American athletes saw the Stars and Stripes rise 110 times in Beijing as they won the medal count for the fourth consecutive Olympics. But host China usurped the United States in the gold medal tally.
At the London Games, which open Friday, the United States hopes to reassert its dominance, even as athletes from Great Britain make the home team push for a spike in their medal count.
Here’s a look at Team USA’s brightest hopes for podium finishes:
Michael Phelps is back for what he swears will be his last Olympics. He went 8 for 8 in 2008. Can he win seven gold medals in London? The main obstacle to a sweep is likely to be U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte, the ex-Gator from Daytona Beach.
“I feel it’s my time,” Lochte said.
They will duel head-to-head only twice, but given how close they have been in the past, those two races should be among the highlights of the Games.
Phelps said Lochte’s victories over him at the 2011 world championships lifted him out of a competitive funk. He hates to lose.
“For the past three years my performances haven’t been too great and my training hasn’t gone too well,” Phelps said. “But it’s been good to feel excitement in the water again.”
Coach Bob Bowman said it took longer than he expected for Phelps to come around, but when he did, he began hitting his time goals with the precision of the past.
Phelps, 27, needs just three medals of any color to break Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record of 18 Olympic medals and buttress the argument that he is the greatest Olympian of all time.
Missy Franklin, 17, has replaced her idol Natalie Coughlin as the star of the women’s swimming team. The cameras will love Franklin’s smile and Lochte’s physique. Dana Vollmer, Rebecca Soni and Jessica Hardy are among the veterans who will have to swim fast to hold off a strong contingent from Europe and the Australians.
In track and field, the U.S. goal is 30 medals and redemption against Jamaica, which won the men’s and women’s sprints (and swept the women’s 100 meters) in Beijing.
Justin Gatlin, back from a four-year drug banishment, and Tyson Gay, back from hip surgery, intend to challenge world-record-holder Usain Bolt and his training partner Yohan Blake. The start will have huge implications: One false start and a runner is disqualified.
Carmelita Jeter and Allyson Felix have their work cut out for them against Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell-Brown in the 100 and 200. Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross are attempting big doubles for the first time — Felix in the short sprints and Richards-Ross in her best event, the 400, and the 200.
“The emphasis in my training has been on the quarter mile,” said Richards-Ross, who grew up in Pembroke Pines. “For the first time in a long time I’m feeling healthy, rejuvenated, fresh. I’m ready to run sub-49 seconds. The one thing the 400 requires is patience. It’s a thinker’s sprint. I learned so much in 2004 and 2008.”
The men’s and women’s 400-meter relay teams botched baton handoffs four years ago. Under coaches Andrew Valmon and Amy Deem, those exchanges will get extra attention.
The United States appears primed to again win the majority of medals in the hurdles and could produce some surprises in the middle- and long-distance events with Jenny Simpson, Shalane Flanagan, Galen Rupp and Ryan Hall.
Decathlete Ashton Eaton of Oregon broke the world record during trials in Eugene. High jumper Jesse Williams and triple jumper Christian Taylor (another ex-Gator) hope to show their 2011 world titles were not flukes.
In gymnastics, the world champion women’s team is being compared to the Magnificent Seven of 1996. Jordyn Wieber’s consistency and versatility make her the favorite for all-around gold, but Gabby Douglas upset Wieber at trials, and judges will find her charisma appealing. McKayla Maroney is considered a lock for vault gold.
The men want to move up from world bronze and challenge China and Japan. Miami’s Danell Leyva and John Orozco of the Bronx have emerged as the team’s young stars. They’re unlikely to unseat the king, Kohei Uchimura of Japan, but are capable of winning event medals, and 2008 silver medalist Jonathan Horton is back for more.
The Miami Heat’s LeBron James and Miami’s Sylvia Fowles lead the basketball teams. The men, short on centers and always slow to adapt to international rules, looked vulnerable against Argentina.
“The majority of the world wants our men to lose,” women’s coach Geno Auriemma said. “They assume our women will win.”
Watch the NBA pros now because they may not return in 2016. NBA owners are grumbling that Olympic summers put too much wear and tear on players — the injured Blake Griffin being a prime example of what can happen to an Olympian after a grueling season.
“There’s another side to that story,” argues Jerry Colangelo, head of USA Basketball. “What we’ve done has brought great marketing value to the NBA around the globe. The best story the NBA had was when we marched to the gold medal in Beijing. That’s worth a lot. Basketball is the No. 2 sport behind soccer, and the Olympics [are] the springboard to increase interest.”
Misty-May Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings won the past two Olympic beach volleyball tournaments without losing a set. Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers won in Beijing, and they will go for gold against at the makeshift beach at Horse Guards Parade in the middle of London.
U.S. divers, formerly the best and most innovative in the world, have not won a medal since 2000. China’s splashless athletes have taken over the sport. David Boudia, Christina Loukas and Miami’s Brittany Viola offer hope of a breakthrough, as does synchro springboard pair Troy Dumais and Kristian Ipsen.
The sailing team, which includes 2008 gold medalist Anna Tunnicliffe of Plantation, will encounter variable conditions in Weymouth. Fencer Mariel Zagunis goes for her third gold in saber. Queen Underwood will be one of the moving stories in women’s boxing. The women’s eight will row for its second consecutive Olympic title. The men’s and women’s volleyball and water polo teams are expected to be on the podium, as are the women’s soccer players, led by the ageless Abby Wambach. The men’s soccer team failed to qualify, and America’s favorite summer pastimes of baseball and softball have been removed from the Olympic schedule.