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

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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