Tokyo Olympics: the biggest storylines in women’s sports

Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, and Allyson Felix will be looking to add to their medal haul at the Tokyo Olympics
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With just over six months until the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to begin, here are a few of the biggest women’s sports storylines to know:

The women’s record for most Olympic gold medals is within reach

Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, and Allyson Felix all have the potential to break the women’s record for most career gold medals, while Simone Manuel could join them in tying/breaking the American version of that record.

Here’s where these four American women stand right now:

    • Felix: 9 total medals (6 gold, 3 silver)
    • Ledecky: 6 total medals (5 gold, 1 silver)
    • Biles: 5 total medals (4 gold, 1 bronze)
    • Manuel: 4 total medals (2 gold, 2 silver)

While Felix will start the Games with the most medals (9), Manuel is expected to have the most medal opportunities (up to 6). Here are the two major records up for grabs:

    • American record for most career gold medals won by a woman
      • The current record – 8 gold medals – is held by swimmer Jenny Thompson
    • International record for most career gold medals won by a woman
      • The current record – 9 gold medals – is held by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won the eighth and ninth gold medals of her career in 1964 (the last time Tokyo hosted the Olympics)

Ultimately, the race to these records will likely to come down to scheduling; Manuel and Ledecky have the advantage here as swimming competition wraps up at the end of week one.

A few other records these women could break in Tokyo:

    • Felix could tie or break the record for most medals won by an American track & field athlete, male or female. The current record is held by Carl Lewis (10)
    • Biles, who will be 24 in Tokyo, could become the oldest female gymnast to win the Olympic all-around title since Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, then 26, won in 1968
    • Biles, Ledecky, and Manuel all have the potential to become the first American woman to win five gold medals at a single Games

RELATED: With overseas fans barred from Olympics, new moms ask: what about my baby?

U.S. women’s basketball team aims for seventh straight gold

In addition to claiming the last six Olympic gold medals (a streak that began in 1996), the U.S. women’s basketball team also hasn’t lost a game since the semifinal round of the 1992 Barcelona Games. In Tokyo, Americans Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi could also become the first basketball players – male or female – to win five Olympic gold medals.

This is just one of many streaks that American women will be looking to continue at the Tokyo Olympics. A full list can be found here.

The world’s most dominant Olympian? Lisa Carrington looks to continue win streak 

Since 2012, New Zealand canoeist Lisa Carrington has gone undefeated in the K-1 200m (a streak that includes two Olympic gold medals and six world titles). With her win streak holding strong, there’s a strong argument to be made that Carrington is the most dominant Olympian in the world right now. In Tokyo, she’ll also look to win her first Olympic gold in the K-1 500m.

April Ross and Alix Klineman lead U.S. hopes in beach volleyball

After winning Olympic bronze with Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2016, April Ross began working with a beach volleyball newcomer: Alix Klineman. In the years since, Ross and Klineman have established themselves as the top American women’s duo, highlighted by their world championship silver medal in 2019.

Meanwhile, Walsh Jennings – who is now partnered with Brooke Sweat – is aiming to make her sixth Olympic appearance in Tokyo. Based on current qualification rankings, Walsh Jennings and Sweat will have to battle with two other American teams to clinch an Olympic spot.

RELATED: April Ross shares her memories of Kobe Bryant in the latest NBC Sports “Sports Uncovered” podcast

After battling leukemia, will Ikee Rikako qualify for the Games?

After winning four medals at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, Japanese swimmer Ikee Rikako was initially expected to be one of the host nation’s biggest stars in Tokyo. But in February 2019, Ikee was diagnosed with leukemia. She began chemotherapy, ultimately spending 10 months in the hospital. When she was released, she expressed hope that she would be able to compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

However, due to the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games, it is possible that Ikee may not need to wait until 2024. After returning to competition this past fall, it was reported in December that she may attempt to qualify for this summer’s Olympics.

