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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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Trayvon Bromell emerged from destruction a new sprinter, new man

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For Trayvon Bromell, July 4 was an independence day. His first race as a rebuilt sprinter, more than four years after he first felt discomfort in his left heel.

It was also much more than that. Bromell, whose training base is Jacksonville, Fla., arrived in Montverde, off Lake Apopka just west of Orlando, for a meet called the Showdown in O-Town.

Exactly four years earlier, Bromell celebrated qualifying for his first Olympics at age 20.

Three years after that, 364 days before the Showdown, Bromell left that Montverde track and had his coach believing he might quit sprinting.

Finally, 10 days before last month’s comeback meet, Bromell learned that the woman who taught him to be a sprinter, from age 4 through high school, had died.

That coach, Garlynn Boyd, was supposed to be in Montverde on July 4 to watch Bromell.

The time came for heat five of the 100m. Bromell leaned into the starting blocks of lane two on a wet track. He felt the weight of the last few years. He sensed his arms shaking.

After at least one false start, Bromell ran. He won the heat in 10.04 seconds.

Bromell’s personal best is 9.84, but that he approached the 10-second barrier, which separates fast sprinters from medal-contending ones, after what he endured the last four years was very promising.

Bromell found his mom, Shri Sanders. She raised him, his two brothers and his sister, by herself in St. Petersburg. She prayed over him after the victory.

He raced again three weeks later. He ran 9.90 seconds, which would have earned bronze at the most recent Olympics and world championships.

Bromell’s speed was back, but in interviews he’s reflected more on a recent personal transformation. Aside from sprinting, Bromell said on a Flotrack podcast that he crawled out of “the destruction of my past,” “the downfall of my career” and “a real dark alleyway” in this Olympic cycle.

In an interview last week, Bromell declined to discuss specifics.

“I’ve got something coming out in the near future that’s going to speak and answer all the questions that people want to know,” he said, noting that it’s mostly related to mental health.

By 2013, the track world began to learn about Bromell, a 5-foot-8 inch high schooler who sprinted in shorts, not tights, and a headband.

He broke his left knee in eighth grade doing backflips, broke his right knee and forearm in ninth grade playing basketball and in 10th grade cracked a hip during a race.

Through all of that, he was coached by Boyd of the Lightning Bolt Track Club. Boyd began teaching Bromell how to be a sprinter before he started elementary school.

“We come from a bad area where poverty is big, and we didn’t really have a lot,” Bromell said of his family. “[My mom] worked all the time to make sure I was good, to make sure we had somewhere to live. When I went to practice, coach G was like another mom, to everyone, to every kid in the city who came in connection with us. She loved us. With my injuries in high school, my mom and coach G were the only people who believed I was special, even in times when I didn’t feel I was special.”

She fought diabetes for years — both of her legs were amputated — but Bromell didn’t know for sure her cause of death. St. Petersburg Times obituary reported she contracted the coronavirus before she died at age 54.

“I don’t even have the words to explain this pain I’m feeling,” was posted on Bromell’s Instagram the day of her death. “God knows that with everything in me, the world will know the lives you help change!”

In 12th grade, he became the first U.S. high schooler to break 10 seconds over 100m (albeit with too much wind for record purposes). Matthew Boling later broke Bromell’s record by .02.

Bromell, also a slot receiver at Gibbs High, passed on football interest from schools including West Virginia. He took a track scholarship at Baylor, known for producing Olympic 400m champions Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner.

“I don’t really like to put a kid in a box and say we expect this or that,” legendary Baylor coach Clyde Hart said in 2014. “I think he’s going to get better. He’s going to get a lot stronger. In my opinion, most sprinters don’t get their prime until 24, 25 years old. He’s only 18.”

As a freshman, Bromell won the NCAA 100m title in 9.97 seconds, becoming the first teenager to break 10 seconds with legal wind (and still the only one to do so). As a sophomore, Bromell clocked 9.84, a time faster than anything Carl Lewis ever recorded. It ranked him fourth on the U.S. all-time list.

Later that summer, Bromell shared 100m bronze with Canadian Andre De Grasse at the world championships, behind Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin, becoming the second-youngest medalist in that event’s history. He turned professional, signing a contract with New Balance, which he said is still in place today.

In March 2016, Bromell won the world indoor 60m title (Bolt, Gatlin and De Grasse were absent). His coach at Baylor, Mike Ford, still calls it the best Bromell race he’s seen in person. The Olympics were five months away.

In Bromell’s first top-level meet of the spring, he led a 200m in Rome coming off the turn. Then he slowed down considerably and finished seventh.

Three days later, he felt left heel pain while warming up at a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain. He withdrew and flew back to Texas.

An X-ray revealed a bone spur growing near his Achilles. The Olympic Trials were in four weeks. They had to modify training and hope to minimize the pain, putting off potential surgery until after Rio.

