Taylor Phinney
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U.S. cycling envies Iran, Morocco heading to Olympics

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When riders roll to the start line for the road cycling race on the first official day of the Rio Olympics, more will be wearing Iranian and Moroccan jerseys than those of Team USA.

It’s a thought that causes Jim Miller plenty of anguish.

A bit of embarrassment, too.

Miller is the vice president in charge of the elite teams for USA Cycling, so it’s his job to build the American squad for events such as the Summer Games. And part of building the team is making sure that the most possible riders have qualified to hit the start line.

“It’s a highly unenviable situation to be in,” Miller says grimly.

The two-man U.S. road squad will be announced June 24, and the fact that both riders must also race the time trial makes the selection even more difficult. But the challenge for whomever is picked won’t come until August, when they line up for the start at Copacabana Beach and realize that they only have one teammate while nations such as Italy, Belgium and Spain have five riders apiece.

So, how did the Americans get to such a sorry state?

Bad luck, a convoluted qualification system and some untimely injuries all conspired against Miller and his riders.

The UCI, cycling’s world governing body, doles out 144 start spots based only on results from 2015, rather than a two-year window like some other disciplines. It also puts a premium on World Tour results, then considers the lesser continental rankings of member nations.

So when Tejay van Garderen abandoned the Tour de France due to illness, then the Vuelta a Espana with a broken shoulder, it cost the U.S. dearly. Ditto when Taylor Phinney missed most of the season as he recovered from a devastating injury sustained the previous year.

The top five nations in the World Tour rankings received the maximum of five spots, and the next 10 countries earned four apiece. The U.S. was ranked 18th after the 2015 season.

Further conspiring against the U.S. was the fact that WorldTour riders are unable to earn points in lower-level continental events. So when Joe Dombrowski won the Tour of Utah and performed well at the Tour of California, it did not help the U.S. in the continental rankings – the Americans wound up fifth, and that equated to just two start spots at the Rio Games.

The same as Turkey, Latvia and Lithuania, fewer than Canada and Denmark.

“It’s really frustrating,” Miller said of the entire process. “With five riders we can put together a good team – we put together a great team in London (in 2012) with five guys. We can ride another really good race with five guys. But two guys, it gets really tough.”

The number of riders in the road race is significant because more teammates not only provide more chances of landing on a podium but better chances, too. Teammates can help reel in breakaways, pace each other up grueling climbs and deal with the tactics of rival nations.

With only two American riders, the U.S. will be forced to freelance through the race.

Meanwhile, funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee and private donors alike is often tied to medal capability. And that medal capability is hampered by only having two riders at the start.

“We know we need to get more money into it, but success breeds success,” said USA Cycling chief executive Derek Bouchard-Hall – adding that the opposite tends also to be true.

One thing qualifying two riders for Rio has done is up the ante for those trying to earn a spot.

Even though van Garderen has withdrawn his name from consideration – his wife is pregnant and he does not want to risk contracting the Zika virus – plenty of others are fighting for a spot. Phinney is a likely choice given his time trial ability, but in truth the competition is wide open.

“I kind of had 2016 circled on my calendar years and years and year ago, thinking if I’m going to go to the Olympics, this is the year,” said Brent Bookwalter, a 10-year veteran of the pro ranks.

“I’m 32, on the top of my game. I’m still definitely holding the belief that I can make the team,” he said, “but with only two spots, it’s much more challenging than if we had four or even three.”

Miller makes it clear the U.S. isn’t giving up hopes of landing on the podium in Rio. He thinks there are several riders at his disposal who are capable of surprising the rest of the field.

It’s only a shame that so few of them will have a chance.

“There’s a lot against us,” Miller said. “But as they say, it is what it is.”

MORE: 100 Team USA athletes to watch on road to Rio

Coco Gauff eliminated from Australian Open by Sofia Kenin

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Coco Gauff‘s run at the Australian Open ended in the round of 16, foiled by fellow American Sofia Kenin on Sunday.

Kenin ousted the 15-year-old phenom 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Gauff, too, was bidding for her first major quarterfinal after a sterling seven months ignited by her march to the Wimbledon fourth round.

Gauff, ranked No. 684 this time last year, will near the top 50 after the Australian Open. She beat Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and took out defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka in the third round on Friday.

Gauff’s play catapulted her to fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying, but she has half the points as fourth-place Madison Keys, and a country can’t qualify more than four players in singles. The Olympic field will be determined by the WTA rankings after the French Open in June.

The 14th seed Kenin, who beat Serena Williams in the 2019 French Open third round, ranks second behind Williams in U.S. Olympic qualifying. She will face No. 27 Wang Qiang or Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.

Kenin and Alison Riske are the two remaining U.S. women in the draw.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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Jessica Calalang, Brian Johnson produce the pairs’ moment of figure skating nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – This fall season, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson ranked fifth among American pairs but finished with silver medals at the U.S. Championships on Saturday night.

After a fifth-place nationals finish last year, their goal was just to be on the podium in Greensboro.

In their second year together, Calalang and Johnson won the free skate with 146.01 points for a total score of 213.57. It was good enough for second place, as the eventual winners, Alexa Knierim and Chris Knierim, held a 10-point lead over their training partners from the short program.

“While Brian and Chris are working on cars, Jess and I are having lattes petting cats,” Alexa said in a press conference. “We have a great dynamic and I couldn’t be prouder of them for the way they skated. I watched them backstage just because I genuinely care for them.”

Calalang and Johnson vaulted to second from fourth place after short, when Johnson fell on the side-by-side triple Salchows.

In the free skate, however, they received positive grades of execution on every element. The crowd inside the Greensboro Coliseum was on their feet before the music (“You are the Reason” by Calum Scott and Leona Lewis) even finished.

“I don’t think either of us have had that kind of performance at a U.S. Championships,” Calalang said.

“I definitely haven’t,” Johnson added. “The amount of audience support that I felt at the very end of that program was overwhelming. It was the most amazing thing I’ve felt on the ice. I don’t have words to describe it.”

Now, they could join the Knierims at the world championships in March. The U.S. has two berths to worlds, up from one last year. U.S. Figure Skating chooses the teams, not necessarily (but usually) following nationals standings.

Calalang and Johnson have no world championships experience, either together or with former partners, although they have had plenty of experience this season.

They kicked it off with a sixth-place finish at a lower-level event, followed by their Grand Prix debut at Skate America. They finished just off the podium in fourth. The following week, they were sixth at Skate Canada. They handily won the Warsaw Cup, another lower-level event this fall.

“Repetition always helps,” Johnson said. “The more experience you can get, hopefully the better you’re gonna be doing. It was great doing the Grand Prixes because we had an amazing audience at Skate America and Skate Canada. The whole place was sold-out. I think that really resembles here as well with everybody loving what you’re doing and the whole support base.”

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NATIONALS: TV/Live Stream Schedule | Full Results

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.