Jake Varner
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Olympic champ, World champ may vie for one U.S. Olympic wrestling spot

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Jake Varner gets no breaks as a reigning Olympic champion at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials on Sunday.

To get to Rio, Varner must advance through a qualification bracket and then defeat the rested reigning World champion Kyle Snyder in the best-of-three finals.

A matchup of reigning Olympic and World gold medalists has happened before at the U.S. Olympic Trials — when John Smith defeated Randy Lewis in 1988.

USA Wrestling couldn’t name an instance since, making a possible Varner-Snyder finals matchup arguably the most anticipated showdown of the entire two-day event in Iowa City.

“As much as he’s preparing for me, I’m preparing for everybody else,” said Snyder, who at 20 is 10 years younger than Varner. “The feeling that I had winning at the Worlds only makes me want it more.”

Snyder also remembers the feeling in 2012, inspired by watching Varner take 96kg gold at the London 2012 Games.

Snyder and Varner went head-to-head for the first time a little over one year later in practice at an Olympic training center in Colorado Springs.

Varner dominated.

“It was kind of like, he’s a man, I’m a boy,” said Snyder, then a high school senior coming off a 179-0 record in three seasons at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Maryland.

MORE: Olympic Wrestling Trials Broadcast Schedule

Over time, Snyder closed the gap on the Olympic champion in training camp sessions. The turning point came about one year ago.

“I was able to shut down pretty much his offense and get to my attacks when I needed to,” said Snyder, then an Ohio State freshman.

By May, Snyder found himself grappling with Varner in the finals of the U.S. Open. And winning 2-1.

Snyder had lost in the Big Ten and NCAA Championships finals in March and then beat the reigning Olympic champion two months later.

He proved it was no fluke in June, sweeping Varner 4-1, 3-0 at the World Championships Team Trials.

Then, on Sept. 12 in Las Vegas, Snyder became the youngest American to win a World Wrestling Championship, upsetting the defending World champion 97kg freestyler from Russia via a tiebreaker.

By earning a medal of any color, Snyder also earned a bye into the Olympic Trials final.

Everyone else, including the Olympic champion Varner, must go through a qualifying bracket on Sunday morning and afternoon for the right to face a fully rested Snyder in the finals (7 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra).

“[Snyder] puts some depth in our weight class, but I’m coming to win another gold medal,” Varner said on the Big Ten Network in February. “I’ve got to go through the [Olympic Trials] tournament, that’s fine. It’s just like going through the Olympics, through the Worlds, and then you’ve got to beat [Snyder] two out of three. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. A little harder is sometimes the way it’s got to be done.”

Snyder originally planned to sit out the 2015-16 NCAA season to focus on preparing for the Olympic Trials. The format of NCAA wrestling — folkstyle — is slightly different from international freestyle wrestling.

But then, at 12:01 a.m. on New Year’s Day, Snyder and Ohio State surprised the wrestling community by announcing he would rejoin the program mid-season.

“The more matches I get, the more I can learn from quality opponents and the more I can grow as a wrestler,” Snyder reasoned.

He claimed Big Ten and NCAA titles for the first time as a sophomore, capping the abbreviated campaign with an epic NCAA Championships heavyweight final win over NC State’s Nick Gwiazdowski, ending an 88-match win streak on March 19.

Afterward, Snyder said he made the right decision to compete for the Buckeyes, even if he would have lost to Gwiazdowski.

“And hopefully I can prove that April 10,” he said.

MORE: Burroughs left with clearer path to Rio after rivals change divisions

A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

MORE: Simona Halep, Nadia Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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Another Jesse Owens Olympic gold medal being sold

Jesse Owens
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One of Jesse Owens‘ four 1936 Olympic gold medals will be put up for sale next week by Goldin Auctions.

Owens triumphed in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany at the Berlin Games, taking the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump.

This could be the second Owens gold to be sold in recent years, after one was auctioned in 2013 for $1,466,574, the highest price ever for a piece of Olympic memorabilia.

Two more were said to be put up for auction in 2017, but there are no widespread reports of sales actually happening.

This gold medal was gifted by Owens to John Terpak, a U.S. Olympic weightlifter in 1936 and 1948, after Terpak helped Owens garner speaking engagements, according to Goldin. The previous gold that sold for $1.4 million was gifted by Owens to a different friend.

Terpak died in 1993 and passed the medal on to his son and daughter, who consigned it to Goldin.

The medal is part of Goldin Auctions’ Holiday Auction from Monday through Dec. 7 on GoldinAuctions.com. The listings also include Tommy Lasorda‘s autographed lineup card from the 2000 Olympic baseball gold-medal game.

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Images via Goldin Auctions:

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