Getty Images

U.S. Olympic team qualifying, selection races to watch in 2020

Leave a comment

A look at some intriguing races for U.S. Olympic team spots as the final six months of qualifying begin …

Basketball
Men’s Guards

The last four seasons, every guard on every All-NBA team was an American. Thirteen different players combined to take up those spots. All 13 are part of USA Basketball’s national team pool. Maybe five will go to Tokyo. The group to choose from includes those with Olympic experience such as James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and Russell Westbrook. And those without, like Stephen CurryDamian Lillard and Kemba Walker.

Beach Volleyball
Kerri Walsh Jennings/Brooke Sweat vs. Kelly Claes/Sarah Sponcil

Two U.S. women’s beach teams will qualify for Tokyo. April Ross and Alix Klineman are comfortably in first place in the standings. The triple Olympic champion Walsh Jennings and new partner Sweat are second in Olympic qualifying more than halfway through, but third-place Claes and Sponcil are within striking distance. The race likely will not be decided before the last stretch of four- and five-star tournaments in late May and early June.

Equestrian
Women’s Jumping

Could this be Jessica Springsteen‘s year? The daughter of rocker Bruce Springsteen recently cracked the top four of the U.S. rider rankings for the first time in at least two and a half years, though she is seventh among Americans in the international rankings. The U.S. Olympic team of three riders (plus an alternate) will be chosen in June. The usual suspects — Kent Farrington, Beezie Madden and McLain Ward, all at least 10 years older than the 28-year-old Springsteen — remain at or near the top of the rankings.

Fencing
Men’s Foil

The U.S. boasts four of the world’s top 10 — Race Imboden (2), Gerek Meinhardt (6), Alexander Massialas (7) and Nick Itkin (10) — plus 2012 and 2016 Olympian Miles Chamley-Watson. But only three per nation can compete individually at the Olympics. The top three in national team point standings come April go to Tokyo. The U.S. is looking for its first men’s Olympic fencing title since 1904.

Golf
Tiger Woods vs. Dustin Johnson vs. Justin Thomas vs. Gary Woodland vs. Brooks Koepka vs. Others

The U.S. will qualify the maximum four men’s golfers for Tokyo, but the names are unknown to start 2020. The Official World Golf Ranking after the U.S. Open in June determines the Olympic field. The current OWGR (which includes results that aren’t part of Olympic qualification) has the top four as Koepka, Thomas, Johnson and Woods. But golf rankings guru @VC606’s projection, which excludes results before the Olympic qualifying window, has Woods in fifth place and Johnson in sixth, replaced by Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay. Every result could be critical this winter and spring, making Woods’ decision to skip this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions (with its limited field and guaranteed ranking points with no cut) even more noteworthy.

Gymnastics
Laurie Hernandez vs. Newcomers

Assuming Simone Biles leads the four-woman U.S. team (plus two women in individual events), there is one other returning Olympian hoping to join her. Hernandez hasn’t competed since taking balance beam silver in Rio but plans to make a late Tokyo run. Four years ago, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas became the first women to make back-to-back Olympic teams since 2000, but each of them came back a year earlier than Hernandez. Gymnasts in Hernandez’s way include members of the last two world championships teams (like Morgan Hurd and Sunisa Lee) and first-year seniors like Kayla DiCello, looking to repeat Hernandez’s feat in 2016 of making an Olympic team at age 16.

Shooting
Women’s Skeet

Four different U.S. women won the four world titles in this event between 2014-18, including a medals sweep in 2018. Five Americans make up the top 14 in the world right now, and a sixth, 18-year-old Austen Smith, won the first stage of the Olympic trials in September. Two women will qualify for Tokyo by the end of the trials process this spring. The biggest name is 40-year-old Kim Rhode, looking to become the first person to earn a medal at seven straight Olympics in any sport.

