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

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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.

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Kim Rhode triumphs over theft on road to record-breaking Olympic bid

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Kim Rhode arrived at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, missing a few things.

The six-time Olympic shooting medalist had nearly all her equipment stolen prior to her trip earlier this month after her bag was nabbed from her father’s car.

“I lost everything but my vest and my gun,” Rhode said in Lima (noting with a smile she has seen worse: her gun was stolen a few years ago, though it was later returned). This time, “we’re all frantically trying to piece it back together, somewhat. … At the end of the day, you just have to kinda roll with it.”

It would take more than theft to rattle Rhode, who remains one of her sport’s top athletes 23 years after her first Olympic gold medal at the Atlanta Games.

The continental skeet title she won at Pan Ams (new equipment in tow) built upon a string of strong results since the last Olympics, including a world silver medal in 2018. Earlier this year, she became the first woman to win four straight World Cups in shooting.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Rhode could do something unprecedented: win seven medals in as many consecutive Olympics.

Rhode remembered a lot from her first trip to the Games as a 17-year-old carrying a pager. She described the volume of the crowd chanting “U-S-A” at the Opening Ceremony and the hum of the audience watching her compete, “almost like they were helping us to pull the trigger each and every time.” She recalled the athlete bowling alley, where both the balls and shoes were adorned with an Olympic flame symbol.

After winning gold in double trap, Rhode went back to high school life in El Monte, Calif. She couldn’t have known then that five more Olympics would follow. That one day, she’d have an Olympic medal from every continent in which the Games have been contested. That at 40, she’d still be at the top of her sport.

“I don’t think you ever get over the Olympics,” she said. “I don’t think you ever get used to it. It really takes on a life of its own.”

Rhode has been a constant in a sport that continues to evolve and change, and noted the technological advances that pushed it forward in the last several years: “you are seeing a lot more on the technical side of the stocks, more of these specialized grips,” she said, and “more people going with multiple lenses.”

Her competitors changed, too. Rhode described younger teammates showing her how to take a live photo and set up an Instagram account. “I’m kind of archaic in that sense,” she said with a laugh.

Her competitive spirit remains unchanged. While Tokyo would mark a milestone, Rhode has no plans of slowing down.

“I think I still have a few more in me,” she said, noting she’d like to compete in front of a home crowd again when the Olympics return to Los Angeles in 2028. “I definitely don’t see a need to stop. … Some of the shooters tend to be a lot older than most of the other Olympians because we have no shelf life. That’s the great thing about us.”

Rhode competed at the London Olympics not knowing she was pregnant with son Carter.

What followed was what she described as a difficult pregnancy and recovery. Her bones separated during the pregnancy, and she had her gall bladder removed after the birth.

The complications affected her ability to walk and complete endurance-related activities, which she continues to face. These days, Rhode said she still can’t run a mile, but in preparation for Tokyo, she is working with a physical therapist and nutritionist.

After Pan Ams, Rhode planned to add more strength training. “At the end of the day, I’m slowly but surely making small strides to get back to where I’m at,” she said.

Carter, now 6, speaks three languages and sometimes helps Rhode during practice, pulling for her before she shoots and collecting shells. He was on hand when Rhode earned a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, but he isn’t overly impressed (yet) by his mom’s long list of accomplishments.

“I don’t think he grasps the whole picture of what it is that I’m doing,” she said. “I think that’ll come a little bit later.”

She stores Olympic mementos at her parents’ home, a collection of bags from each Games stuffed with clothing, pins and other paraphernalia, and vacuum-sealed.

“My family is running out of room with all the bags,” she said, noting she isn’t sure when she’ll open them up and go through what’s inside.

Maybe after she collects a few more.

“To have had that opportunity so many times is amazing,” she said of her Olympic career so far. “I feel very, very fortunate.”

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Kim Rhode, with record 7th Olympics in sight, is world’s best shooter since Rio

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As Kim Rhode prepares to turn 40 next year, it looks like she’s peaking as a shooter.

“Probably, yeah,” she said. “That’s one of the great things about being a shooter is you don’t really have a shelf life. You can do this for a long time.”

Rhode, who earned an individual medal in a record-tying sixth straight Olympics in Rio, is two years from likely becoming the second American to compete in seven Olympics after equestrian J. Michael Plumb.

One of the biggest competitions ahead of Tokyo 2020 is the world championships that start this weekend in South Korea. The U.S. roster includes fellow Olympic champions Glenn EllerMatthew Emmons and Vincent Hancock.

Rhode’s event — the skeet — is Sept. 10 and 11.

She is the overwhelming favorite. That might be a surprise if you followed her between the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Rhode endured obstacle after obstacle in the last cycle. Most notably, her own health.

