Organizers of next year's summer Olympics aren't the only ones feeling a time crunch. With the Games exactly one year away – they run Aug. 5-21, 2016 inRio de Janeiro – some top American athletes are in the homestretch of what has been a lifetime journey to get to the Olympics.
The young talent here represents some of the up-and-coming athletes in their sports. Four of the five aspire to be first-time Olympians. Few likely know the name of gymnastSimone Biles, although she's become the most dominant gymnast since the London Olympics.
Swimmer Tom Shields could be a contender to beat Michael Phelps – yes, he of Olympic records – in the 100-meter butterfly. And fencer Alexander Massialas, open water swimmer Jordan Wilimovsky and Wrestler Helen Maroulis look to make their marks.
To be sure, there will be plenty of news on the Games themselves in the next 12 months. The construction is behind. The Associated Press reported last week that the water where swimming and boating events will be held is polluted by human sewage and a health risk for athletes.
As Rio officials tout 2016 Olympic legacy, questions remain
As local organizers rush to prepare the venues, these athletes will spend the next year honing their skills and, in some cases, qualifying for their respective U.S. teams.
If you don't know them yet, that's OK. You will a year from now, if all goes according to their plans.
FOR THE WIN
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Biles sets sights on Rio gold
The U.S. women's gymnastics team for Rio will almost certainly include Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, Fierce Fivers whose resumes include a team gold from London along with individual medals.
And likely, neither will be as favored to win Olympic gold again as will Simone Biles.
While Douglas, the all-around champion, and Raisman, who won gold on floor and bronze on the beam, were taking time off after London, Biles was becoming the most dominant female gymnast in the world.
"There was really nothing to worry about (when I first joined the senior team) because my name wasn't anything big but now every time I go into a meet, there's always expectations that I have set for myself and that Martha (Karolyi) and my coaches set for me," Biles said recently. "So now it's just a little more stressful but I think I do really well handling the pressure and sometimes I think I do better under pressure."
The 18-year-old doesn't just win — although that's all she's done for the past two years, including all-around titles at the last two world championships. She does it with near flawless execution on routines that are more difficult than any her competitors are attempting.
On vault, she has an Amanar, which includes a roundoff onto the board and a 2.5 twisting layout backflip. It's currently the most difficult vault and only a few in the world can do it routinely.
On floor, her best event, Biles' height and power on her tumbling passes put the 4-8 gymnast far above her competition.
Even on the uneven bars, Biles' least favorite event, her difficulty score is still among the best.
Barring injury, Biles will be heavily favored in Rio and likely face her biggest competition from her American teammates.
"I think it's an amazing feeling that the U.S. has so many competitors that are contenders," she said.
For now, they're trying to keep up with her. Biles won the AT&T American Cup in March by more than 4.4 points, a virtual rout in gymnastics where the difference between gold and silver can be tenths of a point.
Last month, Douglas and Raisman returned to competition in the United States for the first time after the London Olympics in the Secret Classic.
Biles won by nearly two points.
A potential challenger to Phelps
American swimming fans are used to paying rapt attention to the men's 100-meter butterfly. It's been Michael Phelps' specialty; he's won an Olympic gold medal in the event in each of the past three Games.
But he's not the only swimmer fans should keep an eye on heading into the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Meet Tom Shields.
Tom Shields celebrates after winning the 100 butterfly final at the USA Swimming Nationals. (Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Spor)
Shields, 24, has bested Phelps at the 100 fly on multiple occasions in the last year, as recently as May in Charlotte and previously at the U.S. national championship meet last August. Shields will be a medal contender in both the 100 fly and the 200 fly individual events — and at this point in his career, he is surely feeling a surge of confidence after these recent performances in the long-course domain.
Shields did not make the Olympic team in 2012. At team trials, he finished fourth in the 100 fly, behind Phelps, Tyler McGill, and Ryan Lochte; only the top two qualifiers in each event make the Olympic team.
Shields grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif., and swam collegiately at Cal, where he was a national champion many times over (and in various events). He currently holds American short-course records in the 50 fly, 100 fly and 200 fly. He trains with Cal men's coach Dave Durden.
- Nicole Auerbach
Gold medalist in open water
Of the wealth of USA swimmers who have a good chance at Olympic gold at Rio 2016, Jordan Wilimovsky qualified for the Games before anyone else.
Coming in first isn't exactly a foreign concept to the 21-year-old.
Wilimovsky, an open water swimmer, is the first swimmer and third U.S. athlete of any sport to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games. He did so with a victory in the men's 10K race at the FINA World Championship in Kazan, Russia, in late July. He is only the second American to ever win the world title in the event.