Soccer
Women’s Forwards

World Cup rosters are 23 players. Olympic rosters are 18. The U.S. must cut from its world champion team of last summer, putting stalwart goal-scorers at risk. Chief among them is Alex Morgan, who hopes to return from an April due date for a third Olympics. Then there’s Carli Lloyd, who at 37 is trying to become the oldest U.S. Olympic soccer player in history. Other thirtysomethings in the mix: Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Christen Press, plus Mallory Pugh, who made the Rio Olympics at age 18. The last two Olympic teams each had four forwards.

Swimming
Chase Kalisz vs. Ryan Lochte vs. Carson Foster

Lochte wants to make a fifth Olympic team, at age 35, in his patented 200m individual medley. To do that, he must take down either the 2017 World champion Kalisz or the 18-year-old Foster, who has been breaking Michael Phelps‘ national age-group records since he was 10. Two swimmers per individual event make the Olympic team at June’s trials. There are other potential spoilers in the 200m IM, including 2018 breakout star Michael Andrew and Abrahm Devine, who made the last two world teams. One thing’s for certain: There will be a new Olympic champion with the retirement of Michael Phelps, who won this event in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016.

Tennis
Madison Keys vs. Coco Gauff vs. Venus Williams vs. Sloane Stephens vs. Others

The U.S. gets four singles spots per gender at the Olympics. Qualifying is via ATP and WTA rankings with the cutoff after the French Open. More than halfway through, Serena Williams comfortably leads via Wimbledon and U.S. Open runners-up (3,185 points). She’s followed by Sofia Kenin (1,941), Alison Riske (1,713) and Madison Keys (1,537). Then comes another drop-off to the current alternates, led by Coco Gauff (709). Venus Williams, eyeing a fifth Olympics when she will be 40, is in ninth place (and just withdrew from her 2020 season opener). Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, is 11th. Any player who doesn’t make singles could still be chosen for doubles, where Venus is an intriguing option.

Track and Field
Women’s Marathon

One of the hardest U.S. Olympic track and field event teams to make will be one of the first to be decided. Six of the nine fastest Americans in history are expected to start the marathon trials on Feb. 29 in Atlanta. Headliners include 2018 Boston Marathon winner Des Linden and American 10,000m record holder Molly Huddle. Only three get to go to Tokyo, while the rest likely crowd the 10,000m field at the track trials four months later in Oregon.

Wrestling
Jordan Burroughs vs. Kyle Dake

Burroughs, the 2012 Olympic 74kg champion, and Dake, the 2018 and 2019 World champion at the non-Olympic 79kg weight class, are expected to make up the most intense final of the Olympic wrestling trials from April 4-5 at Penn State. Only one wrestler per weight class qualifies for Tokyo. Burroughs has made every Olympic and world team at 74kg since 2011. But Dake, who avoided Burroughs by moving up in weight in 2016, represents his toughest challenger yet.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

BEST OF 2010s: Summer Olympians | Winter Olympians | Teams
MOMENTS: Summer Olympics | Winter Olympics | Paralympics | Viral

Coco Gauff stuns Naomi Osaka at Australian Open; Serena upset, Federer escapes

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Perhaps Serena Williams, now 38, will win a 24th Grand Slam title someday.

And maybe Coco Gauff, still just 15, never will earn her first major championship.

Sure felt, though, as if a generational shift was being signaled Friday at the Australian Open, with a pair of monumentally significant third-round results hours apart in the same stadium: a surprising first-week loss by Williams, then a historic victory by Gauff.

First, Williams faltered down the stretch for her earliest exit at Melbourne Park in 14 years, a 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5 loss to 27th-seeded Wang Qiang of China. It pushed Williams’ gap between Slam trophies to three years.

“I’m way too old to play like this at this stage of my career,” Williams said. “Definitely going to be training tomorrow, that’s first and foremost — to make sure I don’t do this again.”

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

Gauff also was planning a practice session for Saturday, but hers was to prepare for a fourth-round match.

That’s because the 67th-ranked Gauff took the latest step in her quick progression, becoming the youngest player in the professional era to eliminate the defending women’s champion at the Australian Open, beating former No. 1 Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-4.

Only once the last point had been played did the preternaturally poised Gauff turn into a rather typical teen, joking about wanting to take “a selfie for Instagram” with Rod Laver, the 11-time major champion after whom the tournament’s main stadium is named.

