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

Shelby Houlihan shatters American 5000m record

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Shelby Houlihan chopped 10.52 seconds off her own American 5000m record, clocking 14:23.92 at a Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet in Portland, Ore., on Friday night.

Houlihan, who was 11th in the Rio Olympic 5000m, has in this Olympic cycle improved to become one of the greatest female distance runners in U.S. history.

She first broke Shannon Rowbury‘s American record in the 5000m by 4.47 seconds in 2018. In 2019, she broke Rowbury’s American record in the 1500m by 1.3 seconds in finishing fourth at the world championships in 3:54.99.

On Friday, Houlihan and second-place Karissa Schweizer both went under the American record. Schweizer, 24 and three years younger than Houlihan, clocked 14:26.34, staying with Houlihan until the winner’s 61-second final lap.

“I knew Karissa was going to try to come up on me and take the lead. She does that every time,” Houlihan told USATF.tv. “I had decided I was not going to let that happen.”

Houlihan improved from 41st to 12th on the world’s all-time 5000m list, 12.77 seconds behind Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba‘s world record.

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Can T.J. Oshie, other established Olympic hockey stars hold on for 2022?

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T.J. Oshie will be 35 years old during the next Winter Olympics. Jonathan Quick will be 36. Now that the NHL is one key step closer to returning to the Winter Games, the question surfaces: which 2014 Olympians will have a difficult time returning to rosters in 2022?

Oshie was the last of the 14 forwards chosen for the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, beating out Bobby Ryan and Brandon Saad, in part for his shootout prowess.

In group play against Russia, Oshie was memorably tapped by U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma six times in a shootout, including all five in the sudden-death rounds. Oshie beat Sergei Bobrovsky four times, including the game winner.

“After I went out for my third attempt, I figured I was going to keep going,” Oshie said, according to USA Hockey. “Each time I would look up to see what [Bylsma] had to say, and he would just give me a nod every time. I kind of started laughing toward shot five and six because it was getting kind of ridiculous.”

Oshie became known as “T.J. Sochi” on social media. President Barack Obama congratulated him on Twitter. The U.S. eventually lost to Canada in the semifinals and Finland in the bronze-medal game.

When the NHL chose not to send its players to the PyeongChang Winter Games, it may have spelled the end of Oshie’s Olympic career.

Consider that the oldest forward on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team was 29, six years younger than Oshie will be come 2022. A recent Olympic roster prediction from The Hockey Writers put Oshie in the “Just Missed Out” list.

NBC Sports NHL analyst Pierre McGuire has Oshie among the finalists for the last forward spots in his early U.S. roster prediction.

“I wouldn’t discount T.J. Oshie because shootout is still part of it,” McGuire said. “He still has his shootout moves, even though he’s not getting any younger.”

Quick, the unused third goalie in 2010, played 305 out of 365 minutes in net for the U.S. in Sochi. He was coming off a Stanley Cup in 2012 and en route to another one in 2014.

Since, he was sidelined by a knee injury that required surgery. He remains the Los Angeles Kings’ No. 1 goalie, which almost automatically puts an American in the Olympic roster discussion these days.

“Somebody like Jonathan definitely merits consideration just because of his achievement level over time, but I think he’d be the first person to tell you injuries have definitely affected him,” McGuire said of Quick, looking to become the second-oldest U.S. goalie to play in the Olympics after Tom Barrasso in 2002. “It’s not going to be easy for him.”

The U.S. could bypass Quick for three Olympic rookies in 2022. Connor Hellebuyck, John Gibson and Ben Bishop have superior save percentages and goals-against averages and more games played than Quick since the start of the 2018-19 season.

A wild card is Spencer Knight, the 19-year-old No. 1 from the world junior championships who last year became the highest-drafted goalie since 2010 (No. 13 to the Florida Panthers). Knight would break defenseman Bryan Berard‘s record as the youngest U.S. Olympic hockey player in the NHL era.

The Canadian roster has traditionally been deeper than the U.S. The talent is overwhelming at center, led by Sidney CrosbyConnor McDavidPatrice Bergeron and Nathan MacKinnon. The Canadians must get creative if the likes of veterans Jonathan Toews and John Tavares will join them in Beijing.

Toews, then 21, was the best forward at the 2010 Vancouver Games and Canada’s only one on the all-tournament team. While Toews’ last NHL All-Star selection was in 2017, his last two seasons have been his best in terms of points per game since 2011.

“The one thing that Canada is very good at, they do it extremely well, they select players that fit roles,” McGuire said, noting Mike Richards shifting to the wing during the 2010 Olympics. “When you look at the overwhelming depth that Canada has, that’s going to be the thing that’s going that’s going to be very interesting to watch to see how it plays out at center.”

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