15 Olympic sports events to watch in 2015

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It is not an Olympic year, but 2015 will provide plenty of anticipated competition and storylines in Olympic sports.

Odd-numbered years include more World Championships than evens. Rio Olympic qualification begins for many athletes, too.

Here are 15 events not to miss this year, followed by exceptional teaser videos from Universal Sports and Eurosport.

1. U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Jan. 22-25, Greensboro, N.C.

Every singles skater from the Sochi Olympics is expected to vie for national titles (NBC broadcast schedule here).

Gracie Gold, coming off a small stress fracture in her foot, is slated to defend her title against a field including Ashley Wagner, a two-time U.S. champion who finished fourth in 2014.

Defending men’s champion Jeremy Abbott will go for his fifth title, which would give him more than Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano. His biggest competition is Jason Brown, a 20-year-old seeking his first victory.

New champions will be crowned in ice dance and pairs, with Meryl Davis and Charlie White sitting out this season and Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir ending their pairs partnership last spring.

2. Winter X Games, Jan. 22-25, Aspen, Colo.

We haven’t seen Shaun White in competition since he finished fourth at the Sochi Olympics. He’s been invited to the Winter X Games, which he competed at every year from 2000 through 2013 but skipped in 2014 to prepare for the Olympics.

Other invitations went to Olympic snowboard champions Iouri Podladtchikov, Kaitlyn Farrington and Sage Kotsenburg and freestyle skiing gold medalists Joss Christensen, David Wise and Maddie Bowman.

Bode Miller
Can Bode Miller return to a Worlds podium at age 37? (AP)

3. World Alpine Skiing Championships, Feb. 2-15, Vail/Beaver Creek, Colo.

The U.S. hosts the event for the first time since 1999 with unprecedented broadcast coverage from NBC Universal. Almost every race could have a U.S. medal threat.

Lindsey Vonn is slated for her first Worlds since blowing out her right knee at the 2013 edition in Schladming, Austria. She’s a contender in the downhill and super-G. Mikaela Shiffrin could win medals in the giant slalom and slalom after winning the latter at the 2013 World Championships and Sochi Olympics.

Likewise, Ted Ligety aims to defend titles in the super-G, giant slalom and super combined. Six-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller hopes to return from back surgery in time to be a force in the downhill and super-G in what may be his final World Championships.

4. World Bobsled and Skeleton Championships, Feb. 26-March 8, Winterberg, Germany.

Canadian Olympic champion Kaillie Humphries and American silver medalist Elana Meyers Taylor could continue making history by becoming the first women to drive four-man sleds at the World Championships. Four-man bobsled was declared gender neutral this season, and both have driven on the World Cup tour.

American Steven Holcomb has never won an Olympic or World bobsled title on a track outside North America. No U.S. man has won a World title in skeleton since Jim Shea in 1999. Olympic bronze medalist Matthew Antoine looks to break that drought.

5. World Figure Skating Championships, March 25-28, Shanghai.

The World Championships go to China for the first time, but the gold-medal favorites appear to come from Russia, Japan and Canada.

Yuzuru Hanyu enters as the reigning Olympic, World and Grand Prix Final champion. The men’s field will not include Olympic silver medalist Patrick Chan (sitting out this season) or World silver medalist Tatsuki Machida (retired).

A Russian will be the women’s favorite, but which one is the question. Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova is an alternate for the deep team, led by national champion Yelena Radionova, the two-reigning World junior champion. An American trio, likely including Gold and Wagner, will look to win the first U.S. women’s medal at an Olympics or Worlds since 2006.

Canadians swept pairs and ice dance at the Grand Prix Final in December, but their hopes may be compromised if Olympic pairs champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov and World ice dance champs Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte return and are at their best in Shanghai.

source: AP
Could Meb Keflezighi become the first American to win back-to-back Boston Marathons since Bill Rodgers won three straight from 1978-80? (AP)

6. Boston Marathon, April 20.

Meb Keflezighi, who in 2014 became the first U.S. man to win in Boston since 1983, has reportedly said he plans to race the world’s oldest annual marathon again this year.

Keflezighi, already the oldest Boston men’s winner since 1930, will be two weeks shy of his 40th birthday on Patriots’ Day. If he fares well again, it will boost his chances of making his fourth Olympic team in 2016 and becoming the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time, according to sports-reference.com.

The women’s race will almost surely not include the 2013 and 2014 winner Rita Jeptoo, the Kenyan who tested positive for EPO in September and is facing a lengthy ban.

7. Rugby Sevens World Series, finishing in May.

The first nations to qualify for the first Olympic rugby tournaments since 1924 will be determined by the end of the 2014-15 Rugby Sevens World Series in May.

The top four men’s and women’s nations from the tournaments will earn places in Rio. The U.S. teams are in the running, but both must make up ground in the standings following the first legs that took place in 2014.

The men’s World Series concludes in London on May 17. The women’s World Series concludes in Amsterdam on May 23. After that, further nations to make the Olympics will be determined in continental qualifiers.

