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.

At U.S. Open swim meet, teens make a splash with Olympic trials on horizon

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While Olympic and world champions Katie LedeckySimone Manuel and Chase Kalisz notched expected victories at the U.S. Open on Thursday, a trio of teenagers lowered personal bests to further establish their Tokyo Olympic hopes.

At the top domestic meet of the winter, Alex WalshCarson Foster and Kieran Smith each earned runner-up finishes, but their performances stood out in the big picture: looking at June’s Olympic trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

Walsh, a rising Nashville high school senior, took 2.23 seconds off her 200m individual medley best. She clocked 2:09.01, overtaken by .17 by Melanie Margalis, the Rio Olympic and 2019 World Championships fourth-place finisher.

Full meet results are here.

Walsh moved from fifth-fastest in the U.S. this year to No. 2 behind Margalis, passing Olympic and world championships veterans Ella EastinKathleen Baker and Madisyn Cox. Of those swimmers, only Eastin was also in Thursday’s final.

Walsh joined her younger sister, Gretchen, in Olympic qualifying position based on 2019 times. Gretchen, 16, ranks fourth in the U.S. in the 100m free this year. The top six in that event at trials are in line to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool.

The Walshes could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in pool swimming after Dana and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Foster, 18, continued his ascent Thursday in taking second to Kalisz in the men’s 200m IM. The world junior champion lowered his personal best in the prelims and the final, getting down to 1:57.59. Foster passed Ryan Lochte, who is nearly twice his age, in Thursday’s final and in the 2019 U.S. rankings. Only Kalisz and Michael Andrew have been faster among Americans this year.

Foster is trying to become the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut. Foster, who has been breaking Phelps national age-group records since he was 10, committed to the University of Texas in March 2018, two years before he graduates high school in Ohio.

Then there’s Kieran Smith, now a prime candidate to fill a huge void in the 400m freestyle. Zane Grothe is the only American ranked in the top 20 in the world this year.

Smith, a 19-year-old from the University of Florida, took 2.29 seconds off his lifetime best on Thursday to jump from outside the top 10 to No. 2 in the U.S. on the year. Smith was already ranked No. 2 in the country in the 200m free.

Two more runners-up in the 50m freestyles — Erika Brown to Manuel and Zach Apple to Brazilian Bruno Fratus — lowered personal bests to move to No. 3 in each U.S. ranking list this year.

The U.S. Open continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET with live coverage on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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Nathan Chen distances Yuzuru Hanyu in Grand Prix Final short program

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A brilliant Nathan Chen outscored a flawed Yuzuru Hanyu for a fourth straight head-to-head program, taking a 12.95-point lead at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, on Thursday.

Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, tallied 110.38 points going into Saturday’s free skate. He landed a quadruple Lutz, triple Axel and quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination.

It’s the highest short program score in the world this season, leading the American to say “wow” in the kiss-and-cry area. His coach, the often-gruff Rafael Arutyunyan, banged his knee against his pupil’s.

Hanyu, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, hit a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel but then stepped out of a quad toe landing. He therefore failed to include a required jumping combination and ended up in second place.

“I wanted to do a great performance and do a good competition against [Chen], but that didn’t happen this time,” Hanyu, who was without longtime coach Brian Orser, or any other coach, said through a translator. Hanyu said Orser was busy last week, so he chose to use his lone accreditation on another coach who had travel delays.

Hanyu is not out of title contention. His world-leading free skate score this season is 16.61 points better than Chen’s best free skate from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Chen is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, but this is just his second head-to-head with Hanyu in that span. Chen defeated Hanyu at March’s world championships, where the Japanese megastar was likely affected by an ankle injury.

After Thursday’s program, Chen repeated what he said before the competition: he still feels like he’s chasing Hanyu.

“Yuzu is like the goat, he’s the greatest of all time, really,” Chen said. “So, to have this opportunity to be able to share the ice with a guy like that, someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time, someone that I’ve watched grow up through the junior ranks when I was like a baby, it’s really cool to be able see him now. It’s really cool to even just be able to see him person.”

The Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual event outside the world championships, continues Friday with the rhythm dance, women’s short and pairs’ free skate. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

Earlier in pairs, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong took their first step toward a first Grand Prix Final title. The Olympic silver medalists tallied 77.50, leading Russians Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy by .85 going into Friday’s free skate.

Sui and Han were imperfect, with Sui putting her hand down on a throw triple flip landing. They are undefeated in this Beijing Olympic cycle and own the world’s top total score this season.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the six-team Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

Grand Prix Final
Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 110.38
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 97.43
3. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 96.71
4. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.78
5. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 81.32
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 80.67

Pairs’ Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 77.50
2. Aleksandra Boikova / Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 76.65
3. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 75.16
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 71.48
5. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 69.67
6. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 67.08

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