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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April Ross, Alix Klineman back atop Olympic beach volleyball qualifying

April Ross, Alix Klineman
FIVB World Tour
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Two-time Olympic medalist April Ross and new partner Alix Klineman moved back on top of the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball qualifying standings by winning an event in Itapema, Brazil this week.

Ross, who split from Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2017, and Klineman beat Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes 25-23, 18-21, 15-10 in Sunday’s final for their third title in 11 FIVB World Tour tournaments together.

“Every victory is important, but this counts for more,” Klineman said, according to the FIVB. “We want to send a message and we want to be consistently the best.

Ross and Klineman supplanted Walsh Jennings and her new partner, Brooke Sweat, for the lead in the early U.S. Olympic qualifying rankings with still more than a year of events ahead.

1. Ross/Klineman – 3,240 (5 events played)
2. Walsh Jennings/Sweat – 3,100 (7 events)
3. Day/Flint – 2,180 (5 events)
4. Hughes/Ross — 2,000 (4 events)
5. Larsen/Stockman — 1,840 (5 events)
6. Sponcil/Claes — 1,600 (3 events)

Each team’s 12 best results from Sept. 1, 2018, to June 14, 2020, go into the Olympic qualifying rankings. That means Ross and Klineman are comfortably in front, having played two fewer events than Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who lost in the quarterfinals in Itapema.

The top two U.S. pairs come June 15, 2020, provided they’re ranked high enough internationally, will qualify for Tokyo. Most of the qualifying events, including the ones with the most points available, are still to come this summer.

Ross, 36, picked up Klineman, 29, after Walsh Jennings didn’t join her in signing a domestic AVP contract in 2017. The 6-foot-5 Klineman primarily played indoor the previous decade, including at Stanford from 2007-10 after being the Gatorade National Player of the Year coming out of high school.

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Katie Ledecky extends 5-year win streak

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Katie Ledecky extended a five-year domestic win streak by taking the 200m freestyle at the Tyr Pro Swim Series at Bloomington on Saturday.

In her last full meet before July’s world championships, Ledecky clocked 1:55.80 to beat training partner Simone Manuel by 1.44 seconds for her second win in as many days. Ledecky is also entered in Sunday’s 800m free on the last day of the meet.

Ledecky, who also cruised to a 400m free victory on Friday, ranks third in the world in the 200m free this year, behind Australian Ariarne Titmus and Swede Sarah Sjöström (the Olympic silver medalist who is not expected to race the 200m free at worlds).

Ledecky, a five-time Olympic champion, hasn’t lost a 200m, 400m, 800m or 1500m free final at a domestic meet since Allison Schmitt beat her in a 200m free on Jan. 18, 2014 when Ledecky was 16 years old.

BLOOMINGTON: Full Results

But Ledecky lost the two biggest 200m frees of this Olympic cycle so far, at the 2017 World Championships and the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships. Italian veteran Federica Pellegrini handed Ledecky her first individual final defeat at a major international meet at 2017 Worlds.

Ledecky dropped to third in the 200m free at Pan Pacs in Tokyo last year, beaten by younger swimmers Taylor Ruck of Canada and Rikako Ikee of Japan.

Ruck, who like Ledecky trains at Stanford, is in Bloomington, but she chose not to swim the 200m free on Saturday. She instead swam the 200m backstroke about 45 minutes after the 200m free and was upset by 17-year-old Regan Smith. Smith won in 2:06.47, moving to No. 3 in the world this year.

In other events Saturday, Ella Eastin captured the 400m individual medley in 4:37.18, taking 1.25 seconds off her personal best and moving to fifth in the world this year. Eastin is not on the world championships team after an untimely bout with mono before qualifying meets last summer.

Blake Pieroni won the men’s 200m free in 1:47.25. No American ranks in the top 20 in the world this year. World silver medalist Townley Haas did not enter Bloomington.

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