Bromell made the Olympic team, placing second at Trials to Gatlin in 9.84 seconds. He trained for Rio in a pool and on an anti-gravity treadmill. When he sprinted, it was often on grass and not in spikes.

Ford felt it was a victory that Bromell even qualified for the Olympic final, where he finished last in 10.06 seconds.

“I wasn’t going to run,” Bromell said. “I was telling myself that I was just in too much pain.

“I ended it with a clear heart knowing that even though I wasn’t able to produce what I knew I could, because of the circumstance, I still was able to witness and be a part of something that a lot of people may never get the opportunity to do.”

Five nights later, Bromell lined up against Bolt for the anchor leg of the 4x100m relay. He felt no pain.

As Tyson Gay neared with the baton, a dashing Bromell turned his head back for a moment to ensure the handoff. Bolt, in the adjacent lane, opened a slight lead and extended it down the straightaway.

Bromell, in dipping to try to edge Japan’s Asuka Cambridge for silver, stumbled and tumbled on the blue track. As Bolt made the final decelerating pose of his Olympic career, Bromell’s loose orange baton flew in the background.

As Bromell tried to catch himself hitting the ground, the heel pain returned. He couldn’t walk off the track. Officials brought out a wheelchair. Bromell departed believing his anchor secured the bronze medal.

Minutes later, he left a medical room with crutches and was told the team was disqualified. Mike Rodgers and Justin Gatlin exchanged the baton out of the zone.

“I gave everything that I could, almost just throwing myself just to try to get the medal, then it was just like, dang, we got DQed,” Bromell said. “I just couldn’t win in the situation. I got hurt going into the Olympics, then I couldn’t really perform how I wanted to in the 100m and then this. I’m taking an L after L after L right now.”

He underwent the post-Olympic surgery. Bromell was in a boot for two months. He said he did no rehab exercises for six months, per doctor’s instructions. Scar tissue built up. He went 10 months between races and, in his return, was eliminated in the first round at the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships. Bromell didn’t feel right and had the heel re-examined.

I don’t see how you can run 10.2, a new doctor told him. Your tendon should have torn off the bone.

Bromell underwent another surgery and started over again. This time, he went two years between races. On July 6, 2019, Bromell took a misstep about 70 meters into a 100m heat in Montverde and eased up, clocking 10.54 seconds.

Ford feared it was the Achilles, but Bromell taped up the foot and lined up for his final. Halfway through that race, he blew an adductor muscle in his upper leg. Bromell returned to his hotel and spoke with Ford.

“I thought he may quit,” said Ford, who had coached Bromell for nearly four years.

Bromell stayed in Florida to consider his next move. Ford flew back to Texas. They decided a change was best. Bromell spoke with Reider, who developed a knack for helping athletes return from leg injuries.

Christian Taylor, the 2012 Olympic triple jump champion, switched takeoff legs after knee pain and repeated as gold medalist in Rio. De Grasse joined Reider’s group in November 2018 after a pair of season-ending right hamstring injuries. In 2019, the Canadian earned 100m bronze and 200m silver at the world championships.

“[Bromell’s] expectations were just to be like he was before, at some point,” Reider said. “The expectations for me were just to get him to a point where we could see if we could actually train. When we got in, there were some basic functions he couldn’t do.”

Bromell did what Reider called rudimentary strength and conditioning exercises those first months. He began sprinting in earnest in March.

That Independence Day race — the 10.04 — was his first in four years without pain, Reider said. Neither Ford nor Reider was surprised by that time or the 9.90 on July 24.

“We made some steps to be able to be an athlete and not a rehab project,” Reider said. “I think he can run faster than he’s ever run.”

Bromell lives by himself in Jacksonville. He has other passions, notably photography.

He sees a counselor regularly after a difficult stretch of years. That’s brought him out of what he called “situations I probably shouldn’t have been in.” He plans to reveal specifics later.

“I stopped doing a lot of things in my life that was destroying me,” he said. “I stopped having pain and hurt in my heart and having it consume me. … I started reading my Bible more. I started reading books more. A lot of things that helped me evolve as a human. To have more peace, live properly and not destroy myself from within.”

Bromell doesn’t know where his 2015 or 2016 World Championships medals are. He doesn’t assign as much value to them as he does three-page essays that he received from college fund applicants in 2018. He promised $10,000 each to five students, choosing the recipients based on their submitted life stories.

“There’s people out here that were literally writing in their essays, Tray, your fighting, your drive to not give up helped me to not commit suicide tomorrow,” Bromell said. “Imagine reading something like that. Who would’ve thought this little kid from south side St. Pete could have an impact just by running 100 meters. That’s my gold medal.”

MORE: Usain Bolt would unretire if one man called

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Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

MORE: Looking back at Yuna Kim’s 10-year gold medal anniversary

Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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