Ready For Rio: The Defending Champions

By Peggy Shinn | Aug. 05, 2014, 12:01 a.m. (ET)


"Ready For Rio" is a five-part feature series celebrating Team USA's top athletes and storylines in commemoration of the two-year countdown to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The first part in the series covers the defending champions, those hoping to repeat their gold medals from London 2012.

At the London 2012 Olympic Games, Team USA athletes won 46 events. This translated to 127 different U.S. athletes coming home with gold medals in their pockets — and 10 U.S. Olympians had more than just one.

Leading the charge were Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin, who collected four gold medals each (and six total for Phelps, five overall for Franklin). Even for multi-medalists, winning an Olympic gold medal is a dream come true.

For diver David Boudia, it was the culmination of a dream that began in 1996 while he watched the Opening Ceremony of the Atlanta Olympic Games on TV. At the time, he was a 7-year-old gymnast. Little did he know that he would win his Olympic gold medal in men’s 10-meter platform diving, a sport he discovered at age 11 because he was burned out on gymnastics. For someone who wanted to defy gravity and be acrobatic, it was the perfect fit.

But at the 2012 London Games, Boudia’s medal chances in men’s platform looked grim. He barely advanced from the prelims. Then in a tight battle in the final with China’s Qiu Bo, the reigning world champion, Boudia only knew that it was close.

After his last dive, Boudia saw his name atop the scoreboard — and it stayed there after Qiu Bo’s last dive. He still didn’t understand what it meant until he saw people in (happy) tears around him.

“It’s hard to fathom when a dream is accomplished like being an Olympic champion because you’ve worked so hard through the years,” Boudia said by phone from his home in Indiana. “It finally happens, you’re kind of in disbelief.”

He took off three months after the London Games, married his girlfriend Sonnie, and “settled down to life.” When he returned to competition in 2013, he struggled. What was the point, he wondered? He had already won the Olympic Games.

But he had no intention of retiring and realized that diving provided a living for himself and his family. It also provided discipline to his life, and he loved it.

“As Olympians, we’re so turbo in our mindset, it’s just go, go, go,” he said. “We forget why we do it sometimes.”

At the 2013 FINA World Championships last July, he became the first American male since 1986 to medal in 10-meter platform at back-to-back world championships when he took silver. Then at the 2014 FINA Diving World Series in March, he claimed a bronze medal in the platform.

Now 25, he is competing in springboard as well as platform diving and wants to compete in three events at the 2016 Olympic Games — although which ones he does not know yet.

But he does know this: “I definitely know that I’m going back to defend that title in the platform event.”

* * *

The list of other defending Olympic champions looking to make a splash in Rio is lengthy. To highlight a few stars from London:

Missy Franklin, now an official adult at age 19, will likely head to Rio as a multi-medal favorite. At the 2013 FINA World Championships in Barcelona, she set a record as the only woman to win six gold medals at a world championship. Four of them came in individual events.

Should Franklin win six gold medals in Rio (to add to her four from London), she would become the winningest woman in Olympic history, surpassing Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina who won nine gold medals between 1956 and 1964.

Among female athletes, East Germany’s Kristin Otto has won the most gold medals at a single Games: six golds in swimming at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games.

If Franklin wins seven Olympic medals in Rio, she would tie Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres and her hero, Natalie Coughlin, in Olympic medal count (12).

A sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, Franklin swam her first NCAA championship in March, winning one individual title and swimming in any event her team needed, even if it wasn’t her forte — like the 500-meter freestyle, where she finished second. She plans to swim collegiately for one more season, then turn pro before the Rio Games.

While Franklin’s Olympic career has hopefully just begun, Michael Phelps’ had supposedly ended. Bored in retirement, he began training again last year and has competed in four swim meets in 2014. Now the 29-year-old is on deck to compete at the 2014 Phillips 66 National Championships in Irvine, California, this week. He has qualified in five events but will swim four: 100-meter freestyle, 100 butterfly, 100 backstroke and the 200-meter individual medley.

The 2014 nationals mark the beginning of the push toward the Rio 2016 Olympic Games for swimmers. In Irvine, they are looking to qualify for the Pan Pacific Championships in Australia later in August, as well as for the 2015 FINA World Championships in Russia next July.

Phelps has remained noncommittal about Rio, and even 2015 worlds. At a tune-up meet in Georgia in mid-July, he alluded to the future when he told TeamUSA.org:

“I know if I were to be on the world championship team next year, that this would not be the kind of shape that I would expect to be in to be able to perform how I would like to perform. I know that there’s going to have to be a lot of improvements to swim the times that I want to swim at that level.”

