21 U.S. athletes to watch at the Tokyo Olympics


21 U.S. medal contenders to watch on the road to the Tokyo Olympics, which open in six months on July 23 …

Perry Baker

World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018, beating out players from powers Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa. Baker reverted to rugby after a brief football career, failing a physical with the Philadelphia Eagles but playing two years in the Arena League as a wide receiver.

Simone Biles

Biles, whose last all-around defeat came in 2013, can become the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic all-around titles since 1968. She can also become the first U.S. woman in any sport to win five golds at a single Games.

David Boudia

Four-time medalist on the platform. Switched to springboard after suffering a concussion on a failed 2018 dive off the platform, his head and stomach hitting the water first from nearly 33 feet in the air. One more medal would match Greg Louganis for the most in U.S. diving history.

Caeleb Dressel

Won two relay golds in Rio. Since blossomed into a gold-medal threat in seven events when including relays, after taking seven golds at the 2017 World Championships and eight medals at the 2019 Worlds. Only Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz won more than six golds at one Olympics.

Chloé Dygert

A gold-medal contender on the road and the track. Must now come back from crashing over a guard rail at last September’s world championships and suffering a not-for-the-faint-hearted leg laceration.

Brady Ellison

Owns three Olympic medals but still seeking gold. In 2019, became the first American to win an individual world title in 34 years, re-ascending to the world No. 1 ranking. The last time an American won Olympic archery gold was 1996.

Adeline Gray

A five-time world champion dating to 2012, but so far only associates the Olympics with heartbreak. Failed to qualify for 2012. Upset in the quarterfinals in Rio. All three of the active U.S. wrestlers with Olympic gold medals face major obstacles to make the Tokyo team, but Gray owns her division domestically and internationally.

Nevin Harrison

Eighteen-year-old phenom in canoe, which debuts as an Olympic women’s discipline in Tokyo. In 2019, Harrison became the first American woman to win a world title in a sprint canoe or sprint kayak event, doing so in the 200m, three years after becoming a serious canoeist after hip dysplasia forced her to stop sprinting on the track.

ON HER TURF: U.S. women who can extend medal streak in Tokyo

Nyjah Huston

The world’s most famous skateboard competitor over the last decade. Goes into his sport’s Olympic debut year as three-time reigning world champion in street, one of two disciplines added to the Games.

Katie Ledecky

Followed one gold at age 15 in 2012 with four more in 2016. Ledecky could win five events in Tokyo with the addition of the women’s 1500m freestyle to the Olympic program, but she was slowed by illness at the last world championships in 2019.

Noah Lyles
Track and Field

Has the ability to match the retired Usain Bolt‘s feat of sweeping the Olympic 100m, 200m and 4x100m titles, and a similarly electric personality. Lyles is the reigning world 200m champion and became the Olympic 100m favorite following Christian Coleman‘s suspension.

Simone Manuel

After two historic golds in Rio, Manuel won five golds at the 2017 Worlds and a female record seven medals at the 2019 Worlds, cementing her reputation as a championship-meet performer. Manuel has a chance at six medals, and they could all be gold. The only U.S. woman to win six medals at one Olympics was Natalie Coughlin.

Carissa Moore

Four-time world champion in the new Olympic sport. Moore attended the Punahou School in Honolulu (most famous alum: Barack Obama), where she was such a convincing tour guide for prospective students that admissions officers reportedly called her “The Closer.”

Dalilah Muhammad
Track and Field

In 2013, unsponsored, reportedly raced in shorts and a tank top bought on clearance at Ross Dress for Less. Now is the reigning Olympic and world 400m hurdles champion and twice lowered the world record in 2019. Muhammad is the top U.S. female sprinter at the moment, though another American, 21-year-old Sydney McLaughlin, is the second-fastest in history.

ON HER TURF: Young U.S. female athletes who can make history in Tokyo

Megan Rapinoe

Swept the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at the 2019 World Cup. Rapinoe, at 35, is among veteran U.S. national teamers trying to hold off the next generation for spots on the 18-player Olympic roster, and to rebound from a quarterfinal exit in Rio.

April Ross/Alix Klineman
Beach Volleyball

Ross, a silver and bronze medalist at the last two Olympics with two different partners, took a chance on the unproven Klineman after splitting with legend Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2017. The A-Team is now ranked No. 2 in the world, while Walsh Jennings and new partner Brooke Sweat battle for the second and final U.S. Olympic berth.

Maggie Steffens
Water Polo

The U.S. women’s water polo team won gold medals at the Olympics in 2012 and 2016 and world championships in 2015, 2017 and 2019. Steffens, a two-time FINA Player of the Year, was a pillar on all of those teams and, among those titles, graduated from Stanford.

Christian Taylor
Track and Field

Won six of the seven Olympic and world triple jump titles in the 2010s, and switched takeoff legs in the middle of that stretch. Taylor has come within a cigarette’s length of the world record in an event where the world’s best marks get near 60 feet.

Serena Williams

Much is made of her pursuit of Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, but in Tokyo, she can break her tie with older sister Venus Williams for the most Olympic tennis titles (currently four).