8. FIFA Women’s World Cup, June 6-July 5, Canada.

The quadrennial soccer competition also serves as an Olympic qualifier. The top three European nations at the World Cup will book Olympic spots.

The U.S. women can’t clinch a spot in Rio until 2016, but the World Cup will provide a measure of their chances for a fourth straight Olympic gold in Brazil. The Americans haven’t won a World Cup since 1999.

Coach Jill Ellis, who took over for the fired Tom Sermanni in April, faces several roster and playing-time decisions. Will goalkeeper Hope Solo be available following a trial on domestic violence charges? How to distribute precious minutes among attackers Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez?

The SS Rotterdam, which will be a backdrop at the World Beach Volleyball Championships (courtesy FIVB).

9. World Beach Volleyball Championships, June 26-July 5, Netherlands.

Kerri Walsh Jennings will look to win her first World Championship since back-to-back-to-back titles with Misty May-Treanor in 2003, 2005 and 2007. She will do so with new partner April Ross. Walsh Jennings and Ross teamed to win four FIVB World Tour events in 2014, their first full year together. Their biggest competition could be Brazilians Larissa and Talita, who also won four times last year.

Beijing Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and two-time Olympian Sean Rosenthal will be favored to perform better than in 2013, when they fell in the round of 16.

Some early-round action will be played on a quay in front of the SS Rotterdam ship. The finals will be held on a floating stadium on the Hofvijver pond near the Parliament in the Hague.

10. World Aquatics Championships, July 25-Aug. 9, Kazan, Russia.

The biggest international swimming, diving, water polo and synchronized swimming titles between now and the Rio Olympics will be handed out this summer.

Michael Phelps will be eligible to compete again in April, but he was taken off the U.S. team for Worlds as part of his discipline for a DUI arrest in September. The Americans will be led by the three stars of the 2013 World Championships — Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky.

Internationally, the world’s best all-around swimmers Katinka Hosszu of Hungary and Kosuke Hagino of Japan could leave with an armful of medals, setting up for breakthrough Olympics in Rio.

11. 128th International Olympic Committee session, July 31-Aug. 3, Kuala Lumpur.

IOC members will vote to determine the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics — either Almaty, Kazakhstan, or Beijing. Kazakhstan has never hosted the Olympics. Beijing hopes to become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games.

source: AP
Usain Bolt hasn’t been beaten in a World Championships race since 2007. (AP)

12. World Track and Field Championships, Aug. 22-30, Beijing.

Usain Bolt returns to the site of his 2008 Olympic breakout, the Bird’s Nest. Bolt, who barely ran in 2014 following foot surgery, must prove himself in races leading up to Beijing to earn clear favorite status over American Justin Gatlin.

Others looking to propel themselves with titles toward Rio 2016 include Allyson Felix, who had to be carried off the track with a torn hamstring at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow. She could stare down Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in the 200m and American Sanya Richards-Ross in the 400m.

Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton could make it an American husband-Canadian wife sweep of the decathlon and heptathlon. And host nation eyes could be on Liu Xiang, the former 110m hurdles world record holder plagued by injuries the last several years.

13. World Wrestling Championships, Sept. 7-12, Las Vegas.

The U.S. will host the World Championships for the first time since 2003.

Olympic champions Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner could lead the U.S. men. Burroughs saw his 69-match winning streak end in February 2014, then lost again at the World Championships in September, after spraining an MCL in a match.

An interesting women’s story is American Adeline Gray, who lost in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials finals but also won medals at each of the last four World Championships, including gold in 2014.

14. World Triathlon Grand Final, Sept. 18-19, Chicago.

World champions will be crowned after the last stop of the 10-event World Triathlon Series in the Windy City. If 2014 is any indication, American Gwen Jorgensen could have a second straight title all but wrapped up by then.

On the men’s side, British Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee, his brother, Jonathan, and Spain’s Javier Gomez and Mario Mola figure to be the top contenders.

15. World Gymnastics Championships, Oct. 23-Nov. 1, Glasgow.

American Simone Biles could look to become the first woman to win three straight World all-around titles. Japan’s Kohei Uchimura could go for his sixth straight all-around gold, which would give him twice as many as any man or woman ever.

In the team picture, will any of Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman or McKayla Maroney join Biles? Douglas and Raisman haven’t competed since the London Olympics. Maroney missed all of 2014 following March knee surgery.

The U.S. men’s team figures to include a few Olympians — Sam Mikulak, Danell Leyva, John Orozco and Jacob Dalton, perhaps — with the annual challenge of contending with China and Japan.

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U.S. women’s rugby team qualifies for 2024 Paris Olympics as medal contender

Cheta Emba

The U.S. women’s rugby team qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics by clinching a top-four finish in this season’s World Series.

Since rugby was re-added to the Olympics in 2016, the U.S. men’s and women’s teams finished fifth, sixth, sixth and ninth at the Games.

