Katie Ledecky prepares to compete in a final heat for the Women's 200 Meter Freestyle at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials on June 29, 2016 in Omaha, Neb.
Sports played a central role in the story that was the tumultuous year of 2020.
It was the cancelation of an NBA game in March that signaled to many Americans that COVID-19 was here, and a big deal. After weeks stuck inside watching news, reruns or a Michael Jordan documentary, sports fans rejoiced on June 27 when the National Women’s Soccer League became the first U.S. pro league to return to play. Then other sports followed, whether in bubbles or empty stadiums or something in between, providing some sense of normalcy in an otherwise abnormal year.
But behind those events were human stories of elite athletes with their entire worlds turned upside down. Winter athletes whose seasons shut down right as they were preparing for the world championships. Summer Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls who suddenly had to lock down at home with no training equipment. The handful of days that felt like much longer when everything was in limbo as officials weighed whether to postpone the Olympics and Paralympics. And then once those delays became official, plans long set in place for a big 2020 suddenly thrown out the window.
The world hasn’t gotten past COVID-19 yet. Rates of cases and deaths continue to rise, and much in the world remains unsettled.
Yet there’s also reason for optimism. Vaccines are now being distributed, and people around the world have proven they can adapt to fit the challenges thrown their way. And in the midst of global uncertainty, sports have proven they can go on as the world catches up behind them.
And so, one year later than planned, we embark again on the Olympic and Paralympic year. Schedules are tight, many plans remain to be finalized and hundreds of athletes still need to qualify, but in some ways that just makes the coming 12 months all the more exciting.
Here are 21 Olympic and Paralympic happenings to look forward to in 2021.
Shiffrin Chasing Another Milestone
If you’re not already on Mikaela Shiffrin watch, you better start. The two-time Olympic champion alpine skier is on the precipice of yet another milestone, and she could break it as soon as today. In December, Shiffrin won her 67th world cup race, tying her with Austrian legend Marcel Hirscher for third all time. Once she hits 68 wins, she’ll trail just Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark (86) and fellow American Lindsey Vonn (82), and at 25 she still has a bright future ahead of her.
It’s Championship Season For Figure Skating
Last year’s anticipated figure skating world championships in Montreal tried to make it work, but with dates of March 16-22 it simply wasn’t to be. The sport has high hopes for 2021, though. Skate America in October certainly looked and felt like a preview of the U.S. championships, and on Jan. 14-17 U.S. Figure Skating will use the same bubble blueprint and Las Vegas venue for the actual U.S. championships. That leads in to the world championships March 22-28 in Stockholm, Sweden, where Nathan Chen will be a favorite to win a third consecutive men’s title and multiple U.S. teams could contend for spots on the ice dance podium.
Winter X Games
The pandemic shut down December’s U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, Colorado, but a who’s who of top U.S. snowboarders and freeskiers could still compete on home snow this season when the Winter X Games return to Buttermilk in Aspen, Colorado, for the 20th consecutive year on Jan. 29-31. Among those who have been invited to compete include 2018 Olympic gold medalists Jamie Anderson, Red Gerard, Chloe Kim, Shaun White and David Wise — plus several other U.S. Olympians. Should White compete, it’d mark his first Winter X Games since 2017.
More Winter Worlds
Don’t look now, but as the calendar turns to 2021 Rosie Brennan is the world’s top-ranked women’s cross-country skier. While some U.S. sports are skipping some or all of their 2020-21 seasons due to the coronavirus, the U.S. ski teams have been thriving so far in Europe. Although the freestyle skiing and snowboarding world championships were canceled, plans are still on for an alpine world championships Feb. 9-21 in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and a Nordic world championships Feb. 23-March 7 in Oberstdorf, Germany. Here are some other key winter world championships planned for 2021:
— Luge - Jan. 29-31 in Konigssee, Germany
— Bobsled & Skeleton - Feb. 5-7 and 11-14 in Altenberg, Germany
— Biathlon - Feb. 9-21 in Pokljuka, Russia
— Curling (women) - March 20–28 in Schaffhausen, Switzerland
— Curling (men) April 3-11 in Calgary, Alberta
He’ll Be Bach
The 137th International Olympic Committee Session will be held March 10-12 in Athens, Greece, where the big item on the agenda will be the presidential election. Thomas Bach, who was first elected to the position in 2013, is running unopposed for a second term that would begin after the Tokyo Games and run until 2025. A second IOC Session will take place in Tokyo prior to the Games.
