Two years out: 20 U.S. athletes to watch for Tokyo 2020 Olympics

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With Tuesday marking two years until the 2020 Olympic Opening Ceremony, a look at 20 U.S. athletes to watch on the road to Tokyo …

Perry Baker, Rugby
The former Arena Football League wide receiver blossomed into the world’s best rugby sevens player in 2017, leading the World Series in tries. Baker took part in sevens’ Olympic debut in Rio, where the U.S. men failed to get out of pool play.

Simone Biles
, Gymnastics
The only woman on this list who has yet to compete since Rio. But the quadruple gold medalist was so dominant in the last Olympic cycle that she’s expected to return to the top of the sport in her comeback this summer.

David Boudia, Diving
The only man on this list who hasn’t competed since Rio. Boudia, the greatest U.S. diver since Greg Louganis, considered retirement last year but was due to return to competition in 2018. However, a crash off the 10-meter platform in winter training resulted in a concussion that delayed that plan.

Jordan Burroughs, Wrestling
The man expected to become the greatest U.S. wrestler of all time was tearfully upset in Rio. Burroughs rebounded to win his fourth world title last year, which put the father of two one shy of John Smith‘s national record of six combined Olympic and world titles.

Christian Coleman, Track and Field
Beat Usain Bolt in the Jamaican’s last race, taking 100m silver at the 2017 Worlds. Coleman is the world’s fastest man since Rio (9.82 seconds). Also owns a 40-yard dash time (4.12) one tenth faster than the NFL Combine record.

Caeleb Dressel
, Swimming
Matched Michael Phelps‘ record seven gold medals at a world championships last year, albeit two came in mixed-gender relays that weren’t on the program in Phelps’ heyday. Dressel is unmissable for his arm tattoos and a blue bandana he carries in remembrance of a high school teacher who died of cancer in November.

Allyson Felix, Track and Field
Felix, eyeing her fifth Olympics, already has the most medals for a female U.S. track and field athlete. She’s one shy of Carl Lewis‘ record for any U.S. track and field athlete and three shy of the most medals for a U.S. woman in any sport. But Felix turns 34 in 2020, and the U.S. is deep in her best event, the 400m, with 20-somethings.

Morgan Hurd, Gymnastics
The Harry Potter super fan from the Olympian-starved state of Delaware had an incredible 2017. She went from sixth at the U.S. Championships to winning the world all-around title, the sport’s biggest prize aside from the Olympics. Hurd, who competes in glasses, knows that the U.S. women’s gymnastics teams is among the hardest to make in any sport in any nation. The expected returns of Biles this summer and Laurie Hernandez in 2019 will complicate matters.

Nyjah Huston, Skateboarding
Tokyo 2020 could introduce a whole new set of sports fans to Nyjah Huston, the longtime face of skateboarding who has his own Nike shoe. Huston has eight X Games titles in street, one of two skateboarding events added to the Olympics. Winter Olympians may also pursue the Summer Games in skateboarding, notably Shaun White in the park event.

Gwen Jorgensen, Track and Field
The first U.S. Olympic triathlon champion gave birth to Stanley last August, then announced a switch to the marathon. Her goal is to win a gold medal in Tokyo, but it’s a tall ask just to make the three-woman U.S. team. The U.S. has the reigning New York City and Boston Marathon winners in Shalane Flanagan and Des Linden, plus a world bronze medalist in Amy Cragg.

Katie Ledecky, Swimming
Since bagging four more golds in Rio, Ledecky used Bryce Harper as a medal rack, met Bruce Springsteen, enrolled at Stanford, changed coaches, won eight NCAA titles and five more world titles, turned professional and broke another world record. Can win more golds in Tokyo with the Olympic debut of the women’s 1500m (Ledecky is 18 seconds faster than any woman in history).

Noah Lyles, Track and Field
Fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials as an 18-year-old, the dancing, somersaulting, backflipping Lyles is turning into the most exciting sprint personality in the post-Usain Bolt era. Lyles has accompanying talent, too. He is the U.S. 100 champion (wearing “The Incredibles” socks) and fastest in the world this year in the 200m.

Simone Manuel, Swimming
Who can forget Manuel’s reaction to earning gold in Rio? The first black woman to grab an individual Olympic swimming title captured another five golds at the 2017 Worlds. Like her good friend Ledecky, she recently completed her Stanford career.

Sydney McLaughlin, Track and Field
At 17, the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to compete at an Olympics in 44 years in Rio. McLaughlin just turned professional after an eye-catching freshman season at Kentucky where she posted the fastest 400m hurdles time in the world this year by more than a half-second. McLaughlin also lowered her 200m and 400m personal bests by seconds, making her the most versatile U.S. woman between hurdles and sprints since Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Alex Morgan, Soccer
The U.S. women’s soccer team may be reigning World Cup champions, but they unceremoniously exited the Rio Games in the quarterfinals. It marked the first time the Americans failed to make an Olympic final. Morgan, a 29-year-old forward, eyes her third Olympics in Tokyo and the chance to chase Abby Wambach‘s American record nine career Olympic goals. Morgan is at five.

Lakey Peterson, Surfing
Surfing is one of four sports debuting at the Olympics in 2020, along with karate, skateboarding and sport climbing. Peterson, a 23-year-old whose grandfather invented the Egg McMuffin, has been the top U.S. male or female surfer this year, challenging six-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore of Australia.

April Ross/Alix Klineman, Beach Volleyball
Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings split less than a year after their Rio Olympic bronze medal. Ross partnered with the 6-foot-5 Klineman, and they won their first international event together in January. That also happened to be the first international beach tournament for Klineman, a former indoor player at Stanford.

Maggie Steffens, Water Polo
Approaching legend status at age 25. Steffens was the top scorer and MVP at the last two Olympics, leading the U.S. to a pair of gold medals. Steffens’ father played internationally for Puerto Rico, an uncle made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that boycotted and sister Jessica played on the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams.

Kerri Walsh Jennings/Nicole Branagh, Beach Volleyball
Walsh Jennings and Branagh are each 39 years old and have a combined five kids. They are the longest-standing partnership in elite U.S. women’s beach volleyball, although they have only been together for a year. Walsh Jennings is going for her sixth Olympics and fifth medal but is coming off a 2017 season-ending shoulder surgery (her sixth operation on that right shoulder). Come 2020, both Walsh Jennings and Branagh will be older than every previous Olympic beach volleyball player.

Serena Williams, Tennis
Williams made the Mother of all Comebacks to reach the Wimbledon final, 10 months after childbirth followed by pulmonary embolism complications that left her bedridden for six weeks. In the Olympic realm, the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion failed to earn a medal for the first time in Rio, falling in the third round in singles and the first round in doubles with older sister Venus Williams.

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FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

Gabriel Jesus
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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

MORE: Noah Lyles details training near woods, dog walkers

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”