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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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Simone Biles, her name sparkling, extends 6-year win streak

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Simone Biles has long stood out for her gymnastics, but on Saturday she competed with her last name sparkling in silver beads on her World Champions Centre leotard for the first time. The gym’s other athletes had “WCC” on the back.

Biles lived up to the billing, extending her six-year win streak to 19 straight all-arounds, capturing the U.S. Classic, a tune-up for next month’s U.S. Championships.

Biles, the four-time Rio Olympic champion, scored 60 points in Louisville at the meet where she made her comeback last year after nearly two years off from competition. She prevailed by a comfortable 2.1 points over Riley McCusker, her largest margin of victory of her four U.S. Classic titles.

“I’m very satisfied,” she said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “I’m a little sad that I went out of bounds on floor [exercise], but overall I feel like there are improvements to be made.”

Full results are here.

Biles is prepping for nationals in Kansas City in three weeks, when she eyes a sixth U.S. all-around title to tie Clara Schroth Lomady‘s record from the AAU era in the 1940s and ’50s.

Then come the world championships in October in Stuttgart, Germany. Biles could win a fifth all-around to move one shy of Kohei Uchimura‘s record.

The world’s other top gymnasts may be her countrywomen.

Biles was outscored on balance beam on Saturday by 2018 World teammates Kara Eaker and McCusker and beaten on uneven bars by 2017 World all-around champion Morgan HurdSunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and McCusker. Biles swept all the gold medals at last year’s nationals.

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Geraint Thomas struggles; Julian Alaphilippe ups Tour de France lead

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LA MONGIE, France (AP) — When the team of Geraint Thomas was in its pomp at the Tour de France, a time trial followed by a big mountain stage would have been playgrounds for Sky — now in new colors as Ineos — to take cycling’s greatest race by the scruff of the neck and leave everyone else fighting for second place.

Not this year.

Thomas, the defending champion, cracked on Saturday on the Tour’s first encounter with a climb to above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), exposing unprecedented weaknesses in his team that has won six Tours in the past seven years.

The time trial on Friday and the climb up to the legendary Tourmalet pass on Saturday seemed primed for Thomas to reel in Julian Alaphilippe, the yellow jersey-holder from France who is setting the Tour alight with his punchy riding and determination to keep the race lead, filling French fans’ heads with dreams of a first homegrown winner since 1985.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

But instead, Thomas has seen Alaphilippe only get further and further away. In two days, the Frenchman has put 50 seconds of extra daylight between him and the Welshman. His lead — up to 2 minutes, 2 seconds — is becoming large enough to start realistically envisioning Alaphilippe in yellow in Paris next weekend as the first French winner since Bernard Hinault.

Fueling the ecstasy of delirious crowds that lined Saturday’s steep uphill finish, French rider Thibaut Pinot won Stage 14, putting him back in the picture to fight for the podium after he lost mountains of time on Stage 10.

Thomas rightly pointed out that the Tour is far from done, with six more ascents to above 2,000 meters still to come.

But his inability to stay with Pinot, Alaphilippe and other title contenders at the top of the Tourmalet — he was eighth, 36 seconds behind Pinot — was a mini-earthquake for the Tour dominated by his British team since 2012 — with champions Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and, in 2018, Thomas.

“Not the best day. I just didn’t feel quite on it from the start. I was quite weak,” Thomas said.

“At the end I knew I just had to pace it. I didn’t really attempt to follow when they kicked. I just thought I should ride my own pace rather than follow them and blow up on the steepest bit at the end. It’s disappointing. I just tried to limit the damage.”

Having taken cycling to a new level since 2012 with its vast budget and attention to the minutest of details, the team run by David Brailsford has been hit both by misfortune and by the inevitability that, eventually, other teams would start to close the gap.

A horror crash in training for four-time winner Froome, now recovering from career-threatening broken bones, robbed the team of its ace. Thomas’ own preparations were hampered by a crash at the Tour of Switzerland last month.

And Egan Bernal, being groomed by Brailsford to succeed Froome and Thomas, looks increasingly unable to compete for the title this year. Bernal was fifth on the Tourmalet and is fourth overall, 3 minutes behind Alaphilippe.

Pinot, now sixth overall and 3:12 behind Alaphilippe, is showing remarkable grit in bouncing back from his Stage 10 misfortune, when he was part of a group that got separated from other title contenders in crosswinds.

“I have this rage inside me, because in my opinion it was an injustice,” said Pinot, a podium finisher in 2014.

“Since the start of the Tour I had this stage in the back of my mind. The Tourmalet, it’s mythical,” said Pinot, who has three career stage wins at the Tour.

French President Emmanuel Macron, on hand at the top of the Tourmalet to see Pinot win and Alaphilippe extend his lead, gushed about the “two fantastic riders.”

“They attack and they have heart,” Macron said.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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