Phelps, Felix and Franklin among athletes to watch at 2012 Olympics
U.S. gymnastics team will most likely be led by Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman
Michael Phelps & Ryan Lochte will face off in the pool for potentially the last time
Hugh McCutcheon returns for the 2012 Olympics to coach women's volleyball team
With the Olympics just 100 days away, here are nine storylines to watch for both before and during the London Games that begin on July 27:
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, sprinting superman Usain Bolt actually pulled up slightly before the finish line while winning the 100 meters in world record time by a margin that felt like 200 meters. Then he bested Michael Johnson's seemingly untouchable world record in the 200 meters. A year later, he lowered the times in the two sprint races to 9.58 seconds and 19.19 seconds at the world championships in Berlin. Those times seemed out of reach for the near future until Bolt started reaching for them. Now, with countryman Yohan Blake, among others, there to push him, one can only guess at how fast the fastest human might be able to run under the glare of another Olympic spotlight.
Yes, it's no longer the Magnificent Seven. Only five gymnasts will make up each artistic gymnastics team this year, down one gymnast from some years and two from others. Right now, it seems that all-arounder athletes Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman will most likely take two of the spots on the U.S. women's team, with world champion vaulter McKayla Maroney and newcomer Gabby Douglas emerging as strong candidates.
However, that leaves only a precious few spots for veterans Alicia Sacramone, Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, Rebecca Bross, Bridget Sloan and Chellsie Memmel, who have all been said to be making comebacks for the 2012 Olympic team. To hear it from national coordinator Marta Karolyi, it's no guarantee that any of those veterans will be on the team. The U.S. women will be favored to win team gold in London, but who will make the final five after the U.S. trials in San Jose this summer, and which ones will capture individual glory at the Games?
Watching Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte is a bit like watching Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali; these are two warriors who magnify their performances in the pool by pushing the other to the heights of their sport. However, this will likely be the last time we get to see them go head to head in an Olympic year, with Phelps questioning his desire to keep swimming after the 2012 Olympics. Though it's a safe bet that the pair will lock horns in the 200 free and 200 IM, Phelps recently raised the possibility that he would again try to swim the 400 IM, an event in which he holds the world record. Even better, the swim giants will go head to head at the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., early this summer and probably again at the Olympics in London. Don't expect either to duplicate Phelps' feat of eight golds in Beijing, but prepare for some high drama.
Allyson Felix has been one of the finest sprinters of her generation, but has yet to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual event. Call it an embarrassment of riches, in part because of her immense talent and range, you can make the case she has spread herself too thin in the past. Felix tried to double in the 200 and 400 meters at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea last summer and may have taken a little away from each race by racing in the other. Even when she has only qualified or attempted to qualify for one race, the training time she has put into figuring out which one to run may have cost her.
Felix won three world gold medals and two Olympic silvers in the 200 meters, and has an Olympic gold in the 4x400-meter relay from Beijing. In her prime at 26, she must answer two questions: will she choose one race over the other as opposed to doubling again and will she stand alone atop an Olympic podium at last?
With the wrestling Olympic Trials in Iowa City on April 21, the team that performed poorly at the most recent world championships will form anew for another shot at the world stage. Who will be there and who will go home? For starters, there are some high-profile names trying to make comebacks. Rulon Gardner would be a big winner if he is able to beat his own hunger by losing about 200 pounds in time for Olympic Trials. The 2000 Olympic champ, who beat the unbeatable Russian Alexander Karelin, is now trying to beat his own hunger to weigh in under the Olympic Trials limit of 264.5 pounds. If he does that he must still dethrone Dremiel Byers, a former world champ like Gardner, who could be on an Olympic podium. Gardner suffered a Grade II tear of his right hamstring earlier this month, but says he will be back and ready to go in Iowa City. Other big names Cael Sanderson and Kurt Angle, who had announced plans for comebacks, have withdrawn from the trials. Also, keep a lookout for Jordan Burroughs and Clarissa Chun, who could make an impact in London.
As Olympic families go, it's hard to match what the Lopezes, the first family of taekwondo, have done in their sport. Steven Lopez has won two Olympic golds and a bronze. Younger brother Mark won an Olympic silver in 2008, and their youngest sister, Diana, took home a bronze in 2008. All three siblings, who are coached by oldest brother, Jean, won world titles together in 2005. This spring, Steven and Diana qualified for another Olympic team, while Mark fell short in the final match of the Olympic trials. With five world titles under his black belt, Steven is arguably the greatest competitor in the history of the sport. Will he and/or Diana be able to add to the first family's medal haul in London?
By the time the Olympics start, Missy "The Missile" Franklin will be 17 years old, and may well be ready to turn the Olympics on its ear. At the world championships in Shanghai last summer, Franklin won five medals, including three golds, and proved her stroke versatility by takings medals in both freestyle and backstroke events. At 6'1½", Franklin isn't finished growing or winning. Team USA should consider itself lucky to have the 6'1½" Franklin on its side -- Franklin's parents are Canadian, and their phenom daughter has dual citizenship. The upcoming Trials won't be her first; she qualified for 2008 Olympic Trials as a 13-year-old. With multiple Olympics likely in her future, is Franklin ready to put her stamp on the Games?
Nobody fit the triumph-over-adversity narrative in Beijing better than Hugh McCutcheon, the head coach of the U.S. men's volleyball team in 2008. A day after the opening ceremonies, while McCutcheon's family was touring China's capital city, a deranged man attacked members of the coach's family, killing his father-in-law Todd Bachman in the attack. After McCutcheon missed several matches to tend to family matters, he returned to lead the team to a gold medal it was not expected to win. This year, McCutcheon returns to the Olympics to coach the U.S. women's team that has never won gold at a world championship or Olympic Games, despite several strong showings. Can this be a first?
It may be time for the names of Al Oerter and Carl Lewis to make some room for company. The Olympic legends won individual gold medals in the same event at four straight Olympics: Oerter in the discus and Lewis in the long jump. (No, British rower Steven Redgrave, a five-time champ, isn't included because he had partners in his boats.) In London, equestrian Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands, the three-time defending champion in dressage, and Italian fencer Valentina Vezzali, the three-time gold medalist in individual foil, will have a chance to join them. Vezzali is also fencing for gold in her fifth straight Olympics, having won gold in team foil in 1996. Vezzali won another world title in Catania last year and will be 38 in London.