But he also acknowledged, “How fast do I really want to swim?”

In Rio, Katie Ledecky, 17, wants to swim fast and in more than the 800 freestyle, where she was the surprise gold medalist in London. As she swam the women’s 800 freestyle final, reporters weren’t even watching, instead interviewing Phelps, who had just won his 17th Olympic gold medal. When it became apparent that Ledecky was not yielding her early lead, even Phelps stopped talking and focused on the TV monitor.

Since London, Ledecky won four golds at 2013 World Championships and set world records in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles — records that she broke again this year. Look for her to maybe add the 400 freestyle to her schedule in London, plus the 800-meter freestyle relay — a chance to win three Olympic golds at one Games (the 1,500 is not an Olympic event for women).

Ryan Lochte, 30, has spent much of 2014 recovering from an injured knee suffered when an excited fan in search of a hug took him out (literally at the knees). In mid-July, Lochte’s coach, David Marsh, told TeamUSA.org that the 11-time Olympic medalist “still has a hunger to swim lots of events” and that he hopes to qualify for Pan Pacs at nationals this week. Jeah.

Nathan Adrian, 25, is leading the charge for the U.S. men in both the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events and hopes to continue to do so through Rio, said his agent, Janey Miller. In addition to defending his Olympic golds in the 100 free and 400 medley relay, his goal is to also compete in the 50 free, as well as the 400 free relay.

After a frustrating 2013 when Allison Schmitt, 24, did not make the world championship team, the five-time Olympic medalist is back this year. She competed in most of the Arena Grand Prix meets and won several of the 100- and 200-meter freestyle finals. She graduated from the University of Georgia last winter and is back training with Bob Bowman in Baltimore.

“I’m just having fun with it,” Schmitt told TeamUSA.org in May at the Charlotte Grand Prix. “If medals come along with it, that’s great, and that’s what I’m aiming for.”

Other defending Olympic gold-medal swimmers on the road to Rio are Tyler Clary, 25, who recently moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to pursue his NASCAR dreams. Six-time Olympic medalist Matt Grevers (two golds in London) took it easy during 2013 and got married. Now he’s got his backstroking mojo again with three 100-meter backstroke podium finishes at 2014 Arena Grand Prix meets. Conor Dwyer, Cullen Jones and Jessica Hardy are also competing in Irvine this week.

Dana Vollmer, who won three gold medals in London, is out this season with an injury.

In track, Allyson Felix, 28, has her eye on the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. The 200-meter gold medalist in London has struggled with a torn hamstring suffered at the 2013 World Championships — her first major injury. She pulled out of the 100 at the 2014 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in late June. But she is back racing the IAAF Diamond League series, with three podiums in the 200 since May.

“It's been a long road to recovery, but things are coming together nicely for her, and she's excited for the second half of her season,” said her brother and agent, Wes Felix.

Rio would be her fourth Olympic Games, and she is “definitely aiming for the 200m, but is not sure if she'll also be going for the 100 or 400m,” Wes added.

Sanya Richards-Ross, the first American woman to win the 400-meter Olympic gold medal in 28 years, is also returning from injury. She began her 2014 season this spring after a second surgery on her right big toe. She had a second “pretty intensive” surgery in August 2013 to clear up scar tissue from the first surgery (in the fall of 2012) and increase mobility in the toe, said her publicist, Yolande Kelly. Finally running pain-free, Richards-Ross finished second in the 400 at the U.S. championships after only three months of training. In early July, she won the 400 at the Paris Diamond League meet.

Now 29, Richards-Ross plans to defend her 400-meter Olympic title in Rio. It would be her fifth Olympic gold medal and sixth medal overall. It would also be her fourth Olympic Games.

Ashton Eaton is aiming to defend his world and Olympic titles in 2015 and 2016. But this year, the decathlete is having some fun racing the 400-meter hurdles.

“(Ashton) brought it up to be before I brought it up to him,” his coach, Harry Marra, told RunnerSpace.com last fall. “He likes to run the quarter. He's a good hurdler. It makes sense from the standpoint of training as a 400 hurdler in order to make him better at the 400 meters and the 1,500 meters.”

But Eaton isn’t just running the 400 hurdles with his buddies for fun. He’s competing against the world’s best at Diamond League meets. He won Oslo’s Bislett Games in June, then finished second at the Glasgow Grand Prix in July.