Women’s Hockey Returns At Last
Don’t look now but ... well actually do look now. The U.S. women’s hockey team needs your attention! Coming off a thrilling 2018 Olympic gold medal and then a fifth consecutive world title in 2019, this popular U.S. team has been mostly sidelined, having played just three games since the start of 2020 and no major tournaments. That changes in a big way when the world championships take place April 7-17 in Nova Scotia. Expect to see some of the big stars from PyeongChang back on the ice, with Kendall Coyne Schofield, Brianna Decker and Hilary Knight among those expected to again play starring roles.
Tokyo 100 Days Out
The excitement starts when it’s the Olympic year. Suddenly the five rings appear on the bottom corner of your TV screen and your favorite Team USA stars start showing up in more and more commercials. Then, finally, it gets real. The 100 days out celebration is typically marked by Team USA athletes making the rounds at media outlets across the country, including notably NBC’s “Today” show. While it’s unclear what this years celebration on April 14 will look like, you can rest assured that the milestone will be marked somehow — and then one month later on May 16 we can do it all again for the Paralympics.
As winter turns to spring, qualifying for the 2021 Olympics and Paralympics is going to start heating up. Rowing kicks things off Feb. 2-22 with its first Olympic trials event in Sarasota, Florida, and then continues with a second Olympic and Paralympic qualifier at a to be determined location in April. Wrestling is also planning its Olympic trials for April, theirs running April 9-11 in State College, Pennsylvania. One month later the archery Olympic trials wrap up May 10-11 in Newberry, Florida, with the Paralympic trials finishing June 4-7 in Chula Vista, California. Diving’s Olympic trials are set for June 6-13 in Indianapolis. And while the U.S. women’s soccer team has already qualified for Tokyo, the men’s team will aim for its first Olympic berth since 2008 in a regional tournament likely to be held in March or April. Dozens of other athletes will qualify during this period in sports without dedicated trials.
The Big Three Olympic Trials
For many fans the official unofficial start to the Olympic summer comes at the big three trials — gymnastics, swimming and track and field. All three events will take place almost a year to the day after originally scheduled, and all at the original venue. Katie Ledecky and the swimmers get things started June 13-20 in Omaha, Nebraska. Track and field runs June 18–27 at the rebuilt Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, where Allyson Felix and Noah Lyles will take center stage. And then Simone Biles, Sam Mikulak and the gymnasts will scan their Olympic tickets June 24-27 in St. Louis.
Combined Paralympic Trials
The combined U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for cycling, swimming and track and field are coming to Minneapolis after all. The event originally scheduled for last summer will now take place June 17-20, with competitions around the City of Lakes. Fans can cheer on hometown star Mallory Weggemann in the swimming portion to take place at Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center at the University of Minnesota. McKnight Stadium at Breck School will host track and field, while cycling events will take place around the picturesque downtown area. More than 400 athletes are expected to take part.
Olympic and Paralympic Day
The annual June 23 celebration known as Olympic Day underwent an important domestic rebrand in 2020, becoming Olympic & Paralympic Day in the U.S. Of course, June 23, 2020, wasn’t the most celebratory time in the world, so here’s hoping that this year’s event can be a more festive — and social — celebration of the Olympic and Paralympic movements.
Olympic Opening Ceremony
The Games of the XXXII Olympiad finally begin on July 23 — exactly 364 days after they were originally scheduled to start in 2020. Expected to draw a global TV audience in the billions, the Opening Ceremony will be held at Olympic Stadium, a 68,000 seat venue that replaces the equivalent venue from the 1964 Olympics that were also held in Tokyo. The organizing committee recently announced the opening ceremony will have a “simpler, more restrained approach,” but even one year late the event is sure to capture the world’s attention. The Games, which were originally slated for July 24-Aug. 9, 2020, will now be July 23-Aug. 8, 2021.
The Stars Come Out In Tokyo
Can Caeleb Dressel match Michael Phelps’ eight-medal feat in the pool? Will Simone Biles bust out her triple-double in defending her gymnastics all-around title? They are just two of the superstar U.S. athletes expected to lead the way in Tokyo. Noah Lyles is looking to become the next true star on the track. Cyclists Kate Courtney (mountain), Chloe Dygert (road and track) and Hannah Roberts (BMX) will be looking to convert world titles into Olympic gold medals. Archer Brady Ellison, triathlete Katie Zaferes and wrestler J’den Cox are coming in hot with recent world titles, too. And then there’s the team sports. Can the U.S. women’s water polo team maintain its vice grip on all of the sport’s major championships? Will anyone challenge the dominant U.S. basketball teams? And this is only the beginning.
