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With Olympics coming, U.S. swimming, track and field look for rebound

Tyson Gay, Mike Rodgers

United States’ Mike Rodgers, center, takes the baton from Tyson Gay, right, outside of the designated handover zone in the men’s 4x100m relay final at the World Athletics Championships at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015. Team USA was disqualified. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) -- The buzz in U.S. Olympic circles is about bringing the 2024 Games to Los Angeles.

A more urgent matter: Bringing home the most medals from next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

That may not be a sure thing, especially considering the struggles of the U.S. swimming and track teams this summer.

Track and swimming combined for 53 percent of the country’s 407 medals over the last four Olympics, each of which ended with the United States on top of the medals table. But at this year’s world championships, swimmers took home 21 medals in Olympic events. That’s four fewer than they did in 2011, the year before the London Games. The track team took home only 18, seven fewer than four years ago.

“There’s always a level of anxiety,” said Chuck Wielgus, the executive director of USA Swimming since 1997. “I’d say the level of anxiety is probably higher this time around than any time I’ve been executive director. But there have never been more opportunities for people to step up and make an impact on the Olympic team.”

There are reasons for optimism, starting with the fact that the United States traditionally brings the deepest pool of athletes to the Olympics in both these sports. Also, the swimming results came without the presence of 22-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps, who was banned from worlds because of his arrest on drunken-driving charges. He competed the same week at U.S. nationals and posted three times that would have won gold at worlds.

But there were also some red flags waving at the meets in Russia (swimming) and China (track).

Missy Franklin didn’t win any individual gold medals at worlds, after taking three in 2013. It could be attributed to the grind of her recently completed college season, though she now has more competition in the 200 free with teammate Katie Ledecky, the star of the world championships, dropping down to that distance. Also, relay races that used to almost automatically go in the U.S. win column are now being more hotly contested by countries putting more resources into winning the team events.

Larry Probst, the chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said the board talked about the results at their quarterly meeting Friday.

“I wouldn’t call it blaring alarm bells, but both organizations had higher expectations going into worlds,” Probst said. “Everyone’s aware that there’s work to be done between now and Rio. Everyone knows we have to improve results when we get to the Olympic Games in Rio.”

At the track meet in Beijing, the United States led the medal count but brought home the lowest total since 2003, when it won 20. That number was reduced to 16 after a number of doping cases were resolved.

“None of us are overjoyed with the performance we had at world championships,” said USA Track and Field CEO Max Siegel.

Kenya and Jamaica -- both powerhouses in their specific niches but nowhere near as deep as the U.S. - each won one more gold than the United States and finished only two shy of America’s overall total. The U.S. had a few pleasant surprises at the Bird’s Nest -- Tianna Bartoletta‘s gold in long jump, for instance. But they were offset by a number of flame-outs, including in the men’s 4x100 relay, where the long-time problem of passing the baton came up again and cost them a medal.

“We’re stripping it all apart and looking at it, event by event,” Siegel said. “We’re looking at the talent pool, ways to support the athletes more, ways to get prepared better for Rio.”

In other sports, there have been some improvements that could help the medal count.

The U.S. wrestling team took home seven medals from worlds on home turf in Las Vegas - three more than at the 2011 worlds. The United States took home a surprise bronze medal in sprint canoeing (Michal Smolen) and has medal contenders in triathlon, starting with world champion Gwen Jorgensen.

Still, over the last few Olympics cycles, the USOC has shifted some focus and money away from development and into sports and athletes who can deliver medals when the world is watching at the Olympics. Swimming and track are at the top of that list because of both the sheer number of medals available and the talent of the U.S. athletes.

Will that strategy pay off?

Only if next year’s numbers are better.

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