A look at the top storylines, athletes to watch and important dates on the road to Tokyo, six months from the Opening Ceremony on July 24 …
Who will be the Face of the TokyoOlympics? Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt retired since Rio, creating an opening for new alpha athletes at the Games. Successors emerged at recent world championships.
Simone Biles is a familiar name, having earned four gold medals in Rio. After a one-year break, she returned even more dominant than before. She could earn five golds in Tokyo, and perhaps medals in all six events.
In swimming, Caeleb Dressel could try for seven gold medals and Simone Manuel and Katie Ledecky for six each. They won’t approach the Phelpsian feat of eight golds, but the addition of a mixed-gender relay and the women’s 1500m freestyle will make the U.S.’ best even busier than in Rio.
Bolt’s world records don’t look under threat, but the U.S. is set to retake the throne of men’s sprinting. Christian Coleman is the reigning world 100m champion, Noah Lyles the reigning world 200m champion and Michael Norman the world’s fastest 400m sprinter last year. Coleman and Lyles are each expected to attempt the Bolt triple of the 100m, 200m and 4x100m.
Final Olympics for legends
Biles has said she’s 99 percent sure the Tokyo Olympics will be her final competition at age 23. She’s not the only megastar bidding for a farewell this summer.
No more evident than in tennis. Come 2024, Venus Williams will be 44; Roger Federer and Serena Williams 42 and Rafael Nadal 38. It’s possible if not likely that they all retire at some point in the next Olympic cycle. Federer, Serena and Nadal are all but assured to qualify for Tokyo. Venus might need a doubles invitation.
Tiger Woods, if he was from any other nation, would be a near-lock to qualify. But he’s currently outside the cutoff for the U.S., by far the deepest golf nation. Woods must be ranked among the top four Americans after the U.S. Open to make it to Tokyo at age 44.
LeBron James, 35, has not publicly committed to playing, but he has massive respect for new U.S. coach Gregg Popovich. And everyone within USA Basketball has to be motivated after a seventh-place finish at last year’s FIBA World Cup without the NBA’s best stars. Two of the greatest female players in history, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, are back for their fifth Olympics.
Allyson Felix eyes her fifth and likely last Olympics, too, and her first as a mom. She owns six gold medals so far. Two more would tie swimmer Jenny Thompson‘s record for an American woman. But can she qualify for the U.S. individually by placing top three at the trials in June? She was sixth in the 400m in her comeback meet at nationals last year, eight months after childbirth.
Another mom, Kerri Walsh Jennings, is making her sixth and final Olympic push. This time with another new partner, Brooke Sweat. They’re in position to make it as the second and final U.S. team, though they’re not assured with five months left in qualifying. Walsh Jennings, 41, is older than any previous Olympic beach volleyball player.
Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe will lead the U.S. women’s soccer team in qualifying later this month. Even FIFA World Cup star Kylian Mbappe expressed interest in playing in the men’s tournament, which is mostly comprised of players 23 and under. But he may be back in four years when Paris hosts as an over-age exception.
What’s new for 2020? Five sports were added to the Olympic program for Tokyo — karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing for the first time — and the return of baseball and softball for the first time since 2008.
The U.S. has reigning world champions in skateboarding and surfing, the latter with a team so deep that the world’s third-best woman didn’t qualify. Neither did 47-year-old Kelly Slater, ranked eighth in the world. The U.S. softball team had no problem qualifying as world champion, but baseball will come down to qualifiers in two months.
What about Russia? Russia’s doping issues haven’t gone away since PyeongChang, when sanctions included having their team name changed to “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” Though December headlines labeled Russia as being banned from the Olympics for four years, in reality it might not be much different than in South Korea in 2018. Its athletes are still in line compete, even if they must be cleared by anti-doping authorities. But perhaps without the Russian flag or anthem (as it was in PyeongChang). Perhaps the word “Russia” will be removed entirely from the Games, but nothing goes into effect until after an appeals process plays out.
Who qualifies for Team USA? That’s the primary question from now until Olympic competition starts July 22. So far, these 31 athletes are on Team USA. By July, it will be more than 500. Key events this spring:
April 4-5: Wrestling trials
June 14-21: Diving trials
June 19-28: Track and field trials
June 21-28: Swimming trials
June 25-28: Gymnastics trials
Heather Bergsma, a world champion and Olympic medalist speed skater, decided to retire during what has been a two-year break from the sport, according to U.S. Speedskating.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Bergsma said, according to TeamUSA.org. “I’m completely satisfied with how everything went.”
