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The Year Ahead in Olympic Sports

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Sandwiched between two Olympic years, 2019 won’t host the Games, but will provide plenty of anticipated competition in Olympic sports. Below is a look at the year ahead and a few of the top storylines at the start of 2019.

Lindsey Vonn chases Ingemar Stenmark’s World Cup record

In what she has said will be her final full competitive season, Lindsey Vonn will try to complete one thing left on her career bucket list: topping the legendary Swedish skier’s all-time record of 86 World Cup wins. The start of Vonn’s season was delayed after she sustained a knee injury in November, but the 34-year-old announced earlier this month that she will begin competing in January. Vonn is currently four victories short of Stenmark’s record.

An Olympic preview at swimming Worlds in South Korea

After a World Championships hiatus in 2018, the new year will provide the best glance at what’s to come in Tokyo as the world’s top swimmers convene in Gwangju, South Korea, in July. Five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky won three golds, a silver and a bronze at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, the largest international meet in a year without a Worlds or Olympics. After winning seven gold medals at the 2017 World Championships (tying a record set by Michael Phelps), Caeleb Dressel had a quieter year in 2018, winning one national title (in the 100m fly) and collecting one individual title at the Pan Pacific Championships in the same event. Several other Rio medalists continued to impress in 2018: three-time Olympic gold medalist Ryan Murphy had the world’s top time this year in the 100m backstroke, and won both backstroke events at Pan Pacs. Chase Kalisz posted the fastest times of 2018 in the individual medleys and also won both at Pan Pacs, and Kathleen Baker set the world record in the 100m back at nationals. Simone Manuel, who won four medals in Rio, claimed the 50m and 100m freestyle titles at nationals, and finished second to Australia’s Cate Campbell in both events at Pan Pacs. Eight-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt shrugged off retirement plans to finish second to Ledecky in the 200m free at Nationals, posting her fastest time (1:55.82) since setting an Olympic record at the London Games. Also to watch in 2019: Michael Andrew, who surprised at nationals with four titles and won the 50m free at Pan Pacs.

Several notable U.S. swimmers will not be at Worlds: 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte was suspended for 14 months earlier this year after receiving an intravenous infusion that exceeded the legal limit, though he has said he still plans to train for Tokyo. Lochte posted on social media last month with the announcement that he and his wife are expecting their second child, “Can’t wait to bring my fam of 4 to #tokyo2020.”

Dana Vollmer, a seven-time Olympic medalist, will miss the World Championships after skipping nationals last season (which served as a qualifier for Pan Pacs and Worlds). Vollmer, who won three medals at the Rio Games after giving birth to son Arlen in March 2015, welcomed a second son, Ryker, in July 2017. She returned to competition for the first time in almost a year in November, finishing fourth in her signature 100m butterfly at winter nationals, and has said she will aim for a fourth Olympics in Tokyo.

Five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin announced her retirement from swimming earlier this month. After a dominant performance at the London Games, where she collected four titles, Franklin dealt with chronic shoulder pain as well as anxiety and depression in the lead-up to Rio. She was part of the gold medal-winning U.S. team in the 4x200m free relay at her second Olympics, but swam only in the heats. The 23-year-old wrote in an essay published by ESPN, “This is by no means the end. Rather, I choose to look at this as a new beginning. Swimming has been, and always will be, a big part of my life and I absolutely plan to stay involved in what I believe is the best sport in the world, just in a different way.”

Biles still dominant at 2018 Worlds with a kidney stone; what could she do without one in 2019?

Despite a trip to the emergency room less than 24 hours before her first day of competition in Doha, Qatar, Simone Biles won the all-around by 1.693, the largest margin of her four such titles, despite a few uncharacteristic mistakes. Biles’ all-around win came just one day shy of a year of full-time training after a post-Rio hiatus. Her accolades in Doha proved how far ahead Biles is over the rest of the world – and what could come in 2019 at a kidney stone-free Worlds. She now has a medal in every event at the World Championships after winning her first on the uneven bars in 2018 (silver), which have typically been her weakest event. The U.S. should have dual all-around contenders in 2019: Morgan Hurd won her second straight world all-around medal in 2018, a bronze, after claiming the the world title in 2017. While the U.S. women have already qualified a team for the Tokyo Games by winning the team competition at 2018 Worlds (their fourth straight), the American men, who finished fourth in Doha, should qualify easily at Worlds in October, as long as they finish within the top nine teams (excluding those already qualified). They’ll likely be led by two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak, who won his first individual medal at a Worlds or Olympics in 2018, a bronze on high bar.