Of USA Gymnastics’ Fierce Five, everyone except Jordyn Wieber has expressed interest in competing for Team USA in 2016. All-around Olympic champion Gabby Douglas, 18, resumed training this spring and is now in Ohio with the goal of returning to competition in 2015.

Gold medalist in floor and in the team competition, Aly Raisman, 20, is also currently training with the hope of making it to Rio.

“Right now, I'm just really focused on working hard to have a chance to make the team in 2016,” she said via her agent. “Having experienced that feeling in London certainly gives me motivation to try and get back there and do it again.”

Misty May-Treanor retired after she and Kerri Walsh Jennings won their third Olympic gold medal in beach volleyball in London. After learning that she was pregnant while competing in London, Walsh Jennings, 35, took a year off. She had her third child, a baby girl born April 6, 2013, then came back to the pro beach volleyball circuit last September. Next to her on the sand: April Ross, 32, the Olympic silver medalist at the London Games (with Jennifer Kessy).

To date, Walsh Jennings and Ross have won five FIVB Grand Slams, one open and three AVP Tour events.

As for Rio, Walsh Jennings recently told TeamUSA.org: “I’ve been blessed to go to four Olympics, I’ve been blessed to win three Olympics and to chase another one with this girl,” pointing to Ross.

Tennis in Rio could showcase sibling teamwork again. The winningest pair in doubles tennis history, Bob and Mike Bryan plan on competing in men’s doubles and mixed doubles again at the 2016 Olympics. Women’s singles champion Serena Williams has also expressed a desire to play in Rio, along with sister Venus in doubles. The Williams sisters have won three Olympic doubles golds.

Kim Rhode, five-time Olympic medalist in skeet and trap, is shooting for Olympic history: six Olympic Games, six Olympic gold medals. She’s already in the record books as the only American to win five medals in individual competition in five consecutive Games. She had a baby boy in May 2013 and has since won three world cup medals.

With three consecutive world titles, Jordan Burroughs is considered one of the best wrestlers in the world. The reigning men’s freestyle Olympic champion and two-time defending world champion at 74 kg, Burroughs joins John Smith as the only U.S. wrestler to win at least three consecutive world titles, with Smith having won six straight from 1987-92.

But there is one goal he has yet to accomplish. He will look to tie Smith as the winningest American wrestler in history as he seeks his fourth and fifth consecutive world titles at the 2014 and 2015 world championships. Then he plans to defend his title at the 2016 Olympic Games.

In team sports, USA Basketball plans to continue its dominating runs at the Olympic Games. The U.S. men are gold medalists in 14 of the 17 Olympic Games in which they have played and currently enjoy a 17-game winning streak dating back to 2004. Notably, the U.S. has won five of the last six Olympic titles when NBA players have participated (1992, 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2012).

Members of the 2014-16 U.S. Men’s National Basketball Team roster, from which the 12- man 2016 U.S. Olympic Team will be selected, include veterans and NBA All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. Should they make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, Anthony and James have an opportunity to become the first men’s basketball players in U.S. Olympic history to appear at four Olympic Games.

Five-time defending Olympic champions, the U.S. women’s basketball team will look to capture its sixth straight — and eighth overall — gold medal at the 2016 Games. The U.S. women are currently riding a 41‐game winning streak in Olympic play, dating back to the bronze-medal game in 1992. Three athletes currently in the U.S. women’s national team pool — Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi — have won three straight Olympic gold medals and are likely to return for their fourth Olympics in 2016.

In water polo, the U.S. women’s team has medaled at every Olympic Games since women’s water polo made its debut in 2000, and at the London 2012 Games, they finally broke through to win the gold medal. London 2012 MVP Maggie Steffens, outside sharpshooter Courtney Mathewson, and the center duo of Kami Craig and Annika Dries plan to lead the charge.

The gold medal-winning U.S. women’s soccer team remains largely intact, with 13 of the 18 women who competed in London on the latest roster. The team is now looking to avenge its world cup loss in 2011 to Japan. The FIFA Women’s World Cup comes to Canada next summer from June 6-July 5, 2015. Then they will look toward Rio, where they aim to win Team USA’s fifth consecutive gold medal and sixth overall since women’s soccer made its Olympic debut in 1996.

As gymnast Aly Raisman said: “Anytime you win a gold medal for your country is an amazing feeling; one doesn't mean more than the other, the more the better!”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. 

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