A’ja Wilson

Too young for the Olympic radar in 2016, when she was a rising junior at South Carolina, guided by the now U.S. national team head coach Dawn Staley. Since, she’s been named the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player (2017), WNBA Rookie of the Year (2018) and WNBA MVP (2020) and honored with a statue on campus in Columbia.

ON HER TURF: Tokyo Olympics storylines in women’s sports

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World figure skating championships the latest chapter of Deanna Stellato-Dudek’s comeback


There are so many improbabilities in the story of how Canadian pair team Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps got to this week’s world figure skating championships that the whole thing reads like a flight of fancy.

You start with a talented junior singles skater from suburban Chicago named Deanna Stellato, whose skates had sat in a closet at her mother’s home for 16 years after injuries pushed her from the sport.

You bring her back to the skating world in 2016 as a married woman of 33 with a different name, Deanna Stellato-Dudek, and in a different event, pairs, making the switch on the recommendation of U.S. Figure Skating high performance director Mitch Moyer.

You have Moyer able to make that suggestion because he coincidentally was visiting a Florida rink the day Stellato-Dudek went there to sound out her old singles coach, Cindy Caprel, about the idea of a comeback.

You end her 12-year career as an aesthetician in a plastic surgery practice and have her go back to the ice, keeping her apart for long stretches from her husband of nine years, Michael Dudek, a Chicago-based turnover management specialist.

You have her begin a pairs’ career in summer 2016 as the partner of a 2014 Olympian, Nathan Bartholomay, with whom she would win bronze medals at the 2018 and 2019 U.S. Championships before the partnership ended when a bum knee made Bartholomay’s competitive future uncertain.

“I was still gung-ho on continuing until 2022,” Stellato-Dudek said.


You hear her talk of having messaged everyone she ever had met in skating to see if they knew of a possible new partner and have one reply, from 2018 Olympic pairs’ bronze medalist Meagan Duhamel and her husband, Bruno Marcotte, a pairs’ coach, tell Stellato-Dudek they had the perfect guy for her.

You have it be a guy she had never heard of, Maxime Deschamps, a French-Canadian from suburban Montreal who had skated with eight previous partners, finished no higher than fifth at the senior level at the Canadian Championships with any of them and thought of ending his competitive career many times.

“Yes, it’s kind of an unusual pairing,” said their coach, Josée Picard.

You have their tryout in June 2019 be the skating version of love at first sight, leading Stellato-Dudek to cancel scheduled sessions with other potential partners.

You have their getting-to-know-you workouts in Montreal stopped cold by the Covid pandemic, forcing them to train outside whenever there was ice for much of a year.

“We made the best of what we could do,” Deschamps said. “It was a really hard time. We questioned ourselves a lot. The goals we were setting up as markers keep us going and able to pass through those hard times.”

You have them begin this season after the first extensive offseason training of their partnership and watch them win a silver medal at Skate America that makes Stellato-Dudek, 39, the oldest medalist in the 25-season history of the Grand Prix Series.

You have them win their second Grand Prix event before Stellato-Dudek comes down with a respiratory virus (RSV, not Covid) that has her coughing, feverish and listless and eventually paralyzes her left vocal cord, inhibiting her swallowing, breathing and speech to the point she needs ongoing work with a speech pathologist to relearn how to talk.

“It was a big setback,” Picard said of the lingering sickness. “It was three months, and we had to adjust a lot of things and diminish the amount of training and do everything very, very carefully.”

You have doctors tell her there is no risk in continuing to train and compete (other than the risks that come with pairs’ skating, in which the woman is flung across the rink and carried some seven feet above a hard and slippery surface), but it isn’t easy training while constantly out of breath and having difficulty swallowing water. That Stellato-Dudek would keep at it impressed her coach.

“Just to come back at 30-some years old and do a totally different discipline in the first place shows that somebody has a lot of ambitions and a lot of goals and a lot of guts,” Picard said. “This just amplifies it, you know, to show that she’s not giving up, and she has all the willpower, and she wants to succeed.”

You have her fight through the Canadian national championships out of her desire to give Deschamps, 31, a shot at his first national title – and have them win.

“I really had a strong will,” Stellato-Dudek said. “I thought to myself, ‘If this was the Olympic Games, I would be skating.’

“Max really stepped up in our partnership during that time. Often, it’s not both partners who are able to give 100 percent. For those three months, I was able to give 80 percent, and Max was making up for that 20 percent and still giving his 100 percent, so he was giving 120.”

You have her healthy as they go to the world championships beginning Wednesday in Saitama, Japan, with a decent chance for Stellato-Dudek, now 39, to win her second world medal, the other a silver from the world junior championships 23 years ago.

And, finally, you have them looking toward the 2026 Olympics where she could, at the age of 42 years and 229 days, be the oldest woman to compete in Olympic figure skating since 1928 and the third oldest in history, according to Olympedia.org. (That’s assuming Stellato-Dudek gets Canadian citizenship in time for a chance at the team; it is required for her to represent Canada at the Olympics, but not at other international competitions after U.S. Figure Skating granted her a release.)

“I think I’ve lasted a lot longer than anybody thought I could — even now,” Stellato-Dudek said.

