With Olympics coming, U.S. swimming, track and field look for rebound

Tyson Gay, Mike Rodgers
AP
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The buzz in U.S. Olympic circles is about bringing the 2024 Games to Los Angeles.

A more urgent matter: Bringing home the most medals from next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

That may not be a sure thing, especially considering the struggles of the U.S. swimming and track teams this summer.

Track and swimming combined for 53 percent of the country’s 407 medals over the last four Olympics, each of which ended with the United States on top of the medals table. But at this year’s world championships, swimmers took home 21 medals in Olympic events. That’s four fewer than they did in 2011, the year before the London Games. The track team took home only 18, seven fewer than four years ago.

“There’s always a level of anxiety,” said Chuck Wielgus, the executive director of USA Swimming since 1997. “I’d say the level of anxiety is probably higher this time around than any time I’ve been executive director. But there have never been more opportunities for people to step up and make an impact on the Olympic team.”

There are reasons for optimism, starting with the fact that the United States traditionally brings the deepest pool of athletes to the Olympics in both these sports. Also, the swimming results came without the presence of 22-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps, who was banned from worlds because of his arrest on drunken-driving charges. He competed the same week at U.S. nationals and posted three times that would have won gold at worlds.

But there were also some red flags waving at the meets in Russia (swimming) and China (track).

Missy Franklin didn’t win any individual gold medals at worlds, after taking three in 2013. It could be attributed to the grind of her recently completed college season, though she now has more competition in the 200 free with teammate Katie Ledecky, the star of the world championships, dropping down to that distance. Also, relay races that used to almost automatically go in the U.S. win column are now being more hotly contested by countries putting more resources into winning the team events.

Larry Probst, the chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said the board talked about the results at their quarterly meeting Friday.

“I wouldn’t call it blaring alarm bells, but both organizations had higher expectations going into worlds,” Probst said. “Everyone’s aware that there’s work to be done between now and Rio. Everyone knows we have to improve results when we get to the Olympic Games in Rio.”

At the track meet in Beijing, the United States led the medal count but brought home the lowest total since 2003, when it won 20. That number was reduced to 16 after a number of doping cases were resolved.

“None of us are overjoyed with the performance we had at world championships,” said USA Track and Field CEO Max Siegel.

Kenya and Jamaica — both powerhouses in their specific niches but nowhere near as deep as the U.S. – each won one more gold than the United States and finished only two shy of America’s overall total. The U.S. had a few pleasant surprises at the Bird’s Nest — Tianna Bartoletta‘s gold in long jump, for instance. But they were offset by a number of flame-outs, including in the men’s 4×100 relay, where the long-time problem of passing the baton came up again and cost them a medal.

“We’re stripping it all apart and looking at it, event by event,” Siegel said. “We’re looking at the talent pool, ways to support the athletes more, ways to get prepared better for Rio.”

In other sports, there have been some improvements that could help the medal count.

The U.S. wrestling team took home seven medals from worlds on home turf in Las Vegas – three more than at the 2011 worlds. The United States took home a surprise bronze medal in sprint canoeing (Michal Smolen) and has medal contenders in triathlon, starting with world champion Gwen Jorgensen.

Still, over the last few Olympics cycles, the USOC has shifted some focus and money away from development and into sports and athletes who can deliver medals when the world is watching at the Olympics. Swimming and track are at the top of that list because of both the sheer number of medals available and the talent of the U.S. athletes.

Will that strategy pay off?

Only if next year’s numbers are better.

MORE TRACK AND FIELD: Michael Johnson: I was capable of running 200m under 19 seconds

Noah Lyles runs personal best and is coming for Usain Bolt’s world record

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Noah Lyles ran a personal-best time in the 60m on Saturday, then reaffirmed record-breaking intentions for the 100m and, especially, the 200m, where Usain Bolt holds the fastest times in history.

Lyles, the world 200m champion, won the 60m sprint in 6.51 seconds at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston, clipping Trayvon Bromell by two thousandths in his first top-level meet of the year. Bromell, the world 100m bronze medalist, is a past world indoor 60m champion and has a better start than Lyles, which is crucial in a six-second race.

But on Saturday, Lyles ran down Bromell and shaved four hundredths off his personal best. It bodes well for Lyles’ prospects come the spring and summer outdoor season in his better distances — the 100m and 200m.

