One year out: Notable athletes to watch in Rio

Simone Biles
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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.

Knierim/Frazier, Chock/Bates lead U.S. Figure Skating Championships, age records in play

Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier
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At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, teens will likely win the men’s and women’s events. The pre-event favorites in pairs and ice dance, and now leaders after day one, are all in their 30s.

World champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier easily took the largest pairs’ short program lead in nationals history in what may be their last U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Madison Chock and Evan Bates are halfway to their fourth national title in dance.

It’s believed that no pair or dance couple of skaters in their 30s has won a U.S. title in more than 50 years.

Knierim and Frazier, who last March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, tallied 81.96 points to open the four-day nationals on Thursday.

They lead by 15.1 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe going into Saturday’s free skate in San Jose, California, the largest first-day pairs’ gap since the Code of Points replaced the 6.0 scoring system in 2006.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

The top three pairs from last year’s event — which Knierim and Frazier missed due to him contracting COVID-19 — are no longer competing together. Knierim and Frazier had a clean skate, while Chan and Howe, who entered as silver medal favorites, counted a fall.

After nationals, a committee selects three U.S. pairs for March’s world championships in Japan.

Before the fall Grand Prix Series, the 31-year-old Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.

“I don’t like to just put it out there and say it is the last or not going to be the last because life just has that way of throwing curveballs, and you just never know,” Frazier said this month. “But I would say that this is the first nationals where I’m going to go in really trying to soak up every second as if it is my last because you just don’t know.”

Knierim is going for a fifth U.S. title, which would tie the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka Ina, Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner, Karol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Knierim is also trying to become the first female pairs’ skater in her 30s to win a national title since 1993. Knierim and Chock are trying to become the first female skaters in their 30s to win a U.S. title in any discipline since 1995.

After being unable to defend their 2021 U.S. title last year, Knierim and Frazier reeled off a series of historic results in what had long been the country’s weakest discipline.

They successfully petitioned for an Olympic spot and placed sixth at the Games, best for a U.S. pair since 2002. They considered retirement after their world title, which was won without the top five teams from the Olympics in attendance. They returned in part to compete as world champions and to give back to U.S. skating, helping set up younger pairs for success.

They became the first U.S. pair to win two Grand Prix Series events, then in December became the first U.S. pair to make a Grand Prix Final podium (second place). The world’s top pairs were absent; Russians banned due to the war in Ukraine and Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China leaving competition ice (for now).

Knierim and Frazier’s real test isn’t nationals. It’s worlds, where they will likely be the underdog to home favorites Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who edged the Americans by 1.3 points in the closest Grand Prix Final pairs’ competition in 12 years.

Like Knierim and Frazier, Chock and Bates delivered as overwhelming favorites in Thursday’s rhythm dance.

The defending champions tallied 91.90 points, distancing Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, who scored 81.40. Last year’s silver and bronze medalists aren’t in the field: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue retired after winning Olympic bronze, while Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker withdrew last week, citing mental health.

So Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, are almost certain to make the podium for an 11th consecutive year, which would be one shy of the record for any discipline, and lead the three couples picked for March’s worlds.

Bates, who last year became the oldest U.S. champion in any discipline in decades, has made 12 career senior nationals podiums with Chock and former partner Emily Samuelson. It is believed that a 13th finish in the top three would break the U.S. record for a single discipline he currently shares with Michelle KwanNathaniel Niles and Theresa Weld Blanchard.

But Chock and Bates’ sights are set on a place they’ve never been — the top step of a world championships podium. They earned silver or bronze a total of three times, including a bronze last year. The gold and silver medalists aren’t competing this season.

However, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier relegated the Americans to silver at December’s Grand Prix Final.

“If we don’t win gold at worlds, we’ll be disappointed,” Bates, whose first senior nationals in 2008 came when this year’s women’s singles favorite, Isabeau Levito, was 10 months old, said earlier this month. “We’ve set the goal for ourselves in the past and haven’t met it yet.”

Nationals continue later Thursday with the women’s short.

NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships scores, results

2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships
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Full scores and results from the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose …

Pairs Short Program
1. Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier — 81.96
2. Emily Chan/Spencer Howe — 66.86
3. Ellie Kam/Danny O’Shea —- 65.75
4. Valentina Plazas/Maximiliano Fernandez — 63.45
5. Sonia Baram/Danil Tioumentsev —- 63.12
6. Katie McBeath/Nathan Bartholomay —- 56.96
7. Nica Digerness/Mark Sadusky — 50.72
8. Maria Mokhova/Ivan Mokhov —- 46.96
9. Grace Hanns / Danny Neudecker — 46.81
10. Linzy Fitzpatrick/Keyton Bearinger — 45.27
11. Nina Ouellette/Rique Newby-Estrella — 43.99

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

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