How prophetic it seems that her mother, Ann, told me in an interview for a 2000 Chicago Tribune story, “Deanna is a worker, not a child prodigy.”

Among all the unlikely parts of this tale, Stellato-Dudek’s age has attracted the most attention. The subject has become amusing to her, so much so that when Canadian figure skating press officer Karine Bedard tells Stellato-Dudek about an interview request, she will answer lightheartedly, “What do they want to interview me about? Skating while old?”

The truth is Stellato-Dudek has come to embrace such questions after a family member told her, “I think what you are doing is bigger than you.”

Stellato-Dudek began to gain that perspective in reading the hundreds of messages she said she has received from people who say they have been encouraged by her comeback to return to something they also loved.

“They will say, ‘I’ve always wanted to go back, but I’ve been too busy or too afraid to kind of step foot back in the rink, but I know that you started from somewhere so I can start from somewhere, too,’” Stellato-Dudek said. “And I thought maybe what I’m doing has a bigger meaning than even just what I’m doing for myself. It takes myself out of it a little bit and brings it back to something even bigger than just my personal goals.”

A similar desire to keep doing something he loved – and the dream of getting to the Olympics – is what led Deschamps to continue skating when progress was elusive and push came to shove, forcing him to interrupt his studies for a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology after two years because he couldn’t afford both the sport and school.

When asked to give more than 100 percent this season, which is impossible physically, he found the extra contribution by remaining upbeat as his partner struggled to train.

“It was mostly the mental part, (giving extra) to keep it positive because it was way harder (without) the physical capacity for the things,” Deschamps said. “And that’s how we were able to keep going.”

The interruptions caused by the pandemic mean that their four years together have included just two full competitive seasons. That has dramatically reduced the time each has had to learn the nuances of a new partner – and for Stellato-Dudek to master different techniques she has learned in Canada, like her hand placement on throws, in which she used to place both hands on her right shoulder but now has her left arm wrapped around the front of her body and the right arm around the back.

“There was a lot I had to do control-alt-delete and restart for,” she said.

“(Our skating) has just been evolving and evolving,” Deschamps said. “And we’re just trying to push our limits every single time, trying new elements, trying to even improve the sport by doing new stuff.”

One such element is the forward outside death spiral, hardest of the four types of death spirals (with the highest base value.) According to skatingscores.com, only 11 pair teams have done it internationally over the 19 seasons of the current judging system, including two Olympic champions: Chinese pairs Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo and Sui Wenjing and Han Cong. Only one other team, Alisa Efimova and Ruben Blommaert of Germany, has done it internationally this season.

In the absence of the long-dominant Russian pairs, barred from international competition since their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine 13 months ago, Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps have the fourth-best score this season of the 23 teams in the world championships field.

From last season to now, their personal bests in the short program, free skate and total have improved by 28 percent, 12 percent, and 16 percent, respectively. They have won medals at four of their five international events this season, finishing fourth at the Grand Prix Final, when Stellato-Dudek began to feel the effects of the virus.

“We always believed that (the success) was a possibility, but this season has surprised both of us,” she said. “When it began, we were getting a lot of positive feedback from everyone who had seen us, but you know, you don’t really believe that until you go to an event, and you get a new high score you’ve never received before.”

The high international scores and medals would send them to the Canadian Championships in the unexpected and potentially discomfiting position of being heavy favorites. They overcame the psychological and physical burdens to win the national title, a crowning achievement for many elite skaters.

“That was a brand-new place for us to be,” Stellato-Dudek said. “We’ve never been chased. We’ve always been chasing.

“We’re gaining a lot of very valuable experience. Because it’s a very new place to be mentally.”

It’s the place she always wanted to be. And there, truth be told, you have the plot of a neverending story that is no longer a fantasy.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Kanak Jha, U.S.’ top table tennis player, banned for missed drug tests

Kanak Jha

Kanak Jha, the U.S.’ highest-ranked singles table tennis player, was given a backdated one-year ban for missing drug tests.

Jha, No. 23 in the world, was banned for missing three drug tests last year: March 18, June 2 and Sept. 4.

Athletes in Olympic sports face bans if they miss three drug tests in a 12-month span.

Jha, a two-time Olympian who has never tested positive for a banned substance, was given a reduced ban of one year, backdated to last Dec. 1, the date his provisional suspension was imposed.

First-time bans for missed drug tests can be as long as two years, but Jha was deemed by an arbitrator to have a light amount of fault and wasn’t trying to evade testing.

Jha disputed his third missed test, hoping it would be thrown out to avoid a ban.

During his one-hour testing window on Sept. 4, he was not present at the German address he listed on his doping-control forms, though he was at a nearby address.

The drug tester attempted to call Jha before his one-hour testing window was up, but the call did not go through as the tester did not dial the “+1” country code for a U.S. phone. Jha did not include the country code on his contact information and testified that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency never informed that he had to list a country code.

However, drug testers are not required to call athletes who do not answer their doors for random, out-of-competition tests.

Jha, who in 2016 became the first American born in the 2000s to qualify for an Olympics, lost his opening match in singles at the Rio and Tokyo Games.

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