Bergsma, 30, now lives in the Netherlands with her husband, Jorrit, a Dutch Olympic champion speed skater, and son, Brent, who was born in October 2018.
Bergsma converted from inline skating to make the last three Olympic teams. She was the U.S.’ best skater in the 2014 and 2018 Olympic cycles and finished her career with a team pursuit bronze medal in PyeongChang, the first podium finish for U.S. women’s speed skating since the 2002 Olympics.
When Bergsma announced a two-year break from the sport in April 2018, she said she would “see if I have that drive again.”
Bergsma retires as the only U.S. speed skater to earn world titles in three different individual events — the 500m, 1000m and 1500m, between 2015 and 2017 — since the world single distance championships debuted in 1996.
Her best individual Olympic finish was sixth in her first Olympic race — the 500m at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
She also broke the 1000m and 1500m world records on consecutive Saturdays in November 2015. Other skaters since lowered those records.
Last month, when Evan Lysacek was speaking to students in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in his role as a sports envoy for the U.S. Department of State, the presentation included a showing of his figure skating short program and free skate from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Lysacek rarely skates these days. He last did something that could be called a public performance when Ice Theatre of New York honored him in October 2016. With an ankle ligament still sore from a misstep injury that threatened to have him in a cast for his wedding last Dec. 14, he shuffled briefly around the ice while working with skaters in Malaysia.
That detachment from the sport has made it difficult for him to believe what he was seeing in the video of the greatest performances of his career.
“It’s surreal to watch,” Lysacek said. “When I think of what it took to get there, I think, ‘How did I ever do that?’”
Lysacek, 34, was speaking by phone from Bangkok, Thailand, where he will be living about half the year while he and wife of three months, Duangpatra “Dang” Bodiratnangkura, work together on a real estate development project outside Bangkok. Most of the other half will be spent in Los Angeles, where they are about to start another real estate project.
The physical distance from his landmark achievement as an athlete and from all the rinks in the United States where he trained on that journey seems to add to Lysacek’s disconnect from images of his winning the men’s figure skating gold medal on this date 10 years ago at the Pacific Coliseum on the east side of Vancouver.
When his mind travels back to Feb. 18, 2010 in Vancouver, it conjures up the joy of a success both shared and personal, evokes pride both individual and national, recalls long days of lonely practices in frigid, nondescript rinks and refocuses on the disappointments and failures that preceded his seven minutes, 20 seconds of glory with the world watching. His most vivid memories are of the things that came to him during the awards ceremony, with the rising flag and the sound of the National Anthem as a music video in the background.
“To have my whole crazy life justified by winning the gold medal is still an incredible feeling that is hard to put into words,” he said.
It is the only Olympic singles gold for a U.S. man since Brian Boitano in 1988. It was a once-in-a-lifetime gold for not only the skater but also for his renowned coach, Frank Carroll, who had resigned himself to having his six-decade coaching career end without one of his many celebrated skaters winning one. Lysacek trained under Carroll for 12 years.
“I remember every time someone would mention the Olympics around Frank, they would say, ‘Do you think you are going to get it? Will you retire it you get it?’” Lysacek said. “The first thing that went through my mind when I realized I had won was, ‘Frank got it.’”
When Carroll finally did retire, not long after his 80th birthday in July 2018, he said Lysacek’s gold medal was “was basically a complete, utter, delightful shock.”
But no one ever had been better prepared mentally, physically and strategically to pull it off than Lysacek, even if it took him longer than many recent Olympic champions to have all the pieces fit into place.
He would finish 12th, 12th, 7th and 5th at his first four U.S. Championships as a senior. Once Lysacek made the podium for the first time at nationals with a bronze medal in 2005, he would finish off the podium just twice in his final 25 competitions – a fourth at the 2006 Olympics, when he let a medal slip away with uncharacteristic short program mistakes, and a fifth at the 2007 worlds.
Lysacek won medals at his last 15 competitions. His three world medals are the most by any U.S. man since Todd Eldredge won a sixth in 2001. He was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2016.
“What I liked most about skating was competing,” Lysacek said. “I’m not ashamed to say I liked to win and hated to lose.”
That is why his performance at the 2009 U.S. Championships was galling, unnerving and a catalyst for what followed.
After winning the two previous U.S. titles, Lysacek staggered into third overall in 2009 with a fourth in the free skate. Judges gave him a myriad of reasons for his poor scores. At a loss to sort through the criticisms, he called Tatiana Tarasova, the Russian coaching legend who had choreographed his 2009 problems.
“At the time, all I could think was, “It’s only a year from the Olympics, and I’m not ready. What do I do?’” Lysacek recalled.