The U.S. women are having their best season since 2018-19, finishing second or third in all five World Series stops so far and ranking behind only New Zealand and Australia, the winners of the first two Olympic women’s rugby sevens tournaments.

The U.S. also finished fourth at last September’s World Cup.

Three months after the Tokyo Games, Emilie Bydwell was announced as the new U.S. head coach, succeeding Olympic coach Chris Brown.

Soon after, Tokyo Olympic co-captain Abby Gustaitis was cut from the team.

Jaz Gray, who led the team in scoring last season and at the World Cup, missed the last three World Series stops after an injury.

The U.S. men are ranked ninth in this season’s World Series and will likely need to win either a North American Olympic qualifier this summer or a last-chance global qualifier in June 2024 to make it to Paris.

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Oscar Pistorius denied parole, hasn’t served enough time

Oscar Pistorius
File photo

Olympic and Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius was denied parole Friday and will have to stay in prison for at least another year and four months after it was decided that he had not served the “minimum detention period” required to be released following his murder conviction for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp 10 years ago.

The parole board ruled that Pistorius would only be able to apply again in August 2024, South Africa’s Department of Corrections said in a short, two-paragraph statement. It was released soon after a parole hearing at the Atteridgeville Correctional Centre prison where Pistorius is being held.

The board cited a new clarification on Pistorius’ sentence that was issued by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal just three days before the hearing, according to the statement. Still, legal experts criticized authorities’ decision to go ahead with the hearing when Pistorius was not eligible.

Reeva Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, are “relieved” with the decision to keep Pistorius in prison but are not celebrating it, their lawyer told The Associated Press.

“They can’t celebrate because there are no winners in this situation. They lost a daughter and South Africa lost a hero,” lawyer Tania Koen said, referring to the dramatic fall from grace of Pistorius, once a world-famous and highly-admired athlete.

The decision and reasoning to deny parole was a surprise but there has been legal wrangling over when Pistorius should be eligible for parole because of the series of appeals in his case. He was initially convicted of culpable homicide, a charge comparable to manslaughter, in 2014 but the case went through a number of appeals before Pistorius was finally sentenced to 13 years and five months in prison for murder in 2017.

Serious offenders must serve at least half their sentence to be eligible for parole in South Africa. Pistorius’ lawyers had previously gone to court to argue that he was eligible because he had served the required portion if they also counted periods served in jail from late 2014 following his culpable homicide conviction.

The lawyer handling Pistorius’ parole application did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

June Steenkamp attended Pistorius’ hearing inside the prison complex to oppose his parole. The parents have said they still do not believe Pistorius’ account of their daughter’s killing and wanted him to stay in jail.

Pistorius, who is now 36, has always claimed he killed Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and law student, in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 after mistaking her for a dangerous intruder in his home. He shot four times with his licensed 9 mm pistol through a closed toilet cubicle door in his bathroom, where Steenkamp was, hitting her multiple times. Pistorius claimed he didn’t realize his girlfriend had got out of bed and gone to the bathroom.

The Steenkamps say they still think he is lying and killed her intentionally after a late-night argument.

Lawyer Koen had struck a more critical tone when addressing reporters outside the prison before the hearing, saying the Steenkamps believed Pistorius could not be considered to be rehabilitated “unless he comes clean” over the killing.

“He’s the killer of their daughter. For them, it’s a life sentence,” Koen said before the hearing.

June Steenkamp had sat grim-faced in the back seat of a car nearby while Koen spoke to reporters outside the prison gates ahead of the hearing. June Steenkamp and Koen were then driven into the prison in a Department of Corrections vehicle. June Steenkamp made her submission to the parole board in a separate room to Pistorius and did not come face-to-face with her daughter’s killer, Koen said.

Barry Steenkamp did not travel for the hearing because of poor health but a family friend read out a statement to the parole board on his behalf, the parents’ lawyer said.

Pistorius was once hailed as an inspirational figure for overcoming the adversity of his disability, before his murder trial and sensational downfall captivated the world.

Pistorius’s lower legs were amputated when he was a baby because of a congenital condition and he walks with prosthetics. He went on to become a double-amputee runner and multiple Paralympic champion who made history by competing against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, running on specially designed carbon-fiber blades.

Pistorius’ conviction eventually led to him being sent to the Kgosi Mampuru II maximum security prison, one of South Africa’s most notorious. He was moved to the Atteridgeville prison in 2016 because that facility is better suited to disabled prisoners.

There have only been glimpses of his life in prison, with reports claiming he had at one point grown a beard, gained weight and taken up smoking and was unrecognizable from the elite athlete he once was.

He has spent much of his time working in an area of the prison grounds where vegetables are grown, sometimes driving a tractor, and has reportedly been running bible classes for other inmates.

Pistorius’ father, Henke Pistorius, told the Pretoria News newspaper before the hearing that his family hoped he would be home soon.

“Deep down, we believe he will be home soon,” Henke Pistorius said, “but until the parole board has spoken the word, I don’t want to get my hopes up.”

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