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Comebacks, foes, timing: Star athletes’ obstacles to Tokyo Olympics

Carli Lloyd, LeBron James, Laurie Hernandez, Ryan Lochte

Star U.S. athletes who, for various reasons, face a challenge to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 ...

Jordan Burroughs
An Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion over the last decade. Burroughs, at 32, appears set for his toughest challenge yet at the Olympic Trials in April. That’s because Kyle Dake, the 2018 and 2019 World champion at the non-Olympic 79kg division, is moving to Burroughs’ 74kg class. Only one U.S. wrestler per weight class qualifies for Tokyo.

Allyson Felix
The nine-time medalist was fit enough to make the national team in 2019 when, eight months post-life threatening childbirth, she was sixth in the USATF Outdoor Championships 400m. Athletes must finish top three at the Olympic Trials in June to qualify in an individual event, but in the 400m, the top six usually go to fill out the relay pool. It’s possible more than six could go to Tokyo with the addition of the mixed-gender 4x400m. But Felix will want to make it in the open 400m and/or the 200m and become the oldest U.S. woman to win an Olympic track and field medal.

Laurie Hernandez
Last competed in Rio, taking team gold and balance beam silver as the youngest U.S. female Olympian across all sports (16). She began a comeback in earnest in 2019, attending a national team camp that November. The extra year gives Hernandez time to get her skills back, but also allows younger gymnasts to enter the picture for one of up to five Olympic spots.

LeBron James
Automatic for the team if he wants to play for Gregg Popovich. But James, who passed on Rio, has not made a public commitment, leaving the possibility he withdraws from roster consideration to rest up after an NBA season that will likely end in July for the Los Angeles Lakers, a week or two, or even days, before the Opening Ceremony. If USA Basketball determines participation in an early July training camp mandatory for Olympic consideration, then it’s likely any player on a team that makes the conference finals will not go to Tokyo.

Carli Lloyd
Lloyd, who turns 39 in July, is older than any previous U.S. Olympic soccer player. A one-year postponement would not seem to benefit older athletes, but Lloyd will get one more year to prove herself to new U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski. Before he took over, Lloyd was primarily a reserve at the 2019 World Cup. After his hiring, she was in the starting XI for the crucial match of Olympic qualifying in January and two of the three matches of the SheBelieves Cup in March. Making the Olympic roster will be more difficult than the World Cup team, given the number of players is reduced from 23 to 18.

Ryan Lochte
The most decorated active athlete with 12 medals is now 36 and bidding to become the oldest U.S. Olympic male swimmer in history. After two suspensions in this Olympic cycle, he ranks fifth in the U.S. in his best event, the 200m individual medley, since the start of 2019. The top two at the Olympic Trials in June qualify for the team.

Kerri Walsh Jennings
The most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player in history (three golds, one bronze) would qualify for a sixth Games if current qualifying standings hold. But Walsh Jennings, 42, and new partner Brooke Sweat, 34, must hold off Kelly Claes, 25, and Sarah Sponcil, 24, once international tournaments resume in 2021 for the second and final U.S. spot in Tokyo behind April Ross and Alix Klineman.

Venus Williams
Four American women will play singles in Tokyo. The 40-year-old Williams is outside the top 10 in U.S. Olympic qualifying. But she has a safety net: doubles. The U.S. can send two more players per gender to the Olympics for doubles only, and they could end up discretionary selections. Venus has a pretty strong resume in that case -- the most decorated Olympic tennis player in history with a natural doubles partner, her little sister, who will likely already be on the team in singles.

Tiger Woods
The only person on this list who has zero gold medals (and hasn’t competed at an Olympics). Woods, who is 45 and older than all but three golfers from the Rio Games, entered 2020 ranked fifth in U.S. Olympic qualifying for four spots in Tokyo. He’s since tumbled outside the top 20 after just one top-25 finish in the abbreviated tournament calendar. If this was almost any other nation, Woods would still be in Olympic contention. But, in the deep U.S., he needs a spectacular start to 2021 to get back into the mix.

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