Six months after giving birth, Aliphine Tuliamuk plans to run Olympic marathon

After the Olympic postponement was announced, U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials winner Aliphine Tuliamuk and her partner Tim decided to reassess their family planning timeline. Tuliamuk gave birth to daughter Zoe last week and plans to race the Olympic marathon in just over six months.

Women’s wrestling: no longer an ‘undercard’ event 

The 2021 Olympic wrestling schedule will shine a spotlight on the sport’s female competitors; the final gold medal match of every day will be a women’s match.

This decision was made, in part, to Japan’s status as a longtime women’s wrestling powerhouse. The host nation has won 11 of the 18 Olympic gold medals ever awarded in women’s wrestling, and some of the country’s biggest stars are female wrestlers.

The U.S. has multiple athletes that should challenge Japan for gold, including five-time world champion Adeline Gray, two-time world medalist Tamyra Mensah-Stock, and 2016 Olympic gold medalist Helen Maroulis. In Rio, Maroulis became the first American woman to win wrestling gold, defeating three-time defending Olympic gold medalist Saori Yoshida of Japan.

Diver Shi Tingmao looks to continue both personal – and national – winning streaks

China’s Shi Tingmao is currently the world’s most dominant diver, male or female. The two-time Olympic gold medalist has won every world or Olympic title on springboard (individual or synchronized) since 2015. In Tokyo, Shi will look to keep both her personal – and national – winning streaks alive. China has won the last eight gold medals in women’s springboard (a streak that began in 1988).

U.S. women on verge of cycling breakthrough 

To date, only two American women have ever won Olympic gold in cycling: 1984 road race champion Connie Carpenter-Phinney and three-time time trial champion Kristin Armstrong. But heading into Tokyo, the U.S. has at least four women with gold-medal potential: two-time BMX freestyle world champion Hannah Roberts, 2016 BMX racing silver medalist Alise Willoughby, 2018 mountain bike world champion Kate Courtney, and road/track dual threat Chloe Dygert.

In addition, Roberts, who will be 19 in Tokyo, could become the youngest woman to ever win gold in the sport of cycling.

READ MORE: Young female athletes who could make history at the Tokyo Olympics

Can Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce return to the top of the Olympic podium?

Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 100m in 2008 and 2012, before claiming bronze in the event in 2016. Fraser-Pryce took the 2017 season off while pregnant (and went into labor on the day of the women’s 100m final at the 2017 World Championships). The six-time Olympic medalist returned to the top of the podium at the 2019 World Championships and posted the second-fastest time of the year in 2020 (behind her countrywoman and 2016 gold medalist Elaine Thompson-Herah).

Will the women’s 400m hurdles record be broken (again)? 

The U.S. track & field team is likely to include the fastest two women to ever run the 400m hurdles: reigning Olympic gold medalist and 2019 world champion Dalilah Muhammad and 2019 world silver medalist Sydney McLaughlin. Muhammad broke the 400m hurdles world record twice during the 2019 season. In addition to facing off in the 400m hurdles, Muhammad and McLaughlin could also team up as members of the 4x400m relay, where the U.S. will be aiming for a seventh straight gold medal.

[READ MORE: Sydney McLaughlin, now training with Allyson Felix, opens season at 2021 New Balance Grand Prix]

Janja Garnbret: the heavy favorite to win inaugural sport climbing gold

The inaugural Olympic sport climbing competition will combine three climbing disciplines: lead, speed, and bouldering. The Olympic format received mixed reviews when it was originally unveiled as climbers typically only specialize in one (or occasionally two) of the disciplines. Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret – who excels in both speed and lead – is the heavy gold medal favorite thanks to her continued success in two of the three disciplines. In 2019, she became the first woman to win bouldering and lead titles at the world championships.

The NBC Olympics research team contributed to this story. 

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Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC defensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

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Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC defensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

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Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

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When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC defensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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