“This is the moment I’ve been working, like, seven years for,” he said. “We’re not just coming for the 200m world record. We’re coming for all the world records.”

Last July, Lyles broke Michael Johnson‘s 26-year-old American record in the 200m, winning the world title in 19.31 seconds. Only Bolt (19.19) and fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake (19.26) have run faster.

Lyles has since spoken openly about targeting Bolt’s world record from 2009.

How does an indoor 60m time play into that? Well, Lyles said that his success last year sprung from a strong indoor season, when he lowered his personal best in the 60m from 6.57 to 6.56 and then 6.55. He followed that by lowering his personal best in the 200m from 19.50 to 19.31.

He believes that slicing an even greater chunk off his 60m best on Saturday means special things are on the horizon come the major summer meets — the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in July (on the same Oregon track where he ran the American 200m record) and the world championships in Budapest in August.

After focusing on the 200m last year, Lyles plans to race both the 100m and the 200m this year. He has a bye into the 200m at world championships, so expect him to race the 100m at USATF Outdoors, where the top three are in line to join world champ Fred Kerley on the world team.

Lyles’ personal best in the 100m is 9.86, a tenth off the best times from Kerley, Bromell and 2019 World 100m champ Christian Coleman. Bolt is in his own tier at 9.58.

Also Saturday, Grant Holloway extended a near-nine-year, 50-plus-race win streak in the 60m hurdles, clocking 7.38 seconds, nine hundredths off his world record. Olympic teammate Daniel Roberts was second in 7.46. Trey Cunningham, who took silver behind Holloway in the 110m hurdles at last July’s world outdoor championships, was fifth in 7.67.

Aleia Hobbs won the women’s 60m in 7.02 seconds, one week after clocking a personal-best 6.98 to become the third-fastest American in history after Gail Devers and Marion Jones (both 6.95). Hobbs, 26, placed sixth in the 100m at last July’s world championships.

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, the Olympic and world 400m hurdles champion competing for the first time since August, and Jamaican Shericka Jackson, the world 200m champion, were ninth and 10th in the 60m heats, just missing the eight-woman final.

In the women’s pole vault, Bridget Williams, seventh at last year’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, upset the last two Olympic champions — American Katie Moon and Greek Katerina Stefanidi. Williams won with a 4.63-meter clearance (and then cleared 4.71 and a personal-best 4.77). Stefanidi missed three attempts at 4.63, while Moon went out at 4.55.

The indoor track and field season continues with the Millrose Games in New York City next Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.

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Birk Irving, last man on Olympic team, extends breakout season with Mammoth win

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One year ago, Birk Irving was the last man to make the four-man U.S. Olympic ski halfpipe team. Since, he continued to climb the ranks in arguably the nation’s strongest discipline across skiing and snowboarding.

Irving earned his second World Cup win this season, taking the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, California, on Friday.

Irving posted a 94-point final run, edging Canadian Brendan Mackay by one point. David Wise, the two-time Olympic champion who won his fifth X Games Aspen title last Sunday, was third.

A tribute was held to 2015 World champion Kyle Smaine, a U.S. halfpipe skier who died in an avalanche in Japan last Sunday.

“We’re all skiing the best we have because we’re all skiing with Kyle in our hearts,” Irving said, according to U.S. Ski and Snowboard. “We’re skiing for him, and we know he’s looking down on us. We miss you Kyle. We love you. Thank you for keeping us safe in the pipe today.”

Irving also won the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colorado, on Dec. 17. Plus, the 23-year-old from Colorado had his best career X Games Aspen finish last Sunday, taking second.

The next major event is the world championships in Georgia (the country, not the state) in early March. Irving was third at the last worlds in 2021, then fifth at the Olympics last February.

The U.S. has been the strongest nation in men’s ski halfpipe since it debuted at the Olympics in 2014. Wise won the first two gold medals. Alex Ferreira won silver and bronze at the last two Olympics. Aaron Blunck is a world champion and X Games champion.

Irving is younger than all of them and has beaten all of them at multiple competitions this season.

New Zealand’s Nico Porteous, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, hasn’t competed since the Games after undergoing offseason knee surgery.

In snowboarding events at Mammoth, Americans Julia Marino and Lyon Farrell earned slopestyle wins by posting the top qualification scores. The finals were canceled due to wind.

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