Americans aim for fourth Women’s World Cup title

Already the most decorated nation in tournament history, the U.S. will look for a second straight and fourth total Women’s World Cup title in 2019. The Americans coasted through a perfect qualifying campaign (5-0-0) and a team that will likely include U.S. veterans Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd will be the favorite to win again in France. The U.S. was drawn into a group with Thailand, Chile, and Sweden, a team that defeated the Americans on penalties in the quarterfinals at the Rio Games, marking the first time the U.S. women missed a medal at the Olympics. The tournament runs from June 7 through July 7.

U.S. likely to hone a star-studded team at basketball World Cup

The U.S. qualified for the 2019 World Cup thanks to a roster compiled of mostly G-league players. But the makeup of the team will look quite different next year: Gregg Popovich, who will coach the U.S. men at that tournament and at the Olympics, is likely to bring a team of notable NBA names to China in an attempt to win a record third straight World Cup, which also serves as a qualifying opportunity for Tokyo. A squad led by Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Stephen Curry brought the U.S. victory at the 2014 World Cup, and this year’s preliminary pool of players includes all three, as well as Team USA veterans LeBron James and Kevin Durant (the actual roster won’t be announced until closer to the tournament, which runs from late August through mid-September).

Who will be crowned at this year’s World Figure Skating Championships?

The post-Olympic season offered a shake-up of sorts in the ladies’ field: reigning Olympic gold medalist Alina Zagitova finished fifth at Russian nationals (all three medalists are too young to compete at senior international events) and was topped by Japan’s Rika Kihira at the Grand Prix Final. Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, once seemingly unbeatable during a two-year win streak, hasn’t won in over a year. And after missing both the 2014 and 2018 Olympic teams, 2015 world champion Yelizaveta Tuktamysheva has had a resurgent season, winning Skate Canada and placing third at the Grand Prix Final (Russia has not yet named a team for Worlds). The U.S. women have no frontrunners for Worlds, which will be held in Japan in March: Bradie Tennell was the only American with a podium finish on the Grand Prix circuit (third at Grand Prix France) and no U.S. women qualified for the Grand Prix Final.

Nathan Chen, now balancing skating with studies at Yale, won his second straight Grand Prix Final in 2018, topping PyeongChang silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan. The event lacked two-time reigning Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu, who was out with an injury. Hanyu is expected to compete at the World Championships, where he’ll be on home soil in Japan, and it’s hard not to pick him as a favorite if he is healthy. Chen and Hanyu have not gone head-to-head since the Olympics, where Chen finished fifth.

Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue won the Grand Prix Final in December, though none of the PyeongChang medalists were competing. The field at Worlds is likely to be more challenging, since Olympic silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are expected to compete. The French duo, who train with Hubbell and Donohue in Montreal, won Grand Prix France earlier this season but skipped their first Grand Prix assignment due to a minor injury to Cizeron, making them ineligible for the Grand Prix Final. It looks unlikely if the French compete, but if Hubbell and Donohue can pull off a win at Worlds, they’d be the first Americans to do so in ice dance since Meryl Davis and Charlie White in 2013.

U.S. track prospects – strong in 2018 – will be tested at Worlds in Doha

Usain Bolt’s retirement in 2017 posed the question of who the next men’s sprinting star could be. U.S. men dominated that conversation in 2018, with Rio Olympian Christian Coleman posting the world’s fastest 100m in three years, a 9.79 at an August Diamond League event in Brussels. In fact, the four fastest men in the 100m in 2018 were all American: Coleman, Ronnie Baker, Noah Lyles and Mike Rodgers. All four faced off at a June Diamond League event in Morocco, with Coleman topping the field in a race that separated the top three (Baker and Lyles were second and third) by just .01.

On the distance side, Shelby Houlihan was among the most exciting revelations of the 2018 season. The 25-year-old won both the 1500m and 5000m at the U.S. Outdoor Championships in June, and set an American record in the 5000m in July. Houlihan, who missed the podium at the World Indoor Championships in March (she placed fourth in the 1500m and fifth in the 3000m), will aim for her first medal at a World Championships in 2019, when the event will be held in Doha, Qatar, from late September through the first week of October.