“Honestly, like, what is my life? Like, oh, my gosh!” Gauff told the crowd. “Two years ago, I lost first round in juniors and now I’m here. This is crazy.”

It certainly is remarkable.

With a booming serve, a top-flight backhand and a winner’s mentality, Gauff reversed the result from the first time she was across the net from Osaka, a former No. 1 who already owns two major titles at the age of 22.

When they played each other at the U.S. Open last September, Osaka won in two quick sets and then consoled Gauff, encouraging her to speak to the spectators who were pulling for her.

One reminder of just how young Gauff is: Most of the entrants in this year’s junior Australian Open are older than she is.

Another: She is taking online classes and said she’s been given permission to turn in homework late, “considering the circumstances.”

Yet another: She doesn’t have an official driver’s license quite yet, stuck practicing behind the wheel with a learner’s permit.

But put a tennis racket in her hands and move out of the way: Gauff is now 8-2 in her nascent Grand Slam career, with three of those wins coming against women who have multiple major titles. Her next match is against No. 14 Sofia Kenin, a 21-year-old American who beat Zhang Shuai of China 7-5, 7-6 (7).

The most intrigue in men’s action came at the very end of the night — at nearly 1 a.m., actually, when Roger Federer reeled off the last six points to edge 47th-ranked Australian John Millman 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (8).

It lasted more than four hours in humid conditions, and Federer needed to overcome a hard-to-believe 48 unforced errors from his forehand and an 8-4 deficit in the last tiebreaker, which is first-to-10.

Federer had lost to Millman at the 2018 U.S. Open and it sure seemed this one might be headed that way again.

“Oh, God, it was tough,” Federer said.

Williams vs. Wang was a rematch from Flushing Meadows last season — and the reverse result also happened for them. At the U.S. Open, Williams won 6-0, 6-1 in 44 minutes.

Wang credited that with prompting her to spend more time in the gym so she could add more oomph to her shots.

“I always believed I could do this one day,” Wang said with a laugh. “I didn’t know which day.”

Like Wang, Gauff was much better Friday than in New York. Gauff’s improvement revealed itself in her serving — she put 15 of her initial 16 first serves in play — and her steadiness.

Gauff declared herself more calm for this matchup.

“That,” she decided, “made the difference.”

So did letting Osaka make the mistakes, 30 unforced errors in all, compared to 17 for Gauff.

With that, Gauff became the youngest player to beat a top-five opponent in a women’s tour-level match since Jennifer Capriati did it at 15 in 1991.

“You don’t want to lose to a 15-year-old, you know?” Osaka said.

So, Naomi, could you have done something differently?

“Put the ball in the court,” came the reply.

Williams had similar issues, and even though she went from a massive deficit to even as can be, she could not do what was required in the late going.

Down to what sure felt like her last chance, Williams came through with a cross-court forehand winner to close a 24-stroke point, then raised her arms, held that celebratory pose and looked over toward her guest box.

Finally, on her sixth try, after 1½ hours of action, she had managed to convert a break point against Wang. Soon enough, they were headed to a third set and it appeared that the comeback was on.

It turned out that Williams only was delaying a surprising defeat.

So tough at the toughest moments for so many years, Williams was the one who came undone, often displaying what she later called “the signature ‘Serena frustration’ look.”

Since grabbing major championship No. 23 at the 2017 Australian Open, while she was pregnant, Williams hasn’t added to her total.

She appeared in four major finals over the past two seasons, losing each one.

Williams owns seven trophies from the Australian Open and hadn’t lost as early as the third round at either of the hard-court Grand Slam tournaments — in Melbourne or at the U.S. Open — since all the way back in 2006.

This was the first Grand Slam tournament in 11 years with each of the top 10 seeded women reaching the third round. Who would have suspected Williams would be the first to lose, followed soon thereafter by No. 3 Osaka?

Williams was only seeded No. 8, on account of how infrequently she has competed since being away from the tour while having a baby in September 2017.

