year in Review: Winter Sports

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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