OlympicTalk takes a look back at the year in Olympic sports this week. Today, we review summer sports.
Rio Olympic medal contenders emerged in 2015, with World Championships in most Summer Games sports, including track and field, swimming and gymnastics.
The first half of 2016 will be about determining who makes the Olympic team, but first let’s look back on who stamped their names as Rio medal favorites this past year.
Track and Field
Usain Bolt swept the 100m, 200m and 4x100m at the World Championships in August, like he usually does, but he overcame the greatest doubt about his abilities since he burst onto the scene in 2008.
Injuries, slow times in spring races and the rise of 2004 Olympic 100m champion Justin Gatlin led many to believe Bolt would be beaten to the finish line at a global championship for the first time since 2007, but the Jamaican legend outleaned Gatlin by .01 in the 100m and crossed in more comfortable fashion in the 200m and relay. But can he do it again in his (planned) Olympic farewell in Rio?
Bolt did not author the most impressive performance at Worlds, however. That title may belong to Ashton Eaton, who broke his world record in his first decathlon in nearly two years. In Rio, Eaton will look to become the third man to win multiple decathlon gold medals.
Allyson Felix moved up to challenge herself in the 400m at the World Championships and notched her maiden title in the one-lap event to go along with a decade’s worth of 200m accolades. Felix, now the most decorated U.S. athlete at the World Championships with 13 medals, hopes to race the 200m and the 400m at the Rio Games, but that may rely on scheduling.
Other highlights included Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba breaking the 1500m world record (not at Worlds), Christian Taylor notching the second-farthest triple jump in history and Aries Merritt earning 110m hurdles bronze four days before a kidney transplant.
The U.S. track and field team bagged 18 medals at Worlds in Beijing, its fewest at an Olympics or Worlds since 2003, with fewer gold medals than Jamaica and Kenya.
MORE TRACK AND FIELD: Top ten performances at World Championships
Michael Phelps returned from a suspension following his DUI arrest and life-altering therapy to publicly commit to a run for his fifth Olympics, get engaged and expect his first child and produce the fastest times in the world this year in his three primary events — 100m and 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley.
Phelps was not at the World Championships in August as part of his punishment, which meant more headlines for Katie Ledecky. The 18-year-old swept the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles and added a fifth gold in the 4x200m free relay.
Missy Franklin, who earned six golds at the 2013 Worlds, earned two individual medals in August, a silver and a bronze. Franklin completed her NCAA career and turned professional in the spring, moving from California back to Colorado. She’ll gear up for Rio as an underdog, notably behind Ledecky in the 200m free and Australian Emily Seebohm in the backstrokes.
Then there’s Ryan Lochte, who raced his smallest slate of events at a major international meet in 11 years yet still came away from Worlds with a fourth straight 200m IM crown. Lochte is the oldest of U.S. swimming’s Big Four at 31 but hopes a coaching change in 2013 keeps him fresh for a fourth Olympics.
Internationally, Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu cemented her status as the world’s best all-around female swimmer by sweeping the individual medleys at a second straight Worlds.
The U.S. goes into the Olympic year facing its greatest threat to dominance in the sport since the heyday of its rivalry with Australia. Americans earned 18 medals in Olympic events at Worlds, their fewest at an Olympics or Worlds in 50 years.
American Simone Biles and Japan’s Kohei Uchimura completed sweeps of every World all-around title since the last Olympics, meaning it’s possible Rio will be the crowning Games for the two greatest gymnasts in history.
Biles, an 18-year-old Texan, broke U.S. records for career Worlds medals (14 overall, 10 golds) and easily topped returning Olympic champion Gabby Douglas in the all-around.
Douglas and Olympic floor exercise champion Aly Raisman performed well this year in their first competitions since 2012, setting up to become the first U.S. women to make multiple Olympic gymnastics teams since 2000. That will be decided after the Olympic trials in July.
Like Biles, Uchimura proved peerless with a sixth straight World all-around title. No other man or woman has eclipsed three. He also led Japan to knock off China in the team event at a Worlds or Olympics for the first time since 2004.
The U.S. men qualified for Rio in fifth place at Worlds, doing so without injured Olympians Sam Mikulak, John Orozco and Jacob Dalton.
MORE GYMNASTICS: Takeaways from World Championships
The Olympic men’s and women’s fields are mostly complete after continental qualifiers. The U.S. men and women had already earned berths via 2014 World titles. In 2015, Olympic silver medalist Spain joined the men’s field, while World silver and bronze medalists Serbia and France advanced to last-chance qualifiers in July.
Mike Krzyzewski will lead the U.S. men’s team for the final time in Rio, to be succeeded by Gregg Popovich. The roster will of course be loaded but also complicated by decisions such as whether Kobe Bryant, at age 37, merits a place on the team after his NBA retirement.
Geno Auriemma had said London would be his final Games, but he, too, is returning to coach in Rio. His squad could include a bevy of his former UConn players, such as Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird in their fourth Olympics, plus perhaps one of his current players, senior National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart.
MORE BASKETBALL: Nine nations qualified for Olympic men’s tourney
Three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings overcame two shoulder dislocations this season to team with Olympic silver medalist April Ross and reach the final of the World Series of Beach Volleyball in August.
There, they fell to Olympic favorites Larissa and Talita of Brazil, though Walsh Jennings had limited use of that right shoulder and ended up undergoing a fifth surgery on it in September.
Brazil also rules the men’s field, with Alison and Bruno sweeping the World Championships, World Series of Beach Volleyball and World Tour Finals this summer.
Beijing Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser split with partner Sean Rosenthal and returned to playing with Nick Lucena, with whom he paired in his first tournaments 12 years ago. Dalhausser and Lucena finished the season making the World Series of Beach Volleyball and World Tour Finals championship matches against Alison and Bruno.
MORE BEACH VOLLEYBALL: Walsh Jennings, Ross forge ahead after memorable phone call
2015 marked the year of the dominant female athlete, from the aforementioned Ledecky and Biles to Carli Lloyd and the U.S. Women’s World Cup team to Ronda Rousey (a 2008 Olympic judo bronze medalist) and Serena Williams.
Many more American women established themselves as gold-medal favorites with unbeaten runs in 2015.
Triathlete Gwen Jorgensen extended an unprecedented winning streak to 13 top-level international races since May 2014, bagging her second straight World title. She’s positioned to become the first U.S. Olympic champion in a sport that debuted at Sydney 2000.
Wrestlers Adeline Gray and Helen Maroulis earned World titles in a 100-minute span Sept. 11 and go into 2016 hoping to become the first U.S. women to earn Olympic gold in the sport. Gray and Maroulis, former roommates, both lost in the 2012 Olympic trials finals and went to London anyway to serve as training partners for the women who did make the team.
Boxer Claressa Shields didn’t have a World Championships to crush in 2015, but she moved her record to 66-1 by winning the Olympic trials in November. Shields hasn’t lost since she won 2012 Olympic gold at age 17.
The U.S. became the first nation to hold the Olympic, World, World League and World Cup women’s water polo titles simultaneously after capturing its first World title in six years.
In rowing, the U.S. women’s eight took a 10th straight global title at the World Championships on Sept. 6 with a boat that included just one woman with Olympic experience.
Summer and Winter Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden swept the Boston, Chicago, London and New York City marathon wheelchair races for a third straight year.