She started 2020 well enough, winning a hard-court tuneup title in Auckland, New Zealand, this month for her first trophy of any sort in three years — and first as a mom.

But Williams wasn’t able to carry that success to the Grand Slam level, where it matters the most to her.

She began her news conference by crediting Wang but eventually shifted to criticizing herself for not playing well enough to win.

“I didn’t return like Serena. Honestly, if we were just honest with ourselves, I lost that match,” Williams said. “I can’t play like that. I literally can’t do that again. It’s unprofessional. It’s not cool.”

MORE: Top U.S. tennis player unlikely to play Olympics

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Athletes warily embrace progress as USA Gymnastics evolves

AP
Leave a comment

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The dread was familiar. The fear too. They gripped MyKayla Skinner shortly after she decided to return to elite gymnastics last summer.

Skinner wasn’t worried about recapturing the skills that made her an alternate on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. A standout college career at Utah not only rekindled her love of the sport but served as a form of self care, the hyper intense pressure of performing for former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi replaced by the sense of joyousness she felt competing for the Utes.

That feeling of safety vanished as Skinner prepared for her first national team camp since deciding she would make a run at the 2020 Olympics.

She’d watched her friends and former teammates come forward to admit in open court they’d been abused by former national team doctor Larry Nassar, now serving what amounts to a life sentence for sexually assaulting gymnasts with his hands and possessing child pornography.

She kept an eye on USA Gymnastics as it stepped on one land mine after another in the aftermath as the lawsuits piled up and its role as the sport’s national governing body became tenuous at best. And while the organization believes it has taken positive steps to emerge from the rubble, Skinner wondered what was real and what wasn’t. She texted friend and reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles in hopes of finding clarity, worried about a bait and switch.

“I was like, ’I’m so scared to come to camp. Like, how is it with all the changes, new coaches and everything?″ Skinner said.

Biles, a Nassar survivor who has embraced her role as the the sport’s most influential voice since rocketing to stardom following her golden run at the 2016 Games, assured Skinner the vibe had shifted.

Sitting in a small conference room this week while preparing for the first national team camp of 2020, the Olympics just seven months away, the 23-year-old recently married Skinner admitted she’s still adjusting to the “new” USA Gymnastics.

“It’s just so weird coming into the gym and not feeling like, you know, ‘I’m going to die,’” she said. “Before it was like, ‘I’ve got to hit that routine or I’m going to get yelled at.’ So it’s just been really nice to kind of relax a little bit and be able to really focus on gymnastics and get to enjoy it more.”

There is a sense of lightness during practices that was hard to come by during Karolyi’s hugely successful but strident tenure.

The athletes no longer end each workout by lining up in order of height and offering a robotic, monotone “thank you” to the staff.

Upbeat music plays as they stretch. They talk openly and animatedly while waiting for their turn at each event, a decided departure from the near silence that was commonplace — and perhaps symbolic — of Karolyi’s authoritarian leadership style.

It’s one of the reasons Biles is “optimistic” about USA Gymnastics’ future. When asked why, her words sounded conciliatory even as her tone suggested she has no plans to stop calling out the powers that be when the moment requires.

“I feel like they’re working towards the right direction,” Biles said. “But there are still a lot of unanswered questions that a lot of us as survivors and as the community around us need. But for the most part, in the gym and what we do as a team, that’s going good.”

That wasn’t always the case under Karolyi. At turns brilliant and brutal, Karolyi’s near total control over the women’s elite program turned it into a powerhouse even as it left its athletes at times feeling powerless, the most decorated gymnast in the history of the sport included.

“With Martha you really feared (her) because she held your whole career in her hand,” Biles said. “And now I feel like you’re a little bit more forgiven because it’s such a hard sport and mistakes will be made but it’s how you rise from them and to learn to not do it again.”

A lesson USA Gymnastics itself is attempting to learn itself as it tries to recover from the largest sexual abuse scandal in sports history. The changes it has instituted since the summer of 2017 are both obvious and subtle.