She gave birth to her first child, son Carter, on May 13, 2013, two and a half weeks overdue.

She had her gall bladder removed six weeks later and made three more hospital visits for multiple complications. A doctor instructed her not to lift anything greater than five pounds after the surgery. She couldn’t hold Carter (eight pounds) or her gun (nine) for several weeks.

Rhode’s bones had separated four months into her pregnancy and failed to heal properly after she gave birth, inhibiting her ability to walk. She wasn’t approved to cover more than one block until two months before the Rio Games.

Then consider what Rhode did in Brazil.

She needed a tie-breaking shoot-off just to reach the bronze-medal match to keep her Olympic medal streak alive. The win-or-nothing bronze final was also tied after regulation, requiring another sudden-death shoot-off that went four rounds before Rhode prevailed.

“I always say the bronze is tough, the gold is easy,” Rhode said afterward, fighting tears in interviews while reflecting on the Olympic cycle.

At 37, Rhode was the oldest U.S. shooting medalist since 2004.

But she was determined to go for a record-breaking seventh medal in Tokyo 2020. When Los Angeles was awarded the 2028 Olympics, the California native decided she would compete through what would be a ninth Olympics, one shy of the record for participations. She’s not counting out 2032, either.

“I really don’t have an end in sight,” she said by phone Wednesday, with men in their 70s and 80s shooting at a nearby range. “There’s just no reason to quit.”

Many could have doubted such an aspiration three or four years ago.

Not that it’s preposterous. The oldest Olympic medalist, gold medalist and participant in any sport (outside art competitions) was a shooter — Swede Oscar Swahn, who was a 72-year-old medalist at the 1920 Antwerp Games.

Rhode, familiar with Swahn, has been on the hottest streak of her international career since that Rio bronze.

She won six of her eight World Cup starts.

She set world records for qualifying (122 out of 125 targets) and finals (58 out of 60) since the current format debuted after Rio. Her “ultimate dream” is perfect shooting in a record-eligible competition. Rhode has come close, hitting 99 out of 100 at the London Olympics.

In 2017, Rhode finished fourth at the world championships yet was still named world female shooter of the year (for the first time) across all events via her World Cup dominance. She is currently world-ranked No. 1 in the skeet by the greatest ranking-points margin of any Olympic men’s or women’s event.

“Before the last Olympics, I was very ill and had my challenges,” Rhode said. “I did a lot of work to try and overcome them. All the hard work, I think you’re seeing it pay off. … It’s getting easier for me, as I think you can see by my performance.

“Having a baby changes you. It took a lot out of me. It’s taken a lot to get back. I’m still not there, but I’m getting better.”

For all of Rhode’s Olympic fortunes, she equates the world championships with bad luck. Rhode last earned a world champs medal in 2011. Her only world title was in 2010.

At 1997 Worlds in Lima, a teenage Rhode fell and cracked the back of her head open, requiring five staples. She still competed and placed ninth in the double trap.

In 2001 in Cairo, Rhode was seventh, competing with strep throat and laryngitis. “You couldn’t fit a straw in the back of my throat,” she said.

In 2014, she was seventh in the skeet, competing while her husband was hospitalized with diverticulitis in California. This time, Rhode’s father is undergoing shoulder surgery while she’s in South Korea.

Rhode is feeling so strong with her shooting that she is determined to compete in three events in Tokyo — her trademark skeet, trap and the new mixed-gender team trap event.

Rhode’s only previous trap competition on the top international level was at the 2012 Olympics, where she finished ninth. Rhode, focused on the skeet, only competed in the second event because she happened to have the minimum qualifying score and there was an open U.S. spot.

“I never put the [trap] practice time in that I put in now,” Rhode said. She estimated shooting 10 total rounds of trap leading up to London 2012 contrasted with up to 1,000 rounds of skeet per day. 

Rhode said she recently qualified for the national team in second place in trap. She plans to compete it at the World Cup level after these world championships.

It’s in part to help the U.S. qualify Olympic spots, since the nation is not as deep in trap as it is in skeet. Three different U.S. women won the last three world titles in skeet, and none of them are on the 2018 World Championships team.

“Taking on more events is something I’ve never done or even thought [about],” Rhode said.

In addition to the perfect score, Rhode would like to carry the U.S. flag at an Olympic Opening or Closing Ceremony.

She believes she’s come in second place in voting done by fellow Team USA athletes at least twice in her first five Olympics. It’s hard to argue the choices at her sixth Olympics in Rio — Michael Phelps for the Opening and Simone Biles for the Closing.

Rhode reflects on these last two years and the four years before that. Such thinking brought tears in Rio. Now?

“A night and day difference,” she said.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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