Tarasova’s advice? Don’t worry about what anyone on the outside is saying but seek some answers from Lori Nichol, who had choreographed his programs the year before and would do so again in the Olympic season.
“It was very big of Lori to welcome me back with open arms,” Lysacek said. “We spent two weeks together, with her reminding me of basic things – be faster, hold your landings longer, strengthen your positions. It was what I needed to hear. That was a real turning point.”
Two months after his disappointment over nationals, Lysacek won the world title, becoming the first U.S. man to do that in the 13 years since Eldredge’s 1996 triumph.
But one week before the 2009 worlds, the reigning Olympic champion, Yevgeny Plushenko of Russia, announced he had resumed training with his longtime coach, Alexei Mishin, with the intention of ending his three-year break from competition in the 2010 Olympic season.
Plushenko and Lysacek would have the leading roles in what became part drama, part soap opera, and part hissing match in Vancouver. The key element in the plot was a quadruple jump.
The redoubtable Plushenko, 27 years old at the 2010 Olympics, returned to competition at the 2009 Grand Prix of Russia and followed that with impressive victories at the Russian and European Championships. Lysacek, then 24, was a distant second (third in the free skate) to a flawless Jeremy Abbott at the 2010 U.S. Championships.
The Russians sensed that Lysacek, as 2009 world champion, was more of a threat to Plushenko at the Olympics than Abbott, who had finished 11th at both the 2008 and 2009 worlds. So Mishin and Plushenko began a lobbying campaign in the press, deriding men like Lysacek who did not do a quadruple jump.
Retorted Carroll: “He (Plushenko) is doing a 6.0 (old judging system) program. He is not getting the bullet points and difficulty of the new system. I am not impressed.”
That controversy took on another dimension when the French sports newspaper, L’Equipe, revealed that longtime international judge Joe Inman of the United States had emailed some other judges questioning what Inman felt were overly generous scores for Plushenko at Europeans in the “transitions / linking footwork” component score category. Even though Inman was not judging in Vancouver, his email looked like backroom lobbying in a sport famous for that.
Neither Lysacek nor Carroll let the quad brouhaha affect their plans for the jump content in Lysacek’s Olympic programs. There would be no quad. Lysacek landed a quad toe loop at the 2007 nationals but struggled with the jump repeatedly after that, eschewing it altogether in winning worlds.
“In 20 years of competing, I don’t think I ever competed in a field where I would say I was the best skater, but I never doubted I could win,” Lysacek said. “To me, sport was about strategy, and I would think I could use it as a way to beat everybody.
“At the time, the quad was high risk for me, and it wasn’t a risk I felt was worthwhile. I believed I could accumulate enough points elsewhere.
“Of course, that was a gamble. I could have made mistakes on other things, and then the whole plan would be completely foiled.”
In the short program, neither Lysacek, whose toughest jump was a triple Axel, nor Plushenko, who landed a quad toe-triple toe combination, made a mistake. Plushenko (90.85 points) won it by just .55 because Lysacek had a 2.25 margin in component scores, more than half of that difference from the transitions / linking footwork category, where two judges gave the Russian only 5.0.
That would make the results of the free skate two days later seem especially ironic and satisfying to Lysacek.
Skating to excerpts from Russian composer Rimsky–Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” Lysacek was first to perform in the final group of six. He made minor errors on two jump landings but did a seamless interpretation of the music, with three exceptionally strong spins.
When he finished, Lysacek did five double fist pumps above his head, celebrating having skated to his full capacity, no matter the outcome.
Then he had to wait, as Plushenko was the event’s last skater. Lysacek finished nearly 50 minutes before the Russian’s scores were announced.
“The time went really quickly,” Lysacek remembered. “I did the mixed zone (interviews) during the first couple skaters after me. Then I sat (backstage) and watched Yevgeny skate.”
He saw a Plushenko who did another quad-triple in a typically Russian men’s program – all the hard stuff at the beginning, missing out on second-half bonus points. Lysacek did five of his eight jumping passes in the bonus period, Plushenko just three of his eight. Plushenko, skating to “Tango of Love” by Edvin Marton, filled time with posing, hip swivels and pelvic gyrations.
Plushenko gave away 1.26 points in technical scores to Lysacek on spins and .9 on footwork – but less (.7) than in the short for PCS transitions / footwork. Lysacek won the free skate by 1.86 and the gold by 1.31 – 257.67 to 256.36, the smallest margin between men’s gold and silver in the four Olympics scored and judged with the new system.
The way it broke down would be especially rewarding to Lysacek. He lost just .3 to Plushenko on free skate jumps. His winning margin had come from the technical scores in the free skate; the component scores were tied.