It moved training centers twice, from the Karolyi Ranch in Texas — a decision reached only after Biles expressed outrage about possibly returning to a place she associated with Nassar’s behavior — to Evo Athletics in Bradenton, Florida, to The Gymnastics Company in suburban Indianapolis.

The rustic cabins at the remote ranch tucked into the Sam Houston National Forest have been replaced by hotel rooms near an interstate, a Starbucks and fast food restaurants. Coaches and athletes are prohibited from being alone together during trips to and from national team camps, forcing some to ride share or carpool upon arrival.

Perhaps most telling, the training tables inside The Gymnastics Company are situated right in the middle of the massive steel-structure, not tucked away in a corner.

“We didn’t want to create a back room,” high performance team coordinator Tom Forster said.

Those days are over.

During practice on Monday evening, Annie Heffernan, vice president of the women’s program, sat at a table with Kim Kranz, the organization’s first-ever vice president of athlete health and wellness.

President Li Li Leung, a former collegiate gymnast who came over from the NBA last spring, quietly walked among them, making small talk as she went. Forster — as approachable as Karolyi was aloof — gave the coaches a brief talk and then offered more smiles in 15 minutes than Karolyi did in a given year.

While gymnasts are still rewarded during camps for their performance, national team staff members now have the ability to honor an athlete for things that have nothing to do with chasing perfection.

“It could be an attitude, it could be sportsmanship,” Forster said. “It could be that they came back after that fall and did great. It’s not based on ‘this one’s the best, we have to acknowledge her.’”

The organization has stressed the need for open communication. The members of the 2019 World Championship team were asked to fill out a survey after the competition and share their thoughts on what worked and what didn’t. The same is done after team camps.

“They can complain about anything and anyone that they want to,” Forster said. “They can make it anonymous if they choose or they can say, ‘Hey I want feedback, or ’This is me, and I want to hear from you.’ They can do whatever they wish.”

Measuring any progress is tricky. The organization that long served as the gold standard for the U.S. Olympic movement has lost the benefit of the doubt. Even as it tries to prove how it has evolved over the last three years, the reality is things remain complicated.

Two coaches currently under investigation by U.S. SafeSport attended the camp with their athletes this week. Mediators are still trying to work through the bankruptcy petition USA Gymnastics filed in 2018 as a last-ditch effort to avoid decertification by the USOPC. Nassar survivors continue to call for the organization’s dissolution. Money is tight as sponsors wait for the legal process to play out. When the organization started placing equipment inside The Gymnastics Company, it had staffers do most of the lifting rather than hire professional movers.

All of which leaves the young women vying for an Olympic spot in an awkward position.

Most of the gymnasts in the senior elite program have no connection to Karolyi or Nassar, who was dismissed in the summer of 2015. Yet they find themselves serving as a beta test of sorts on whether the culture shift the organization is trying to bring about is actually happening.

Each of the 15 gymnasts interviewed by The Associated Press this week said they feel they have the freedom to express themselves without fear of retribution. Each believe their mental and physical health and safety is considered important. All of them, however, talked with a coach or a member of the USA Gymnastics staff within earshot.

It’s a lot for group of teenagers and 20-somethings to carry around. Yet it doesn’t appear overwhelming. When Grace McCallum inadvertently sailed off the uneven bars during training on Tuesday morning, her group broke out into laughter — McCallum included — as the three-time world championship medalist picked herself up off the mat.

Yet it was just one moment during one practice that happened to be conducted in front of reporters, photographers and video crews. Whether any of this new approach actually sticks will depend on what happens when the cameras aren’t around.

Much like the sport itself, the process will take dedication, discipline and the ability to address mistakes honestly. Two-time Olympic medalist Laurie Hernandez, however, is hopeful it can be done. She went nearly 3 1/2 years between national team camps after winning gold and silver in Rio. The difference between then and now is jarring. In the best way.

“Now we can truly enjoy each other’s company while just relaxing and enjoying our gymnastics,” Hernandez said. “That says a lot about the environment that’s being created for us. … it’s going to take a second. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not like we’re going to forget what happened before. But it’s getting there.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Investigators at home of Olympic gymnastics coach tied to Larry Nassar