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Team USA Sports Performance Chief: Rio Outlook Brighter For Several Sports

By Clay Latimer | Aug. 05, 2015, 7:22 a.m. (ET)

Sam Mikulak competes to a bronze medal in the artistic gymnastic men's parallel bars final during the 2015 Pan American Games at the Toronto Coliseum on July 15, 2015 in Toronto.

Alan Ashley has a simple philosophy for dealing with challenging obstacles.

Turn them into opportunities.

That’s why the United States Olympic Committee’s chief of sports performance singled out a few revitalized U.S. Olympic programs for praise as he looked ahead to the 2016 Olympic Games, which are scheduled to open a year from today in Rio de Janeiro.

The equestrian, sailing and men’s gymnastics teams all fell short of expectations at the 2012 London Games. American wrestlers faced an even worse fate — elimination of their sport from the Olympic program — in 2013.

Yet these four programs seem back on a winning track 365 days from Rio’s Opening Ceremony.

Equestrian: New Leadership, New Success

“I’m really excited about where the equestrian program is right now,” said Ashley, who was joined by gymnast Simone Biles and wrestler Jordan Burroughs during a recent teleconference. “After London, the equestrian federation got together and said, ‘Look, we’re in a place where we came out without the medals we wanted. Let’s figure out the next steps we need to take.’ They brought in really good new leadership.”

Under the direction of Chef d’Equipe David O’Connor, the U.S. team won five individual medals and three team medals (including five golds) at the recent Pan American Games in Toronto, and secured 2016 Olympic berths for the dressage and eventing teams. The U.S. show jumpers earned an Olympic berth by taking home the bronze medal at the 2014 World Equestrian Games.

“We’ve got really strong scores and really good athletes,” Ashley said. “I’m pretty excited.”

Sailing: After 2012 Shutout, Positive Momentum Abounds

Three years ago in London, the United States failed to win an Olympic sailing medal for the first time since 1936. Into the churning waters came Josh Adams, named the first full-time director for the U.S. Sailing Team. In a telling sign, the rejuvenated Americans finished among the top-10 in four classes in the 2014 ISAF Sailing World Championships in Santander, Spain, the most important regatta before the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

“(They’ve) upgraded the quality of the training, continued to get the athletes more experience and are really focusing in on what it will take to succeed in Rio,” Ashley said. “I think that’s really a positive type of story right now.”

Men’s Gymnastics: Pan Ams Show Team Is Still On The Rise

The U.S. men’s gymnastics team went into the London Games with hopes of winning the team gold medal for the first time since 1984. Although the five-man squad easily won the qualifying competition, the gymnasts watched their medal hopes slip from their grasp in the final events. They fell to fifth place, two spots below where they had finished both in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and at the 2011 world championships.

But that was then. In the Pan Am Games, the U.S. men won their first Pam Am team title in 20 years, and two-time U.S. champ Sam Mikulak became the first American to win men’s all-around title in 28 years. Four of the five 2012 Olympic team members, including Mikulak, are expected to compete later this month at the P&G Gymnastics Championships in Indianapolis. John Orozco is currently injured.

Wrestling: Still In The Games, Still Going Strong

Two years ago, the 15-member executive board of the International Olympic Committee removed wrestling from the core sports of the summer Games, beginning after the 2016 Games. Seven months later, the sport was reinstated for the 2020 Games — meaning the sport’s streak of being a part of every summer Games since 1904 remains intact — but only after the sport’s governing body made dramatic changes.

Despite the turmoil, American wrestlers have continued to flex their muscles, claiming eight gold medals while earning some medal in 15 of the 16 divisions at the recent Pan Am Games, including men’s and women’s freestyle and men’s Greco-Roman. Jordan Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist and three-time world championships medalist, headlines the U.S. team. Leading the women is 2014 world champion Adeline Gray.

“Look where wrestling is going,” Ashley said. “Of course, Jordan is an extraordinary athlete; he has a lot of good teammates now, too. It’s not only in men’s freestyle, but our Greco team has improved significantly, and the addition of weight classes in the women’s side of freestyle has been good for us.

“I think that’s amazing.”

Burroughs is setting his sights for now on the upcoming world championships in Las Vegas, the main country quota qualifier for the Rio Games.

“The dynamics of this year’s world championships (have) changed dramatically,” Burroughs said. “We are on our home soil this year. We’re really looking forward to winning a world championship as a team. The last time the U.S. won a world (freestyle) team title was in 1995 in Atlanta. We can’t wait to get out there in Vegas and try to win another one.”

Women’s Gymnastics: Biles Goes Pro

Biles turned professional last week, signing with Octagon, the same agency that represents Shawn Johnson and Michael Phelps. The two-time world all-around champion had initially planned to remain an amateur through the Rio Games but changed her mind due to potential commercial endorsements. Her next event is the P&G Gymnastics Championships.

“I just thought I would get (it) out of the way, but right now I’m focusing on P&Gs, which is (in Indianapolis this month), so that’s what my focus is,” she said. “So I know that my parents and my agent are getting stuck behind the scenes, but they told me they’re keeping me out of it for right now so I can focus on Indiana.”

Support Team USA On The Road To Rio

Fans of Team USA are encouraged to join the “Team Behind the Team” by visit the Team USA Registry, an innovative fundraising program that was recently launched by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic. The website provides fans a glimpse into what many Olympians and Paralympians require on their path to the podium and invites fans to choose a meaningful, symbolic gift – such as running shoes or an international plane ticket – in support of athletes on the Road to Rio. Through these efforts, the USOPF hopes to bridge the gap Team USA athletes face between their average incomes and training expenses that far exceed that total. Visit the Team USA Registry today at TeamUSARegistry.org.

Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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