Simone Biles

One year out: Notable athletes to watch in Rio

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If you read this space, you’re already very familiar with the likes of Michael PhelpsUsain BoltMissy Franklin and Ryan Lochte. Here are 10 more gold-medal contenders we’ve been tracking on the road to Rio:

Simone Biles, Gymnastics: The two-time reigning World all-around champion is also known for being chased off a medal podium by a pesky bee Oct. 10 in Nanning, China. She’s certainly not been scared by any other gymnasts, going unbeaten in all-around competitions the last two years. The 18-year-old, home-schooled Texan could be favored to win five medals in Rio (tying a U.S. women’s gymnastics record for a single Games) and extend the U.S. streak of Olympic all-around champions to four (Carly PattersonNastia LiukinGabby Douglas).

David Boudia, Diving: In 2012, Boudia headlined an American diving team that captured four medals, the first U.S. Olympic diving medals since Sydney 2000. Boudia, the Olympic platform champion, was the only American to earn a World Championships diving medal in 2013. He’s in a similar position now as he was four years ago, chasing the mighty Chinese after earning a third straight Worlds platform silver on Sunday. Boudia could become the first U.S. diver since Greg Louganis to win gold in back-to-back Olympics.

Jordan Burroughs, Wrestling: Since winning 74kg freestyle gold at London 2012, Burroughs nearly saw his sport booted from the Olympic program, became a father and tasted defeat for the first time in more than four years. He hopes to become the third American to win back-to-back Olympic wrestling titles, but he may run into a Russian with whom he compares his rivalry to that of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Ashton Eaton, Track and Field: The reigning Olympic decathlon champion and world’s greatest athlete is still considered the world’s best over 10 events, even though he hasn’t completed a decathlon in two years. Eaton took 2014 off and tried his hand at the 400m hurdles instead. He’s back to his signature two-day event, and in Rio he will also be rooting for his wife, Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who owns the world’s best score this year. They may both wear ice hats.

Allyson Felix, Track and Field: The woman they used to call “chicken legs” finally captured an individual gold medal at the London Games. In Rio, she can make more history. Felix remains the world’s best in the 200m, despite having to be carried off the track by her brother at the 2013 World Championships, and could be a medal contender in the 400m, too. So much so that she chose to race the 400m over the 200m for this month’s World Championships. She is tied with Jackie Joyner-Kersee for the most Olympic track and field medals earned by a U.S. woman (six) and three behind the most won by any woman in the sport (Merlene Ottey, Jamaica). In London, Felix ran two individual events and was on both the 4x100m and 4x400m relays, so four medals in Rio is possible.

Justin Gatlin, Track and Field: Gatlin could take down Usain Bolt at this month’s World Championships, which would rattle the sport one year before Bolt’s final Olympics. Gatlin, the last man other than Bolt to win an Olympic 100m title in 2004, is five years removed from a four-year doping ban and five years older than Bolt. His critics are many. There are suspicions over how one can clock personal-best times at such an advanced age. But it’s crystal clear Gatlin has been the world’s best sprinter the last two years.

Gwen Jorgensen, Triathlon: The former accountant has won 12 straight triathlons dating to 2014, a record streak by a man or woman. She’s looking to vastly improve on her London 2012 experience, when she finished 38th, her hopes punctured by a flat tire on the bike. Triathlon has been part of the Olympic program since 2000, and the U.S. has collected one medal, a bronze in 2004.

Katie Ledecky, Swimming: The recent high school graduate is the greatest female freestyle swimmer of all time from 400m through 1500m. She’s approaching world’s best status in the 200m, too. Ledecky, the youngest member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team of more than 500 overall athletes, is perhaps now the most dominant. So dominant, that there’s been talk of her racing Michael Phelps in an exhibition.

Claressa Shields, Boxing: Shields rivals Ledecky invincibility. In 2012, at age 17, she took gold at the first Olympics for women’s boxers. The Flint, Mich., native is undefeated since, instilling so much fear that an opponent’s trainer threw in the towel to end a 2014 World Championships fight at the 11-second mark.

Kerri Walsh Jennings, Beach Volleyball: Walsh Jennings’ run for a fourth Olympic title appears to be her toughest yet. She and new partner April Ross (Misty May-Treanor retired after London) were arguably the world’s best pair in 2014, but Walsh Jennings’ right shoulder, previously operated on four times, has dislocated in matches twice this season, forcing her to miss several weeks of action. The 36-year-old mother of three must prove more durable over the next 10 months just to qualify for Rio.

Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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