“It justified my strategy,” Lysacek said. “I extracted as many points as I could from the technical side of that program.”
When the results appeared on the monitor Lysacek was watching, his reaction developed in stages. First came a smile. Then a broad laugh. Then he briefly jumped up and down with Nichol and hugged Carroll while registering disbelief by saying, “No way.” Then the Chinese pairs gold medalists, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, whose programs Nichol also had choreographed, gave Lysacek a hug.
Plushenko’s reaction would not be gracious. “If the Olympic champion doesn’t know how to jump quad, it’s not men’s figure skating; it’s dancing,” he said.
Lysacek took the high road in his national TV appearances a day later, relentlessly praising Plushenko for having the guts to make his comeback and for the quality of his skating. But Lysacek had admitted to me a couple hours after the free he was saddened by Plushenko’s reaction, and he expanded on that late the next afternoon.
“I guess I was a little disappointed that someone that was my role model would take a hit at me in probably one of the most special moments of my life, that I will never forget, regardless of what anyone says,” Lysacek told me at that time.
In the years since, Lysacek has seen Plushenko only a few times.
“He was always very civil,” Lysacek said, “but we never really talked about anything. There was no reason to reignite an old argument.”
Plushenko would go on to compete at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. He won gold in the new team event, giving him medals in all four Olympics in which he competed, but he withdrew from the singles event with a back injury just before the short program.
Lysacek never competed again.
“My life changed right away,” he said. “My focus for 20 years before the 2010 Olympics was very singular and linear. You had good days or bad days, you performed well or performed poorly, very black or white. After winning, my life got a lot more gray.”
Lysacek went on Dancing with the Stars in the spring following the Olympics, finishing second. He toured with Stars on Ice in 2010 and 2011. He was named a sports envoy in 2012. His intention was to seek a spot on the 2014 Olympic team, but persistent injuries forced him to abandon that goal in December 2013.
Lysacek went to Sochi for one of his sponsors, did some work for the Today show and learned quickly he was, by his own admission, “not good at TV.”
“After that, I dove right into a whole other life,” Lysacek said.
He moved from Los Angeles to New York to work for a real estate development company but left that job in 2015 for a final go-around with Stars on Ice. When that tour ended, he joined the Vera Wang Group, spending four years doing licensing and marketing for the famous designer, a former figure skater who has created competition costumes for many of the sport’s biggest names over the past quarter-century.
Late in 2018, Lysacek renewed acquaintances with a woman he had met seven years earlier, a woman whom a couple of Lysacek’s friends in Los Angeles had predicted would be his wife when the friends had first met her at an early 2011 dinner in Bangkok.
Their relationship remained largely dormant as each pursued busy careers: he in New York, she as a real estate developer in Los Angeles, Bangkok and London.
“The timing never was right,” Lysacek said.
That changed when 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Denis Ten of Kazakhstan was murdered in July 2018 in his hometown of Almaty, Kazakhstan. Lysacek and Ten had trained together under Carroll.
Ten’s death left Lysacek so at sea he began wondering whom he would regret not telling how much he cared about them. He realized Dang was one of those people and flew to Los Angeles to say that in person.
After he went back New York, she texted him to ask if he thought the relationship would work if they were together. Lysacek replied that he had thought about that all the time. She came to New York for much of the next year. They were engaged in April 2019 and married seven months later with lavish festivities in Bangkok.
Lysacek has been out of the United States since last June. When he and his wife return in late February to their house in Beverly Hills, he hopes to find time to skate more regularly.
He spent the 10th anniversary of his Olympic triumph at a considerable geographic remove from where it happened, doing a sports envoy appearance at the Naniwa Ice Rink in Osaka, Japan. He worked with skaters and talked to a general audience of students, emphasizing how to set goals.
Tuesday’s presentation happened to be called, “Go for Gold!” Yet he and his sport have moved on.
“For a while after winning the gold medal, everyone recognized me, and that was fun,” Lysacek said. “Then my life went back to what it always was.
“I wouldn’t expect anyone 10 years later to remember what I did, especially because it’s such a young athletes’ sport. If anyone did, I hope they would say I represented the sport and the country well.”
In Osaka, as in the other places where Lysacek represents the State Department, they will undoubtedly show some video of his 2010 triumph.
It will make him realize again how such a personal moment can have such far-reaching resonance because of the Olympics’ global impact and because of the common language of sport. It will make him marvel again at how he did it and at how the kid who grew up in a largely homogenous Chicago suburb has become a man of, and for, the world at large.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.