New Sports, New Stars
Five new sports are being added to the 2020 Olympic program, and the U.S. could contend for medals in many of them. Baseball and softball are back for the first time since 2008, and the U.S. softball team is the defending world champs. Carissa Moore rides into surfing’s Olympic debut as the defending world champ. Meanwhile, in skateboarding, Heimana Reynolds (park) and Nyjah Huston (street) won that sport’s more recent men’s world titles, too. Rounding out the new Olympic sports are karate and sport climbing.
Some New Events, Too
In addition to the new Olympic sports, be ready for some interesting new events within existing sports. 3x3 basketball is no longer just the pickup game you play at the park; it’ll be an Olympic sport in Tokyo. Though the teams haven’t been named yet, some top American women have played 3x3 for USA Basketball, including Sabrina Ionescu and Napheesa Collier. Freestyle BMX joins BMX racing in Tokyo, and no one has been as good on the women’s side in recent years as American teenager Hannah Roberts. Cycling in 2020 will have the madison, an exciting tag-team relay event. The addition of women’s sprint canoe comes at the perfect time for American teenage sensation Nevin Harrison, a 2019 world champ. In addition, a handful of mixed team events have been added to the Tokyo program in sports such as track and field, triathlon and swimming.
Paralympic Opening Ceremony
A month and a day after the Tokyo Olympics begin, the world’s attention turns back to the Japan capital for the start of the Tokyo Paralympics on Aug. 24. The Games, which run through Sept. 5, will include 539 events across 22 sports. Before the pandemic hit local interest in the Paralympics was through the roof, with 3.1 million requests for the 2.3 million available tickets. While plans for in-person attendance have yet to be announced, global broadcast coverage is set to break all kinds of records as fans will have unprecedented access to the Games.
Paralympic Stars Unite
Team USA athletes won 115 medals in Rio, with 40 of them being gold. Rio gold medalists such as Deja Young (track), Shawn Morelli (cycling), Allysa Seely (triathlon) and Jessica Long (swimming) are among many who could content again in Tokyo. Oksana Masters, already a Paralympic medalist in Nordic skiing and rowing, will go for her first medals in cycling after finishing fourth in the road race and fifth in the time trial in Rio. Wheelchair rugby star Chuck Aoki will be looking for a gold medal to go with his silver and bronze from the past two Paralympics. Both U.S. wheelchair basketball teams and the women’s volleyball team will go to Tokyo as defending champions.
All Eyes On The Marathons
One of the marquee events of the Paralympics, the marathons on Sept. 5 will be especially tantalizing for Team USA fans. On the women’s side, Tatyana McFadden is a force on the track — four gold medals in 2016, 16 medals for her career — and a generational marathoner, with 22 wins across the Boston, London, Chicago and New York marathons, including sweeping the foursome every year from 2013 to 2016. However, flat tires in 2012 left her off the podium, and then a stunning photo finish in 2016 resulted in a silver medal. She’ll aim to add the elusive marathon gold in Tokyo. Meanwhile, Daniel Romanchuk can cement his status as the next big star with a first Paralympic marathon gold medal of his own. After cutting his teeth as a teenager on the track at the 2016 Paralympics, Romanchuk has emerged as the top men’s marathoner in the world in recent years, and he’ll go into Tokyo as the defending Boston, London, Chicago (2x) and New York City (2x) champ.
New Para Sports
The Paralympic program continues to evolve as well, and in 2021 that means the arrival of badminton and taekwondo, but the removal of sailing and 7-a-side soccer. A relatively new sport, Para taekwondo held its first world championships in 2009, while badminton has been around a bit longer. Both sports also made their Parapan American Games debuts in 2019. Team USA’s Evan Medell won a taekwondo gold medal at the Parapan American Games, while Miles Krajewski was the top finisher in badminton, taking silver.
Beijing 100 Days
The gap between a Summer Games and the subsequent Winter Games often feels surprisingly short. This year it won’t just feel short — it will be. The Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 open on Feb. 4, 2022, with the Paralympic Winter Games following on March 4. That means just 80 days after the Tokyo Olympics wrap up, we’ll be back on Oct. 27 counting down the last 100 days to Beijing.
Believe it or not, we’ll have U.S. Olympic Team Trials for winter sports in 2021 as well. U.S. curlers will be back in Omaha Nov. 12-21 to determine the men’s, women’s and mixed doubles representatives for Beijing. The U.S. trials for short track speedskating are also on the books already for 2021, with that event taking place Dec. 17-19 in Kearns, Utah. Athletes will qualify through other events during this time as well.