Isabella Isaksen

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U.S. wraps Pan Am Games with 293 medals, 18 Olympic quota spots

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The Pan American Games, bringing together athletes from North America, South America and the Caribbean, are an interesting grab bag of events: Olympic sports bringing in the top-ranked athletes in the hemisphere, Olympic sports that are much lower on the priority list for world-class competitors, and non-Olympic sports such as racquetball, water skiing and basque pelota.

The program fluctuates a bit, and this year’s competition in Lima, Peru, featured a staggering 419 events, up from the 364 events contested in Toronto four years ago and far more than the 339 events on the Tokyo 2020 schedule.

One thing that doesn’t change in the Pan Am Games is the U.S. dominance in the medal count. The final tally this year: 120 gold medals, 88 silver and 85 bronze. The next-best country, Brazil, earned 55 gold medals, 45 silver and 71 bronze for a total of 171, lagging far behind the U.S. total of 293. Canada (152 total) and Mexico (136) took the next two spots on the medal table.

For some sports, the competition was vitally important. Modern pentathletes Samantha Achterberg and Amro Elgeziry earned spots on the 2020 Olympic team with their performances. Elgeziry took a silver medal in the 2014 world championships while competing for Egypt, then moved to the United States after marrying U.S. pentathlete Isabella Isaksen. Elgeziry and Isaksen also combined for gold in the mixed relay.

READ: Elgeziry, three-time Egyptian Olympian, qualifies for 2020 U.S. team

Some events offered Olympic quota spots, ensuring a place for at least one U.S. athlete in the event in 2020. U.S. shooters nailed down seven spots. Other U.S. athletes earned spots in archery, equestrian, sailing, shooting and water polo.

In other sports, with less at stake, the U.S. didn’t send its top athletes. One exception: Swimmer Nathan Adrian followed up his world championship relay medals with six medals in Lima, matching the total of fellow world championship medalist Margo Geer.

Most top gymnasts were competing in the U.S. Championships, and yet the U.S. women took the team gold medal and Riley McCusker finished with four medals.

The U.S. sent substantially weakened teams in several sports and posted several results that would be shockers in the Olympics. The men’s and women’s volleyball teams failed to medal. In men’s basketball, a U.S. team composed entirely of current and recent Big East players fell to Argentina by a stunning score of 114-75 in the semifinals, then rebounded to take bronze. The U.S. women, virtually unbeatable with WNBA players in the World Cup and Olympics, lost to Brazil in the final.

On the other hand, the U.S. swept the gold medals in the new Olympic sport of 3×3 basketball and took medals in several sports in which teams would rarely be competitive in the Olympics such as artistic swimming (formerly known as synchronized swimming) and men’s field hockey. The women’s handball team narrowly missed the podium, losing 24-23 to Cuba in the bronze medal game.

U.S. bowlers Jakob Butturff and Nick Pate took the doubles bowling gold in unusual circumstances after Puerto Rico’s Jean Perez Faure tested positive for a masking agent. Butturff has won seven PBA events.

The Parapan American Games, for athletes with disabilities, start Aug. 23.

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U.S. modern pentathlon in Rio will be Isaksen sister act

Margaux Isaksen
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Margaux Isaksen says Rio may be her final Olympics, but she hopes it’s the first of many for Isabella Isaksen.

The U.S. women’s modern pentathlon team of two is a sister act. Margaux, 24, goes to her third Games (she debuted at age 16 in Beijing). Isabella, 22, made her first Olympics, but she had to wait three weeks after the final qualifying event in May before it became official this month.

Margaux’s voice cracked in a phone interview when asked which Isaksen Olympic berth meant more.

“I’m definitely happier for her,” she said.

And Margaux desperately wanted one more Olympic shot, after finishing fourth at the 2012 London Games.

The difference between her and bronze medalist Yane Marques of Brazil was eight points — 5,340 to 5,332 after 10 hours of competition across fencing, swimming, show jumping, running and shooting.

She would have retired after the London Games if she made the podium. Margaux missed a medal by one touch in fencing, one rail in horse riding or less than two seconds in the combined running and shooting event.

“It’s actually, obviously, something I’ve thought about quite a lot,” she said. “Especially the year after the Olympics, but even to this day.”

She felt she owed it to her coaches and support circle to try for Rio (though she refused to use the #RoadtoRio hashtag until she officially qualified). Regardless of what happens in Rio, Margaux plans to take at least the next two years to focus on other ventures. Philanthropy on a local level in her native Arkansas, notably.

“Retirement’s on the back of my mind,” she said. “I never know if I’m going to want to continue to do this. That was something I’ve always said, when I first started this sport, when I don’t love it anymore, I won’t do it anymore.”

Her body might have a say, too.

Margaux’s performance in London was incredible, not only because it was the best Olympic modern pentathlon finish by an American since 2000, but also because she had been sidelined nearly six months by a severe case of mono. Margaux restarted her training about six weeks before the Games.

This year, she seriously sprained her left ankle in February and has tried to train and compete through it, only to twist and roll it a few more times. Then she found out last week the she suffered a small stress fracture in her leg.

“Hopefully, in three weeks, I’ll be able to run again,” Margaux said last week from Colorado Springs, home to many elite athletes who live at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. “My body, quite frankly, has never been as strong as it was before I got sick [in 2012].”

It showed at the World Championships in May. Margaux failed to qualify for the 36-woman final for the first time in a senior career that began at age 16 in 2008.

“I’ve had probably, no, not probably, I’ve definitely had the worst season of my life,” she said. “I honestly have taken all of the pressure off of myself at this point, because I honestly have no idea what to expect in Rio.”

Little sister Isabella can’t have that great of an idea of what to plan for, either. She attended neither the 2008 Beijing Games (costs) nor the 2012 London Games (stayed home to train for the World Junior Championships).

The sisters were together at the Senior World Championships on May 27, as spectators. They watched the final for which they failed to qualify. By then, Margaux knew she was going to Rio. Isabella wasn’t 100 percent sure, with a few close rivals in rankings also competing.

“Thankfully, I mean this sounds horrible, they kind of messed up, which allowed me to stay high enough on points,” Isabella said.

Isabella started modern pentathlon between the Beijing and London Olympics. One year after Margaux’s mono, she got it, too. It affected her for two years, during which she married Egyptian modern pentathlete Amro El Geziry, and she said she’s just now feeling fully healthy again.

Her struggles are now more mental than physical.

“I had at least one point of every competition [in this Olympic cycle] where I thought, am I good enough?” Isabella said. “I psyched myself out [at Worlds in May]. I stressed myself out too much, thinking like I have to perform every event really well so I can qualify [for the Olympics].”

Now that both Isaksens have qualified, they can enjoy the Games together.

In 2012, Isabella cried as she watched on a computer stream as Margaux finished fourth. After the ducts dried, she went back to training in Colorado. The next month, the sisters shared team event and relay gold medals at the World Junior Championships in Poland; Margaux won individual gold.

Margaux, while unsure of her prospects at her third Olympics, predicted the Rio Games will “be the first of many Olympic Games and many successes” on the senior level for Isabella.

“I just get a little emotional when I think about it,” she said. “I want it even more for her than I want it for myself.”

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Rio Olympics