The past 14 months were also notable for American women in marathons: in November 2017, four-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan became the first U.S. woman in 40 years to win the New York City Marathon, and Desiree Linden ended a 33-year drought for U.S. women at the Boston Marathon in 2018. Flanagan has hinted at retirement and has not specified on whether she will try for a fifth Olympics in Tokyo, which would be a record for U.S. distance runners.

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David Boudia adjusts diving event, goal for world championships

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David Boudia earned diving medals at his last three world championships and the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, but that was on the platform. He competes on the global stage on the springboard for the first time at worlds this week.

“I don’t have a lot of high hopes,” Boudia, who is still learning the springboard after switching to it in the last year, said in a phone interview from South Korea, where he begins competition Wednesday (TV schedule here). “But I think my biggest goal is to walk away with an Olympic spot.”

An Olympic spot not necessarily for himself, but for the U.S.

Boudia, a 30-year-old father of three, and any other American will clinch 2020 Olympic quota spots by placing in the top 12 in their respective individual events this week. Those spots, and any others earned at later competitions in the next year, will be filled at trials in June in Indianapolis.

NBC Sports analyst Cynthia Potter believes Boudia, who left the sport to sell homes in 2017 and came back and suffered a concussion off the platform in 2018, can meet his goal of making Friday’s 12-man final in Gwangju.

“He would have to dive well, but not better than he’s been diving,” she said. “His springboard is really well-timed, rhythmic, and he’s for a long time known how to go into the water without making a splash.”

But challenging Rio Olympic gold and silver medalists Cao Yuan of China and Jack Laugher of Great Britain, plus defending world champion Xie Siyi of China would be very tough.

Boudia lacks their degrees of difficulty, for now. He hopes to switch out two of his six dives before his first competition of 2020, though he could insert one of them should he make the world final.

“I need a good six months, so from August to December is when we’re kind of really drilling the fundamentals of learning those new dives and getting them perfected,” he said.

Boudia rallied to beat Rio Olympic springboard diver Michael Hixon for the title in May at nationals, where the top two per event earned world berths. But Boudia competed there with about a month of competition dive practice, about half as long as he would prefer.

“Hix and I are going to have a lot of training to do if we want to be even close to cracking that top five,” at worlds, Boudia said in May, according to TeamUSA.org.

Boudia is the lone U.S. diver to earn an individual world medal in an Olympic diving event since 2009.

The U.S. produced breakthroughs at worlds so far. Sarah Bacon became the first American woman to earn a world title since 2005, taking the non-Olympic 1m springboard event. Murphy Bromberg and Katrina Young bagged bronze in synchronized platform, ending a decade-long medal drought in any synchro event.

But Boudia’s goal must be shared among the whole team — as many top-12 finishes individually and top three in synchro events to gobble up Tokyo 2020 quota spots. The U.S. failed to qualify full teams for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

“Getting in the top 12 in the four individual Olympic events is the big deal right now,” Potter said. “Whether you are on the awards stand or not, that would be icing on the cake for a lot of these divers.”

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MORE: Diving Worlds TV Schedule

Anita Wlodarczyk, one of track and field’s most dominant, sidelined

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Poland hammer thrower Anita Wlodarczyk, the only woman to win the last five combined Olympic and world titles in a track and field event, will not go for a fourth straight world championship this fall.

Wlodarczyk had season-ending, arthroscopic left knee surgery on Monday, according to Polish media citing her coach.

Wlodarczyk, 33, has the top 15 throws on the IAAF’s all-time list, and 27 of the top 29. Her world record of 82.98 meters (scribbled on her leg pre-op) is 11 and a half feet farther the second-best woman in history. She originally took silver at the 2012 Olympics and 2013 Worlds but was upgraded to gold after Russian Tatyana Lysenko was stripped for doping.

Wlodarczyk won a reported 42 straight finals between 2014 and 2017, then suffered three losses in 2018 and two so far this year in three lower-level meets before the operation.

Americans DeAnna Price and Brooke Anderson rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the world this year. A U.S. woman has never finished in the top five of an Olympic or world championships hammer throw, which debuted at worlds in 1999 and the Olympics in 2000.

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