With breakthrough performance last week at the IAAF world championships and the U.S. national gymnastics championships, several U.S. athletes have stamped their mark on their future as faces to watch in their respective sports. Here are four names to keep an eye on for the three-year march to the next Olympics.
Track & Field
• Brianna Rollins: Hurdlers usually take a while to reach their optimal age, but Rollins became a world champion in the 100-meter hurdles just a day before her 22nd birthday, beating Olympic champ Sally Pearson of Australia. In June, Rollins broke Gail Devers' U.S. record of 12.33 seconds, lowering the mark to 12.26, just .05 seconds off one of the oldest and most suspicious records in track history -- Bulgaria's Yordanka Donkova world record of 12.21, which she ran in the small southern Bulgarian city of Stara Zagora in 1988, back when drug testing lagged far behind drug taking. Rollins then ran 12.63 in Lucerne and 12.47 in Helsinki, but took some heat for not racing Pearson head-to-head until worlds.
Rollins is young, but not entirely new to success. She won three NCAA titles at Clemson and has steadily lowered her PR over each of the past four years from 13.83 to 12.99 to 12.70 to her current mark. She was a lazy trainer, by her own admission, but never one to panic under pressure, a trait she says she learned from having six younger brothers. She seems carefree, shares her smiles and spirituality with anyone within earshot and has long hair that surely must test the limits of wind resistance.
• Gunnar Nixon: Why get excited about a 13th-place finish in the decathlon, especially since world and Olympic champ Ashton Eaton, just 25, isn't going anywhere? Because Nixon is only 20 years old, a baby for the event that usually takes some seasoning before real success, and Nixon is way ahead of his projected progress.
As a freshman at Arkansas, the Oklahoma native won the world junior title in the indoor heptathlon. Last summer, he took gold at the world junior outdoor championships in Barcelona, after opting to pass on the Olympic trials because he felt the world juniors was a better fit for his career trajectory. His PR of 8312 points is a long way from teammate Ashton Eaton's world record 9039 points, set at the U.S. trials last summer, but he is ahead of where Eaton was at the same age.
In Moscow, Nixon got off to a great start on the first day. He posted the top mark of any decathlete in the high jump (2.14 meters) and after four events; his 3611 points led the field, 110 points ahead of Germany's Michael Schrader and 116 ahead of Eaton. He slipped after that, finishing 11th best in the 400 meters, then 15th in the 110 hurdles, 21st in the discus. "There's a lot of room for improvement in those second-day events," he says.
He weighs just 175 pounds and, by his own admission, looks more like an 800-meter runner. He said he didn't lift a single weight for three months before his trip to Moscow, where he looked like a string bean without proper training or fueling. Nixon was self-coached this year, writing down his workouts and going solo for the season. He will move to the Olympic training Center in Chula Vista and the combination of coaches, including UCLA's esteemed Art Venegas who will pitch in with tips for his throwing events, should help propel Nixon.
• Sam Mikaluk: With John Orozco and Danell Leyva getting most of the pre-meet hype before the national championships in Hartford, Conn. last week, lesser known Olympian Sam Mikulak cruised to the national all-around title. The Michigan Wolverine, a two-time NCAA all-around champion and 2012 Olympian, finished 2.9 points ahead of second-place Alex Naddour, leaving Mikulak, 20, as the new team leader heading into the world championships a month away in Antwerp, Belgium. Mikulak won both the parallel bars and horizontal bar individual events. With a significant gap on the field, Mikulak came unglued at the end with a sloppy performance on pommel horse, an event that is clearly the weak point for the U.S. men's team.
As it did at the London Olympics, where the U.S. men placed fifth, the group's ability to finish high in the team standings at the worlds will depend largely to being able to get through pommel horse unscathed. They'll need a passable score from Mikulak whose modest 14.500 was the team's highest score in London.
• Simone Biles: The Fab Five has turned over and a new generation of female gymnasts is already taking the stage. Marta Karolyi, the head of the U.S. women's program is not one for nostalgia, so if the previous generation can't keep up, she's happy to make room for the next one. Enter Biles, the 16-year-old sophomore at the Redd School in Columbus, Ohio who won the national all-around title in Hartford over the weekend. Biles also took individual silvers on each of the four events, so unlike a lot of gymnasts who have at least one weak event, she's strong across the board.
With a new code of points this quadrennium, she'll need to upgrade some of her start values. She has an Amanar (round-off) vault and at least 6.0 start values on each routine, with a 6.5 on beam. Still, that leaves her a step ahead of three Fab Fivers for now. Both Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney competed in Hartford, while Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber and Olympic all-around champ Gabby Douglas all sat out the season. Ross won the all-around silver behind Biles, and Maroney won event titles on floor and vault, the two events on which she competed.