Russia was Wilimovsky's first time swimming the 10K in international competition. Not that the field rattled him.
He finished the race in 1:49:48.2, almost 12 seconds ahead of silver medalist Ferry Weertman of the Netherlands and about 15 seconds ahead of American Sean Ryan, whose fourth-place finish also qualified him for Rio 2016.
Jordan Wilimovsky smiles after winning the gold medal in the men's 10km Open Water Swimming race at the FINA Swimming World Championships. (Photo: Anatoly Maltsev, EPA)
Though the native of Malibu, Calif., made the race look easy – 12 seconds is a world of time in swimming – he was just a touch away from even making the U.S. squad for worlds. He beat 2012 Olympian Alex Meyer by 0.006 seconds at the 2015 national championships to qualify.
"I'm just excited that I got to make the worlds team," Wilimovsky said. "It was a fun race."
After the world championships, Wilimovsky has U.S. Nationals at the beginning of August and then is taking a two week break before jumping into Olympic training for the rest of the year. He's red shirting his senior year at Northwestern University to prepare for Rio in Santa Monica with his club coach Dave Kelsheimer, who was also aTeam USA staff member in Kazan.
Now that he knows he's going to the Olympics, Wilimovsky is happy to have had the experience of winning at worlds.
"The competition is pretty tough here, it's going to be a lot of the same guys who are racing in Rio," he said. "So it's a great experience. I didn't know what to expect, but I was happy with the results."
- Ava Wallace
Maroulis better positioned this time around
Wrestler Helen Maroulis faces a big test next month at the world championships in Las Vegas.
Although she won't be wrestling in an Olympic weight class, she will likely wrestle some of the same women she'll compete against in the Olympics next summer should she make the team for Rio.
Already a two-time medalist at the world championships, Maroulis seeks to make her first Olympic team. Winning a medal at worlds would provide a boost of confidence.
"I just didn't have the experience or the knowledge to kind of better prepare myself," she said of falling short of making the U.S. Olympic team in 2012. "I think this time around (I've had) a lot of growth, a lot of challenges and I've seen a lot of progression in my wrestling."
Helen Maroulis, top, pins Marcia Andrades during an exhibition match at Times Square in New York. (Photo: Julie Jacobson, AP)
The 23-year-old from Rockville, Maryland is ranked No. 2 in the world in her weight class. Earlier this year she was chosen by wrestling's international federation to serve as a female ambassador for the sport. The federation has placed an emphasis on women's wrestling since the sport faced elimination from the Olympic program and lobbied successfully to win over IOC voters for a spot in the Games.
Women will have six weight divisions in Rio (up from four in 2012), the same as male freestyle wrestlers.
Maroulis says the changes have had a positive impact on the sport that will be seen at worlds.
"I think a lot of countries have put more resources and attention on the women's programs," she said. "I think the level of competition has definitely been raised and it's great for the growth of the sport."
- Roxanna Scott
Fencer has done some growing up
In the years since fencer Alexander Massialas was Team USA's youngest male athlete at the 2012 London Olympics, he has completed three years of college at Stanford.
So it's no surprise that since London the 21-year-old's game has gotten, well, smarter.
"I think I've learned how to improve with the level fencing in the world. The way I see it is it looks like level fencing is getting higher and higher because people are doing a lot more studying of individual fencers," Massialas said. "I've really learned how to prepare for competition a lot better. … It's really just about knowing all the matchups and knowing what people are successful."
Alexander Massialas celebrates after beating Daniel Gomez Tanamachi the men’s fencing individual foil semifinals during the 2015 Pan Am Games. (Photo: Jeffrey Swinger, USA TODAY Sports)
Massialas's studying is paying off.
In London, he finished 13th in the individual foil event and fourth along with the rest of Team USA's fencers.
Now ranked No. 3 in the world, the San Francisco native — who hasn't yet qualified for Rio 2016 — won a silver medal in the men's individual foil at the Senior World Championships in July and placed first in the same event at the Pan American Gamesa week later.
He attributes his recent results to increased time in the video room.
Preparation that used to include an occasional tape session ahead of a big tournament has become a few hours of video analysis each day for two to three weeks leading up to an event.
"I have a little bit more of a complete game than I did in London," Massialas said. "In London I was still very young. … I had a few things I was really good at, and I could move really well, but now I have a lot more in my repertoire and I think I know the game a lot better.
"I understand a lot more about what I need to do to be the best in the world."
Massialas is taking a leave of absence during his senior year in order to train for the Olympics at his home club, Massialas Foundation.
Fencers may qualify for the Olympics by being a member of one the top 4 teams in the world (USA is currently No. 4), or by being the highest-ranked fencer from his or her country.
- Ava Wallace