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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Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.